Director Daniel Cross visits the southern United States with his latest documentary I am The Blues (2016), highlighting living blues legends in the heart of American music origins.
As it became more ingrained into the South’s economy during the antebellum years in the early to late 1800s, the cultivation of cotton brought a heavy concentration of slave labour to the South.
This time period strengthened both the South’s and North’s identities as they become more opposed on issues, eventually leading to the Civil War. Then, with the Civil War over and the North victorious, slavery soon to be abolished and crop sharing on the horizon, African Americans still faced the Jim Crow laws and the journey to rebuild themselves, along with the South itself.
Today the South stills remains poised to bring about economic change and prosperity. Through the richness of southern culture, food, literature, its winding rivers, and most importantly, its blues music, the South has become an integral American icon for visitors.
The film I am The Blues captures the deep connection between blues music and the heart of the American South.
The scene is Bentonia, Mississippi, a garage-sized roadside café called Blue Front Café: proprietor Jimmy “Duck” Holmes strums and sings a blues classic sitting on a wicker chair. The well known Blue Front has been a famous juke joint for over 40 years. A place to play music for a beer or a bite to eat, it became the after-hours church of the “devil’s music” for hard working African Americans.
Holmes himself has been running it that whole time. Its walls covered with names like R.L. Boyce, Carol Fran, L.C. Ulmer, Bobby Rush, Barbara Lynn and Lil’ Buck Sinegal – all of whom we meet throughout the film as it weaves through the swamps and counties of the South.
Named after a southern staple of stewed pig intestines, the Chitlin Circuit is the touring route that most of the blues artist played throughout the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Spending just over 60 years on the road, Bobby Rush explains that the “road is his company, his home,” it is how he has made his living for years.
The film shows L.C. Ulmer, who has since passed away, sitting on his front porch sipping Bud Light and pick away on electric guitars, singing about the simple things that are the blues. As Ulmer puts it, “the blues, it is what you got.”
As she plays her rose-gold pickguard guitar with her signature strumming technique Barbara Lynn recalls her first hit that started her career in 1962: “You’ll Lose a Good Thing.”
“The Blues made me, now I’m making the blues,” explains Lil ‘Buck’ Sinegal, as he remembers why he plays the blues and how in some ways it can’t be taught.
The oldtimers featured in this film have played with all the blues greats, such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, etc. Most are still gigging and playing to make a living, as they have been all their lives.
As Bobby Rush slides into a rhinestone-studded purple velour jacket, he is still, at 80 years old, heckling with venue managers for the agreed rate of pay for his performance. He is reminded of his 20s when he used to play for hamburgers, selling some in order to pay the band.
The music that these people have created during their lifetime is tied to a certain part of American identity that is being slowly forgotten. Cross’s film is a soulful taste of some of the most important music in American history.
I Am the Blues Screens on Saturday, July 9 at 6 p.m. at the Globe Theatre in Atlin, B.C. during the Atlin Arts and Music Festival.