NY Times column-keeping the blues alive

Hi Everyone-

The following op-ed column on the blues appeared today in the New York
Times. Even though it doesn't mention
the harmonica specifically, you can bet the harp will play a large role
in the coming films columnist Bob Herbert writes about.
Therefore I pass it along.

Glenn Weiser

Keeping the Blues Alive

January 20, 2003

"The sun's gonna shine in my back door some day. The wind's
gonna rise and blow my blues away." - Tommy Johnson

The United States Senate has declared (with unintended
irony) that 2003 is the "Year of the Blues." It has urged
the president to issue a proclamation to that effect.

It's very difficult to overstate the cultural importance of
the blues, which have been around about 100 years, were
crucial to the overall development of jazz and gave birth
about a half-century ago to a boisterous new music called
rock 'n' roll.

The blues, powerful and bitter and mean and hopeful and
funny, grew out of the brutally degraded condition of black
Americans in the early decades of the 20th century. The
music was like a salve to the raw wounds of men and women
working literally like slaves in the cotton fields and corn
fields of the Mississippi Delta, or struggling against the
dire poverty and grotesque racism of other Deep South
venues, or trying to survive on domestic and janitorial
work in the unforgiving environs of the industrial north.

These were lives condemned to poverty and tragedy and
desperation. Opportunities were few and life expectancies
were pathetically short. And yet the people endured. The
blues provided the soundtrack.

"I got to keep moving," sang Robert Johnson, perhaps the
greatest bluesman of them all. "I got to keep moving, blues
falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail. . . .
And the day keeps 'minding me, there's a hellhound on my
trail, hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail."

Now hold onto your hats, folks, because that music is about
to make a comeback.

The filmmaker Martin Scorsese and some of his associates
are raising the curtain today on a dandy project. "This is
special," he said in an interview last week.

Mr. Scorsese and six other directors, including Wim
Wenders, Mike Figgis and Clint Eastwood, are nearing
completion of seven feature-length films about the blues.
Excerpts from five of the films will be shown today at the
Sundance Film Festival.

All seven films will be shown on PBS next fall as the
centerpiece of an even bigger project called "Year of the
Blues." This will include a 13-part public radio series on
the history of the blues, a companion book of rarely seen
archival material, and a traveling blues exhibition and
education program that the sponsors hope will reach up to
five million children.

The "Year of the Blues" will begin more or less officially
with a benefit concert at Radio City Music Hall in New York
on Feb. 7.

The film project began about five years ago when Mr.
Scorsese was the executive producer on a concert film with
Eric Clapton in which footage of blues musicians from the
past was used. From that, said Mr. Scorsese, "came the idea
of doing a series of films that would honor the history of
the blues."

The films are not straight narratives, or documentaries,
but rather what Mr. Scorsese calls "interpretive, personal
looks at the blues."

"The idea," he said, "was to take the archival footage, and
then to take journeys, interpretive looks at the blues, and
create an awareness for young people that, first, this is
an art form, and then to understand how it happened, where
it came from and how it continues."

Mr. Scorsese's film, "From Mali to Mississippi," is not yet
finished. "I hope to complete it by March," he said. It
goes all the way back to the antecedents of the blues on
"the banks of the Niger River in Mali" and then follows the
progression of the music to the cotton fields and juke
joints of the Mississippi Delta.

The blues somehow flourished in those fields of oppression
and went on to nurture nearly every form of popular
American music that followed.

In his book "Deep Blues," Robert Palmer described a visit
he made in 1979 to the Mississippi Delta home of Joe Rice
Dockery, who had inherited from his father the remnants of
a plantation on which an astonishing number of great blues
musicians had lived and played.

Mr. Dockery had grown up on the plantation but had never
heard the music.

"None of us gave much thought to this blues thing until a
few years ago," he said. "In other words, we never heard
these people sing. We were never the type of plantation
owners who invited their help to come in and sing for
parties. I wish we had realized that these people were so


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