Riffing On The Blues

One night in 1903, W. C. Handy was standing on a railroad platform in Tutwiler, Miss., waiting for a train, when he heard a man playing a guitar using a knife for a slide on the strings. Handy, who would later write "St. Louis Blues," the first great blues pop song, said he'd never known anything like it. He called it "the weirdest music I had ever heard." One hundred years later, the blues still sounds... not weird, maybe--it's too familiar and ubiquitous now--but still utterly distinct, almost otherworldly. And while it's astonishingly influential--this brainchild of black American musicians has supplied the roots of jazz, rhythm & blues, rock and rap--amazingly, none of this dalliance with other musical forms has diluted the original. In the right hands, the blues retains the same raw, elemental power that startled Handy on that railroad platform 100 years ago. In "Feel Like Going Home," Martin Scorsese's new documentary about the blues, he subtitles the less decipherable songs as they're being sung. Was this his way of emphasizing the inscrutability of the music? (The songs, after all, are in English.) Scorsese replies, "Exactly."

Scorsese's is the first of seven films in "Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues, a Musical Journey," which will air on PBS during the week starting Sept. 28. Of all the CD re-releases, blues festivals, concerts, books and calendars created to celebrate and cash in on what Congress has designated the Year of the Blues, Scorsese's series is the keeper. (Sure, this project has its own merchandise, too, including a CD set and a book, but miraculously they're just as good as the movies.) All these films wisely blow right past any attempt to define the blues and try instead to capture its feel and flavor. Scorsese dismissed the idea of a unifying format. "There's no way I could tell Wim Wenders or anybody else how to make their picture." Instead, he invited six other filmmakers, including Wenders, Mike Figgis and Clint Eastwood, to join him in interpreting the blues as they saw fit.

Their approaches are as diverse as the music itself. Wenders favors reenactments of scenes from the '20s and '30s. Figgis and Eastwood, both musicians themselves, edit and pace their films to reflect the tempo and mood of the music we hear. The lack of format, while it precludes sameness, allows a lot of room for overlap, and it leaves a lot of gaps in the story. Delta and Chicago blues get most of the attention, while female blues artists and Piedmont blues, where blacks and whites influenced each other, hardly rate a mention. Only Eastwood looks hard at jazz.

The films are a mixed lot. Richard Pearce's "The Road to Memphis," which follows B. B. King and the far less famous Bobby Rush on their way to performances in Memphis, is as fine as any film ever made about American music. Marc Levin's "Godfathers and Sons," about blues and rap, is awkward and unconvincing. But even the worst have golden moments. You find yourself willing to put up with almost anything for a chance to see unreleased footage of Howlin' Wolf in the studio or J. B. Lenoir performing in his zebra-striped tuxedo. "You may prefer one over the rest, or three or four of the seven," Scorsese says. "The point is, they haven't been shaped for the commercial marketplace. It was the same for all of us: a labor of love."

Best of all, every one of these films lets the music speak for itself, in all its strange majesty. Scorsese's movie opens with an archival shot of a north Mississippi fife-and-drum band, one of the oddest forms of American music. Moments later we see fifer Otha Turner and then his little daughter with her fife. Without being told, we understand that something rare is being passed along, and the moment is all the more piquant when you learn that Otha Turner died last February, before the film was completed. This one moment encapsulates the whole series, illuminating a homemade American art form that Scorsese fears is "in danger of being gobbled up, torn to pieces so that you won't know the roots of this particular music." At a time when many documentaries embalm their subjects, this series brings the blues screaming to life.