Blues for Sale 

New documentary and book gauge the fortunes and future of the blues

New documentary and book gauge the fortunes and future of the blues

Much of Robert Mugge’s latest documentary, The Last of the Mississippi Jukes, makes for depressing viewing. The film alternates between efforts to save Jackson, Miss.’ historically important but crumbling Subway Lounge and segments on Ground Zero, a new blues venture in Clarksdale owned by Morgan Freeman and several others, including Howard Stovall, a scion of the plantation that arguably gave birth to more great bluesmen than any other. The early segments on Ground Zero provide two foreboding, microcosmic shots. The first is the cover of Birney Imes’ newly reissued photographic essay Juke Joints, which was the source, we’re told, for the Clarksdale club’s decor, including the Christmas lights, pool tables and catch-as-catch-can furniture. The second is a dancing, violently plastic James Brown doll, doubtless sold alongside Eric Clapton figurines in blues venues from Augusta, Ga., to West Helena, Ark.

As a documentarian of American vernacular music, Mugge would seem to share little in common with the mostly white college-age Clarksdale crowd he pans several times as they listen to an uneven performance by Alvin Youngblood Hart. These shots transmit the unsettling feeling that Brown and Clapton are about as far back as the Clarksdale crowd’s knowledge of the blues—and the conditions that produced them—goes. But even more unsettling, Mugge’s indiscriminate editing throughout the film seems to correlate with an inability to distinguish between good, bad and so-so blues. This isn’t an isolated problem: Because of the misguided perception that the genre is dying, lovers of the blues, whether fans, critics or moviemakers, have increasingly adopted the position that true believers must support all aspects and all players of the genre with rah-rah enthusiasm.

Indeed, the most interesting characters in The Last of the Mississippi Jukes, by and large, aren’t musicians. For example, Freeman transcends the factitious and Disneyfied aspects of Ground Zero with wry, down-home anecdotes told in a voice whose authority, though hard-won, is worn lightly. He describes his barber father as “a hustler of the first water,” who must have been engaged in continual battle with Freeman’s mother and grandmother, since they believed that the blues was the devil’s music and—with good reason—that blues clubs were “buckets of blood.” Of course, Freeman admits with a grin, he went to such clubs anyway. In some ways, he provides the best example of the blues spirit in Mugge’s film: Though he has played Shakespearean roles on Broadway, Hollywood has never offered Freeman a romantic lead; many people will never know him other than as Hoke Colburn, Miss Daisy’s Negro-with-a-heart-of-gold chauffeur. In the context of Freeman’s life, that is the blues—celebrating and finding humor in life’s joys and accomplishments as well as mourning its failures, disappointments and degradations, whether personal or historical.

The blues also probably accepts, with a knowing grin, that contrivances like ready-made juke joint decor always seem to accompany efforts at preservation—even in Jackson, where only two-thirds of the Summers Hotel, home to the Subway Lounge, is deemed worth preserving. The Last of the Mississippi Jukes features some memorable performance clips—by George Jackson, J.T. Watkins and Levon Lindsey—in the segments about the Subway, most filmed on a single night. But again, there’s much unevenness, and what tends to linger most isn’t the music but the commentary and interviews. Tellingly, the most intriguing song in Mugge’s film—and on the accompanying CD—is Vasti Jackson’s talky, engagé “Casino in the Cottonfield.” Not only does Vasti’s performance prod Mugge toward more interesting visuals, the high-rise casinos emerging surreally from brown, mechanically picked-out acres of Delta cotton, but it also nudges us back to the reality that lies just outside the Subway’s door, where gangsta rap is much more likely to be heard than “Smokestack Lightnin’.” Like those of many, much smaller communities throughout the state, Jackson’s inner-city neighborhoods have been decimated by crack, which, along with the aforementioned casinos, has been responsible for hundreds of urban lounges and rural jukes going out of business.

We witness nothing but the most sterling intentions in Mugge’s film, whether they are presented by those as famous as Freeman or those as relatively unknown as Betty K. Dagner-Cook, the energetic and eloquent Jackson city councilwoman. Dagner-Cook wants to see the Summers Hotel, a historically African American establishment that housed guests such as the Freedom Riders and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., preserved as a symbol of heritage for her district’s children. But none of those intentions elevates The Last of the Mississippi Jukes to the level of Mugge’s 1991 film Deep Blues. The earlier documentary’s aesthetic—and its critical and popular success—sprang from the energy produced by the film’s discoveries, among them R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, both little known at the time; indeed, Kimbrough had not yet cut an album and could be heard only by visiting his juke joint near Holly Springs.

Of course, both Kimbrough and Burnside are now immensely popular with music fans—and not just those interested in the blues—thanks in part to their recordings on the Fat Possum label. Meanwhile, Mugge’s introduction of these Mississippi hill country bluesfolk has recently been deepened and broadened by a pictorial biography of Fat Possum’s acts, Darker Blues, a volume just issued by the label. Culled from sources like Robert Palmer, Barry Hannah, Iggy Pop and Fat Possum founder Matthew Johnson, the text accords perfectly with the label’s stripped-down, no-frills production, something that’s evident on the two CDs that accompany it. The first includes a track by Kimbrough with Charlie Feathers, as well as recordings by Asie Payton, T-Model Ford, Solomon Burke, Robert Belfour, Kenny Brown, Robert Pete Williams and Mississippi Fred McDowell with Johnny Woods; the second, especially the recordings of “Poor Me,” “Go to Jail” and “Bird Without a Feather,” might be called “Darker Burnside.”

Portraits of the artists—and of the Mississippi River—by David Raccuglia might be said to illustrate Johnson’s preface, in which he states his mission: “capturing [the] vitality, and the subversive intensity of our artists which are relevant in today’s world.” It’s reassuringly difficult to imagine these musicians, as well known as Burnside or obscure as Scott Dunbar, serving as the models for plastic dancing dolls—not even in “The Year of the Blues,” a time that has already unleashed a sufficient flood of logoed T-shirts and baseball hats to raise the Mississippi to levee- and casino-endangering heights.

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