By the time I’d watched advance copies of both episodes of Blues America, the two-part series to be broadcast on BBC4 at 9pm this Friday, November 29, and in the same slot a week later, I’d started to think that the title was just a little bit misleading. The pair of programmes — subtitled “Woke Up This Morning” and “Bright Lights, Big City” — do indeed tell the story of the blues from the beginning to now, and in many ways they tell it very well, with lots of wonderful archive footage and many enlightening interviews. The viewer could be forgiven, however, for concluding that the real focus of the series’ producer, Mick Gold, is on how young white people in Europe came to love this music and to adopt its language as their own.
That’s a great story in its own right, a substantial appendix to the one that begins in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta and makes its way north to the great industrial centres of Chicago and Detroit. The things I particularly liked about the first programme (directed by Gold) included the images of Will Dockery’s plantation, the film of the King Biscuit Hour bus, the stuff about Blind Lemon Jefferson and the songsters, and the interviews with Amiri Baraka, Marybeth Hamilton, Blind Boy Paxton, Gayle Dean Wardlow, John F. Szwed, Robert Gordon and Tony Russell (a consultant to the series). Of course the music is magnificent, particularly the recordings made by Alan Lomax at Parchman Farm prison in 1947, the ones that made up the album called Murderers Home, which so deeply affected many members of my generation (and, I hope, continues to affect our successors). The exploits of Lomax and his father, John, are prominently featured in this episode.
The second programme, directed by Sam Bridger, starts with the transmigration that produced the urban blues of the northern cities: Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry in Chicago, John Lee Hooker in Detroit (the footage of the Wolf, in particular, is wonderful). We hear from such survivors as Bobby Rush, Billy Boy Arnold and Buddy Guy, and from Marshall Chess, Taj Mahal, Robert Cray and Charlie Musselwhite. Before long, however, we are starting to see the blues as “the portal for a whole white world to enter into the black experience”. That way leads to the Rolling Stones, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bonnie Raitt, who speaks very touchingly about the experience of performing with Hooker.
Is it unreasonable of me to resent the amount of time the programme-makers devote to the white involvement in this music? Probably. The arrival of a European audience certainly reshaped the careers of Muddy, John Lee and many others. But given that perspective, I can’t understand the absence of any mention of two figures, Jimmy Reed and Bo Diddley, whose work provided the basic lessons in blues-playing for my generation, which is to say the generation of the Stones, the Yardbirds, and so on.
There’s much that’s good in the series, however, and the last word should go to Buddy Guy, born in a small town in Louisiana in 1936, reminiscing about the day in February 2012 when he performed at a blues gala convened by President Obama in Washington DC. “That’s a long way,” Guy says, “from picking cotton in the field to picking guitar in the White House.” And if the last hundred years contained a bigger story than that, outside of war and killing, then it has escaped my attention.
* The photograph is one from the Chess archives included in the 2001 reissue of Muddy Waters At Newport 1960, a key album in the story of how white people came to love the blues. “Muddy had that voice and that very sparse way of playing,” Keith Richards says in the second part of Blues America. “Even talking about it, I still get the chills up the back.” Me too.