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April 19, 2005

Delta Documentary

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

"Best music in the world," I muttered happily as Mandy Stein's Delta blues documentary "You See Me Laughin'" began. While I have no desire to stand by that as a considered critical judgment, I do really, really love the Delta, and I do really, really love the Delta blues. Earthy, rhapsodic, trance-inducing, full of myths and legends, mud and whisky ... It's music that makes me want to sit in a mildewed sofa on a sagging porch, drink moonshine, watch dawgs and children whose names I can't remember run around, and spend a few lifetimes swapping stories and jokes.

This is just a brief posting to alert anyone who might be interested in (or curious about) the Delta blues that Stein's 2002 documentary -- which I hadn't been aware of until I Tivo'd it off the Independent Film Channel -- is a good one. Stein appears to have spent years visiting the Delta and getting to know such homegrown giants as Johnny Farmer, Asie Payton, T-Model Ford, Cedell Davis, Junior Kimbrough, and R.L. Burnside -- all of them artists who make me want to say: Anybody who claims that American art is short on genuine greatness can KISS MY ASS. (Incidentally, not a considered critical judgment either, just a direct expression of how this music makes me feel.)

Stein assembles her movie from performances, archives, interviews, and just letting the camera run while she hangs around. Much of what she includes is priceless -- early footage of Burnside when he was a slim, handsome, sly dude with beautiful teeth; an informal solo performance by that exuberant oddball, Asie Payton; T-Model's matter-of-fact, you'd-have-done-it-too account of how he came to kill a man. Stein uses old footage, image processing, and some comic-book effects to give her film a homespun, sensual quality, but she does so in a way that doesn't overshadow her subject matter. Stein keeps the proceedings laid-back, rough-hewn, and casual -- and, given the ultra-organic nature of her material, this was a wise and appropriate choice.

What a collection of titanic talents, each one with his own sound, and each one's sound capable of creating a distinctive emotional-acoustic universe. Newbies to the Delta, or to the Delta blues, can find it shocking how much a world unto itself the Delta is, how rich and fragrant Delta culture is, and how powerful a spell Delta life can cast. The accents, for one small example, can get unbelievably thick -- how is this possible in modern-day, TV-and-pop-culture-saturated America? Yet there it is: a living, poetic dialect that makes you want to whip out a Sony and hit the "record" button. Stein occasionally resorts to subtitles to make her interviewees comprehensible to those of us who don't speak Delta; I found myself wishing she'd used subtitles more often.

Only an hour and a half from Memphis, the Delta seems like a world out of time, if with antennae, pickup trucks, and other bits and pieces of the New South strewn about. Visiting the Delta -- or listening to Delta music -- you can feel like you've fallen asleep and then awakened in a world of pure Being. The junkyard properties, the endless stories, the soul food ... It all seems to be Life Itself, yet it's all Art too. Within hours of arriving, you kinda lose track of inessential things. (I did, anyway. And I know I'm a long way from being alone in responding in this way.) Life becomes all about the living of it, whatever that happens to be. Spend a couple of days in the Delta and you won't just forget which day of the week it is, you'll forget what year it is.

And what a collection of go-their-own-way, force-of-nature characters Stein has captured too. Stricken by polio as a youngster, Cedell Davis found himself with two deformed hands. He taught himself how to play the blues anyway. Gripping a butterknife in one hand, doing inconceivably original things with the other, employing tunings that no one's ever heard before, Davis produces a hair-raisingly evocative set of sounds. (Helluva a singer, too.) T-Model Ford didn't pick up a guitar until a girlfriend dumped him when he was in his late 50s; he didn't get around to recording his first CD until his middle 70s. He's a grumbling and arthritic old man these days, but in terms of juice and zest his music can kick the jams out from beneath the music of most 30-year-olds.

Johnny Farmer never wanted to record, was finally persuaded to do so -- and now attributes his troubles as an old man to having given in. He'd lived proud and happy as a trusted bulldozer-driver, performing his music for himself and for friends only. Why'd he have to go and ruin things by making a CD? Let's be grateful he risked that confrontation with the devil. (The devil is a fixture in much Delta music.) A tractor driver by trade, Asie Payton would come in to record only when the weather was so bad that he couldn't be out plowing the fields. One stormy night he showed up at the studio, started playing, and didn't put down his guitar until after he'd laid down nearly 40 tracks.

The lordly Junior Kimbrough seems to have descended from some folk-art version of Mt. Olympus entirely to make his own kind of music and to love him innumerable women. His longtime girlfriend is interviewed, and she tells the camera that Junior's infidelities -- he sired 28 children -- were OK because she always knew that Junior loved only her. A humorous, easygoing, cagey, sometimes sinister group of people. All of them are so larger-than-life that they supply convincing evidence for Albert Murray's contention that the blues are to America what stories about Troy and Cyclopses were to ancient Greece -- the building-block myths of the culture.

