Am the Blues Barbara Lynn

I AM THE BLUES: As a Musical Form Fades, Its Legends Find Grace

Friday, August 11, 2017 Rob Samuelson

The blues are almost gone. The music is an echo, a faint reminder of America’s not-so-distant past. You can hear it in the distance while a man in his 80s walks along a set of railroad tracks that have fallen into disrepair, wild grass growing tall and threatening to retake its place as the dominant feature of this Southern landscape. Soon those long bars of iron will be gone, plowed over by nature and the unending march of time. It’s almost like you could write a song about it.  

Photo credit: I Am the Blues/IMDb

In that, maybe there’s hope for a resurgence of a form that provided an outlet and joy to the elderly musicians who are featured in documentarian Daniel Cross’s film I Am the Blues, finally available to rent and own this week for folks who didn’t catch it at film festivals in the last couple years.

The documentary is about witnessing change as we age. Many of the blues musicians who had traveled the Chitlin circuit in the 1940s and ‘50s Delta are still with us, albeit in a form we wouldn’t recognize from the retro posters that still hang in the dive bars where they still play sets from time to time. They hunch more than they used to. Except for the glammed up showman Bobby Rush (his purple suit and million dollar smile are worth the price of admission alone), their clothes are rumpled -- t-shirts and overalls are common attire. Their homes are built from bricks that long ago ceased to be red and have since transformed into a dirty, moldy color. In their hometowns across Mississippi, Louisiana, and elsewhere in the American South, every piece of metal that faces the outdoors is covered in a rash of rust. These are old places filled with old people.

In the hands of another filmmaker, this might be a source of overwhelming sadness. But Cross’s camera reveres these people and places and is simply happy to get to know them. It’s fascinated by how every person has lived and how every place has been lived in for generations. The subjects themselves, from Rush and Barbara Lynn to Carol Fran and Lazy Lester, are clear eyed about the situation they find themselves in. They aren’t especially sad, although they are nostalgic in occasionally melancholy ways. (Lynn warmly recalls the story of how her mother quit her job at a box factory to tour with her at the beginning of her career and Fran reminisces about a special night she spent getting drunk with a traveling salesman, who would later become the subject of one of her songs) These musical elders aren’t particularly angry, either, about the world changing around them. Rather, they are grateful for the times they had and the communities they have built in recent years. They hang out with family and neighbors in trailer parks and small towns, drink beer, have barbecues, and play music in rickety lawn chairs for no other reason than it feels good.

It feels so good, in fact, that Cross captures brief, transcendent moments of happiness every few minutes. In one shot, the sun glances off a man’s face at the just right angle that you can see a tear streaming down his cheek as he runs through a guitar riff, building on the rhythm of his backyard band mate’s drumbeat. That beautiful joy follows the various subjects as they meet in a tiny town’s banquet hall for a crawfish boil-turned-blues festival, where they hug, duet, and tease each other endlessly about their creaky joints and inability to get out of chairs as swiftly as they used to. They inform each other of deaths in their blues community with a professional, “Ain’t it a shame?” tone. It’s their way of catching up and they don’t let the sadness of friends passing get in the way of laughter, spicy food, and stomping rhythms.

None of this is to say that melancholy thoughts are ever far from these musicians’ minds. They have seen a lot of heinous stuff in their lives. They each contain an encyclopedia’s worth of stories about racist oppression. “They wanted to hear our music but they didn’t want to see our face, day in and day out,” Rush says about when he moved from the South to the seemingly “free” Chicago in the ‘50s, where white club owners hid black bands from mostly white crowds. In their lonely moments on the road, or waiting for something to bite at their local fishing hole, that’s where the deaths, past societal woes, and thoughts of their own oncoming mortality take their toll. These places are where these writers of sad songs contemplate the big stuff and turn those things into compositions that move us. By writing and performing these songs, they get their emotions in order so they can face the rest of their day with a hard-earned even temper. They go on playing their music with their friends, not worrying too much about the disappearance of the musical form they have dedicated their lives to.

One guitarist says about the rise of hip hop and rock in the time after blues’s heyday that, while the style of music might change, the musicians of today and tomorrow will still need to respond to society’s (and their own) problems. Maybe the blues won’t disappear, after all.

Director: Daniel Cross
Featuring: Bobby Rush, Barbara Lynn, Henry Gray, Carol Fran, Lazy Lester, Bilbo Walker
Rating: 4/5 stars

Available to stream on rental platforms now

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