During this long year, I thought that each re-acquaintance with the life I used to take for granted would be accompanied by bells and whistles and the fireworks of renewed appreciation. Things like hugging friends, shaking hands with strangers, eating indoors in restaurants, re-uniting live with the men’s group— all of which I’ve done and can honestly report just felt like the next day since I’d last done it, no big deal. Happy to do it, but no sense of deep astonishment and high-opera appreciation.
But the other night, I went into a movie theater and saw a movie called The Blues Trail Revisited. Just sitting there in that home away from home where I’ve passed so many hours swept up into the big screen and taken to other worlds, the ritual of popcorn and lights dimming and coming attractions (before the damn commercials came in), sitting amidst strangers now fellow voyagers, shaking oneself back to reality as the lights came up and if the movie was good— and naturally, they certainly all weren’t!— that sense of arising refreshed, just a slightly different person than the one who sat down. And if the movie was extraordinary, that sense of not wanting to get up, but sit through the very last credit where you find out who cleaned up the lemonade the star spilled that was brought by another person who got it at another store and transported it in this or that particular limousine service. (Have you ever noticed the details of the people who’ve worked on a movie?) It felt so good to be back in the old Balboa Theater, a noteworthy homecoming.
This film was about two college students traveling to Mississippi in 1971 armed with a funky camera and recording equipment in search of old black blues players. Then rediscovering that forgotten film material cleaning out the garage and deciding to return 50 years later to the same places and film that journey as well. (Made all the more interesting because one of the people was a parent alum from my school!) In the first part, we meet some country blues legends like Son House, Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes and others whose names I didn’t know, but were certainly worth knowing. It’s clear that though some of them achieved modest national recognition through recordings, they were just folks back home and of course, largely ignored (or ill-treated by) their white neighbors.
In the return visit, suddenly there is renewed interest and pride in the blues legacy of Mississippi and a now official blues trail with markers noting what happened here or there and who we should thank for their music. Clarksdale, Mississippi, has its own blues festival and Delta Blues Museum and claims itself as either birthplace or part-time home of such blues greats as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Son House, Ike Turner, Sam Cooke and others. Clubs with local blues singers, young and old, abound and this roots music that informed so much that followed—jazz, boogie-woogie, R & B, funk and beyond— is finally being given some of the recognition it deserved.
During the question and answer period with filmmaker Ted Reed and that alum parent, Tim Treadway, how I wanted to stand up and tell two important stories about how the blues has not been recognized in mainstream America. But I resisted in deference to the venue (they were asking for questions, not teaching moment!). But here you are, captive to this post, so I’ll tell one here and one in the next post.
It’s no secret that the British rock invasion— the Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Animals, Dave Clark Five, etc— began with this young English lads listening day and night to recordings by many of the black blues musicians mentioned above. So when the Beatles disembarked from the plane on their first visit to the U.S., one of the many reporters who swarmed around them asked: “What do you want to see first in America? The Statue of Liberty? The Empire State Building? The Washington Monument? Disneyland?”
John Lennon replied: “We want to see Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf.”
The reporter answered, confused: “Where’s that?”
John Lennon looked down at him and said: “Seems like you Americans don’t know your own national heroes.”
And of course, he was right. And most of us still don’t. (Are you running to Google to look up these two people? Come on, admit it!). Stay tuned for Part II which absolves you of some responsibility if you didn’t know these artists—but not all of it!
P.S. And Happy Juneteenth! Educating yourself about the blues is a perfect way to celebrate!