I am trying to remember, but can’t quite, the blues line Toni Morrison once said was the best in the smoky canon—something like “Lady, your husband’s been cheating on us!” There are so many such lines, who can be sure if the singer’s grinning or baring her teeth? What you need to know is that these blues aren’t jazz. Which is to say that The Blues (Sunday, September 28, 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Monday September 29 through Saturday, October 11, 9 to 11 p.m., Channel 13), as listened to and wondered about by Martin Scorsese and six of his movie-making buddies, is not another public-television potted plant. No thesis blights the scented air, nor is any remedial reading required. Except for the Brits on October 3, nobody sermonizes. Instead of a lesson plan, there are Saturday nights on Beale Street and a kind of moseying of the camera into crevices of passionate enthusiasm.
So Scorsese himself, first up with “Feel Like Going Home,” follows Corey Harris from the Delta all the way to West Africa, while we hear from Willie King, Taj Mahal, Otha Turner, and Ali Farka Touré, plus archival footage I’ve never seen before of Son House, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker. And Clint Eastwood will wind up the week with “Piano Blues,” featuring, among many others, Pinetop Perkins, Ray Charles, Jay McShann, Dave Brubeck, and Marcia Ball. In between, five other directors try out perspectives like pairs of very cool shades.
A young Wim Wenders, for instance, got interested in the blues upon hearing John Mayall sing some J. B. Lenoir in England in the sixties. Nobody seems ever to have seen Lenoir on film or tape, but Wenders turns up some footage shot by a couple of fans for Swedish television, although Swedish television declined this privilege. Thus, in “The Soul of a Man,” we are told Lenoir’s Chicago story, hear him sing “I’ve Been Down So Long” and “Everything I Do,” and also listen to his music sung by Mayall, Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos, and the transcendent Cassandra Wilson. But not before we have spent quality time with an earlier bluesman, Skip James, who stopped recording in 1931 and didn’t make it back to the stage and the microphone until the Newport Folk Festival of 1964. And who sings Skip, besides himself? Everybody from Lucinda Williams to Lou Reed, including Beck.
In “The Road to Memphis,” Richard Pearce zooms in on a Tennessee reunion of such bluesmen as B.B. King, Rosco Gordon, Ike Turner, and Bobby Rush, who all show up for the W. C. Handy Awards and chat on the first black radio station before putting on a show. What the road (the notorious “Chitlin’ Circuit”) is really, drearily like, even in a bus as agreeably appointed as B.B. King’s, is one thing that excites Pearce’s anthropological interest. So is what urban renewal did to black history in Memphis, turning the funk and grit of Beale Street into a genteel sort of Starbucks theme park. You will also be fascinated by how hard Ike Turner works, as if he had never heard of Tina. And when B.B. King sings “The Thrill Is Gone,” he’s wrong. Charles Burnett, in “Warming by the Devil’s Fire,” sticks to Mississippi in the fifties, where the blues and gospel had their smackdown. Big Bill Broonzy, Willie Dixon, and Muddy Waters get lots of deserving face time, and Son House and Lightnin’ Hopkins, too. But this is the one night of the week heaviest with wonderful women, from Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, and Ida Cox to Elizabeth Cotten, Victoria Spivey, Dinah Washington, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who brings a blush to God’s face.
Marc Levin’s “Godfathers and Sons” uses the story of the Chess family (Polish Jews resettled in Chicago) and their record company (which recorded Chicago bluesmen from Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters to Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley) to look at how the generations listen to each other. Marshall Chess, who had produced a much-reviled Electric Mud Band version of Muddy Waters, is seen here with Chuck D of Public Enemy adding some brilliant hip-hop to some of the oldest of the blues. Along the way, during the Chicago Blues Festival, we hear from Magic Slim, Otis Rush, Lonnie Brooks, and the earth-shattering Koko Taylor, plus some more Pinetop Perkins and Ike Turner, but the terrific story is Hip-Hop Meets the Blues.
About the Brits, well, Mike Figgis informs us in “Red, White & Blues” that Tom Jones loves this stuff, that Lonnie Donegan and his “skiffle” helped introduce it to postwar England, that George Melly, Ken Colyer, John Mayall, Eric Clapton and Cream, Alexis Korner, and Mick Jagger couldn’t get enough of Bessie Smith, Big Bill Broonzy, John Lee Hooker, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, and B.B. King. It must have been scary fun to show up at the Flamingo on weekends, with the dangerous West Indians. On the other hand, they do protest a bit much, insisting that they—enlightened, worshipful, and noisy—personally gave the blues back to a hostile and indifferent white America in the sixties.