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Music DVD Review: Bluesland: A Portrait in American Music

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Unlike the other seven remastered DVD's in the Masters of American Music series which concentrate on one significant jazz musician — Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Bluesland: A Portrait in American Music is devoted to the history of one particular musical genre, the blues (surprised?). Also unlike the others in the series which run about an hour, Bessie SmithBluesland has a running time of about eighty five minutes. Finally, unlike the others in the newly released second set, it has an on screen host in the smooth toned and sometimes overly emphatic Keith David. What it has in common with the others in this excellent documentary series is a wealth of rare and exciting musical performances.

It traces the history of the blues from its Southern roots in the cotton fields of Mississippi and the honky tonks in New Orleans to Kansas City where night clubs flourished in an open city that was flouting the prohibition laws. Then, when mechanization in the Southern agricultural fields sent a flurry of job seekers up north, especially to Chicago, the blues followed with them, and from there traveled to the rest of the country and then the world. It traces this history through the men and women, some well known, others long forgotten, who were instrumental in creating it.

There are classic clips of the likes of Leadbelly, the Whistlers Jug band, Bukka White, and Mamie Smith. There are extended film performances: Bessie Smith sings "The St. Louis Blues" in what looks like a scene from a movie where she is standing at a bar with a beer and the rest of the customers join her as a chorus. Count Basie's orchestra plays "One O'clock Jump" and Jimmy Rushing sings "Take Me Back, Baby" (Both clips appear in the Count Basie DVD, as well). Duke Ellington and the orchestra appear playing "Ko-Ko" accompanied by a bevy of dancing chorus girls in a night club scene from some unnamed movie. There are exciting performances from Roosevelt Sykes on the piano, Muddy Waters at the Newport Folk Festival, and Louis Jordan jumping with "Caldonia." Modern blues musicians are not neglected. Etta James and Dinah Washington both appear in extensive clips. There is at least a picture of Ray Charles.

When film clips of the artists were unavailable, the DVD uses still shots of sheet music, old seventy eight records, and period photographs to accompany the audio. Blind Lemon Jefferson, who began recording in the 1920s, sings "That Black Snake Moan." There are recordings of Ma Rainey, the "Mother of the Blues" and Charley Patton. The legendary New Orleans trumpet man, Bolden plays, as do King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton.

Most of the talking head commentary is provided by critic Albert Murray and musician Robert Palmer. They make somewhat abortive attempts to define the genre. Murray talks about it as a "ritual of purification" that depends on a kind of "playful" confrontation and improvisation. Palmer emphasizes what he calls the dialectic of the music based on call and response. Their commentary on the influences on individual artists is perhaps more illuminating. B. B. King, for example, we're told, combines Single string Texas guitar picking with the slide guitar style. Muddy Waters was perhaps the earliest to electrify his instrument, and could well be called the first of the modern rockers. After a clip of Son House talking about the conflict between God and the devil and the need to keep them separate in music, they explain about the legendary associations of the blues and the devil.

Murray tries to make an interesting distinction between early blues as an example of folk art, while later artists like Basie and Ellington were able to develop it into a fine art. Palmer says he can't understand why people call blues primitive. If any music is primitive, he goes on, it is Mozart. Mozart's music lacks the rhythmic and tonal variations of the blues. It is limited by its traditional structures.

After pointing to the relationship between the blues and modern rock, the documentary takes a look at modern figures like B.B. King, Elvis Presley, and The Rolling Stones. Chuck Berry sings "Sweet Little Sixteen." Big Joe Turner, the Boss of the Blues, does "Shake, Rattle and Roll." There is even a clip from the Alan Freed television show. Palmer makes the point that early rockers tended to be more imitative, but the later artists came along and translated the blues into their own idiom, and were more successful artistically.

Bluesland is a documentary that belongs in the collection of every lover of blues, every lover of jazz, every lover of good music. It provides a window into what many believe is the only truly American art form.

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