While there's a fair amount of blues on film from the past and present, blues fans have a less bountiful selection of goodies to choose from than rock and jazz lovers. The blues, having usually lurked at the commercial margins, has gotten less media exposure than some other forms of popular music. That means less cameras whirring at both television studios and live festivals; it also means less serious documentaries about the subject.
But the number of blues film clips may surprise you. In the early days of the music business, movie studios occasionally filmed musical shorts (called "soundies" for a time) that would run in theaters, as sort of Stone Age precursors to MTV. One of the first of these was a short film starring Bessie Smith that was built around her performance of the theme song, "St. Louis Blues." The blues revival of the 1960s found many of the rediscovered acoustic bluesmen being filmed for the first time, at folk festivals, by folklorists, or by television companies such as the BBC and PBS. As the blues assumes its rightful place as a pillar of American culture, there will no doubt be more and more historical documentaries of the music.
A trip to the video store (or, for that matter, a large music retail store) often yields a decent selection of blues videos to choose from, especially if you live in an urban area or university town. Those without access to these resources can still, for a larger cash outlay, order the videos themselves via roots music mail-order services such as Down Home Music. There are already so many blues videos that a comprehensive rundown is impossible to complete in a few paragraphs. Here we'll simply point readers to some of the best sources.
The two companies with the largest blues video catalogs are Vestapol and Yazoo. Vestapol's line is oriented toward the guitar player, with entire collections of clips for country blues guitar, Texas blues, and bottleneck guitar. Contrary to the impression you might get from a catalog listing, these are not instructional videos, but actual footage of the bluesmen and blueswomen themselves in performance. The appeal is not limited to guitar players (though they can certainly find much to admire); it's geared toward general blues fans, giving them a chance to watch their heroes in action.
There is an unavoidably inconsistent quality about the compilations, due to the varying nature of the sources. A sterling color clip from the BBC lies shoulder-to-shoulder, for instance, with grainy black-and-white footage in somebody's rundown kitchen (which can have an admitted charm all its own). The performances can vary as well; the elderly blues rediscoveries of the '60s can play as well as they did in their prime or, due to failing health, turn in performances that may have been best withheld from circulation, even given the rarity of clips in the field.
But this shouldn't dissuade blues enthusiasts from picking up Vestapol compilations, which are assembled with care. Each one is selected to ensure a diversity of content, and includes detailed liner notes about the musicians and the clips. Certainly the best of them are riveting; a trance-like John Lee Hooker playing solo, for instance, or a Swedish TV clip of Josh White suavely sticking a cigarette behind his ear as he plays. There are also entire compilations devoted to the work of major figures like Hooker, Albert King, and Freddie King. The Freddie King compilation The Beat!! is especially sweet, gathering about a dozen vintage color live film clips from a Texas-based R&B/soul TV show of the mid-'60s. (Vestapol also has several videos of jazz guitar players available.)
Yazoo is a name that most blues collectors associate with reissues of ancient country blues from the 1920s and 1930s. Their video line is more diverse than one might expect; indeed, it almost has to be, as there are few blues clips from the 1920s and 1930s of the kind of performers that Yazoo favors. The accent is still on country blues, with entire videos devoted to Furry Lewis, Son House, Big Joe Williams, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. More modern performers, however, are not ignored; there are also anthologies for Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Lightnin' Hopkins.
If you're still looking for more vintage film clips after exhausting the Vestapol and Yazoo catalog, you might want to try Rhino's two Blues Masters volumes. Companion pieces of sorts to the excellent 15-volume CD series of the same name, this unavoidably comes up short quantity-wise when stacked against the discs. But does offer footage of some of the greats, including Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, and less expected figures like Mamie Smith, Roy Milton, and Jimmy Rushing. There is also BMG's similar Bluesland, affiliated with a blues history book of the same name.
Considering that only two photos of Robert Johnson have ever been circulated (and that was only after years of searching), it's ironic that there is now a video based around his work, Search for Robert Johnson (SMV). As the title implies, this is not so much a standard documentary (no footage, after all, exists) as a look into his environment, sources, and the few recollections we have been granted by his associates, narrated by John Hammond. Another video that delves into Mississippi deep blues is titled, logically enough, Deep Blues. Although critic Robert Palmer authored an excellent book by the name in the early '80s, and is also involved in the video, this is not really a companion piece, but a look at Mississippi blues as it is played in the early '90s. Accompanied by, of all people, ex-Eurhythmic Dave Stewart, Palmer spotlights the kind of contemporary, electric juke joint Delta performers that have surfaced on the Fat Possum label, including Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside.
For modern blues, there are occasional releases of concerts by big names such as B.B. King and Buddy Guy, plus a mid-'90s PBS history of the blues, although the subject merits more than the three parts that the series allotted to it.
The milieu of the blues has yet to translate convincingly into fictional feature-length film treatments, despite the abundant fascinating source material. Maybe that's for the best; Crossroads, a mid-'80s Hollywood movie based around some aspects of the Robert Johnson legend, enraged purists even as it helped point some listeners that had been unaware of Mississippi Delta blues to the authentic thing. That film was scored by Ry Cooder, who has ensured that elements of traditional acoustic blues are conveyed to millions via his prolific soundtrack work. One movie worth keeping an eye out for that does not deal with the blues specifically, but does project aspects of the Southern Black experience that the blues details, is Sounder, with a soundtrack by Taj Mahal (who also has a small role in the film).
by Richie Unterberger