I am really enjoying Martin Scorsese’s blues series on PBS. Sunday night’s debut was a journey, directed by Scorsese himself, from the Mississippi Delta to Mali in West Africa with young bluesman Corey Harris, going farther and farther back in time until all black music conjoined in the primordial, wildly percussive mist.
I didn’t learn all that much about the blues – although Son House was a revelation – since I was already fairly familiar with the Delta and West African traditions, but it did remind how much I love the dreadlocked Harris, a very appealing multi-instrumentalist, whose latest album Downhome Sophisticate is a brilliant tour, in its own right, through black music styles.
Last night’s episode was a very strange but ultimately affecting film directed by Wim Wenders, centering on his three favorite bluesmen: Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James and J.B Lenoir. Wenders used actors to tell the stories of Johnson – whose song “The Soul of a Man” was selected for the Voyager time capsule and shot into space 25 years ago (a recurring theme for Wenders) – and James, and found original film footage of J.B Lenoir, shot for, but never used on Swedish television.
It is the footage of Lenoir – an affable family man who died from auto accident injuries in the late-’60s, just as he was becoming known to a new generation of blues fans – that tugs at the heart. The couple who shot the film appear crushed by his tragic death to this day. I was barely cognizant of Lenoir’s name prior to this – now I am an ardent fan.
The series continues nightly for the rest of the week – Steve Rhodes says tonight’s episode on B.B. King is his favorite.