Stein spends time with the two white guys who run Oxford, Mississippi's micro-studio Fat Possum Records, which has released CDs by all these artists. They're devoted -- but they're also exasperated. They're fans who are eager to serve the artists they revere -- but they're also peevish. Sales of these CDs are small; there simply isn't much of a market for music this raw and eccentric. And the musicans have such ornery, irrational-seeming ways of dealing with money and schedules that they'd drive any manager-type insane. Meanwhile, needless to say, some of the musicians are convinced that Fat Possum is getting rich off their music.

It's wonderful to have all this material available on DVD if only because of how old these men are getting. Asie Payton and Junior Kimbrough both died while the film was being made, and T-Model and R.L. look beyond weather-beaten these days. What a generation: many of these guys knew and learned from such Homers and Virgils of the blues as Robert Johnson and Mississippi Fred MacDowell. How sad that they're approaching the end of their own run. How lucky we are to have them still with us.

But Mandy Stein's film is much more than a mere record; it's also a beautifully-shaped tribute that manages the rare trick of being both worshipful and clear-eyed. My own eyes weren't very clear, though, because tears of awe, gratitude, and amazement kept welling up as I watched and listened. My only misgiving about the film is that, at 78 minutes, it's much too short. Then again, all my visits to the Delta itself have been much too short too.

"You See Me Laughin'" can be bought here and Netflixed here

I blogged at length here about the wonders of the Delta.

Robert Palmer's good documentary "Deep Blues" -- which includes a lot of footage and mucho information about the Delta scene -- is buyable here and Netflixable here.

The website of Fat Possum records is here. The Fat Possum blues music that's on heaviest rotation in my IMac at the moment is this transcendently funky, soulful, and quirky work of backwoods genius by Asie Payton.



posted by Michael at April 19, 2005


Sounds interesting.

I bought Peter Hall's Cities in Civilization largely on your recommendation, and found his chapter about the Delta and the Blues easily one of the best parts. A lot of the rest felt a bit laboured and formulaic to me, but here he was clearly on writing about something he knew and loved deeply and it was fascinating.

I *highly* recommend the performance of "Furry Sings the Blues" on the extended edition of the Band's The Last Waltz. If you don't know it, it's a song by Joni Mitchell about her going to Mmephis to meet an old blues signer. This performance of it is one of the most stunningly beautiful pieces of music I have heard for a long time.

Just the other night, too, I was sampling various versions of soul and blues standards on an mp3 site, and happened upon Robert Johnson's recording of Sweet Home Chicago. I have it on vinyl somehwere in an attic, but haven't had a turntable for years. So I was listening to it again, through the faint and crackly recording, and thinking "wow, you have listen for it but there's *really* something here". I realise I am not the first person to have had this insight.

Posted by: Alan Little on April 19, 2005 4:40 AM

I also liked your comments on the illusion of musicians being somehow respectable. I read somewhere that Haydn - remembered now as the composer of some of the most charming, eminently civilized music ever written - was in the habit of heading off Friday nights with his violin to village folk festivals "for the evening" and coming back days later, blind drunk.

Posted by: Alan Little on April 19, 2005 4:53 AM

A fairly new Texas band you might enjoy, The Texas Blues Rangers, are more on the Stevie Ray side than true Delta, but I love their harmonica player. Their CD "Thin Ice" is worth the purchase.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on April 19, 2005 10:54 AM

Interesting. Have to check out the Delta blues.
In a totally unrelated topic--related to an earlier posting, I just thought I'd mention that I read Jane Fonda's autobio.

1. She's really quite complimentary in many ways of Vadim, including acknowledging he was a much better parent than she. She does acknowledge the threesomes, but more in context of her own weak sense of self at that time---she admits Vadim would not have insisted, and in fact is subsequent two wives did refuse, and Vadim did not insist. He played around plenty on all of them without needing the fireworks! She says it was more his alcoholism and his determinedly indifferent, don't-get-worked-up-about-anything attitude that hurt them more. As she said, when their marriage was falling apart, she wished he'd tried harder to save it. Bardot once said "If Vadim had been more jealous, our marriage might have worked."

2. The least interesting and least coherent part of the book seems to be the least interesting and coherent part of her life---the Vietnam protest years. Interestingly (I guess) Tom Hayden was also an alcoholic.

3. The most moving parts of the book are about her childhood, her dim memories of her mother, her more vivid memories of her father---his distance, his rages, his periodic kindnesses. After "On Golden Pond", Katharine Hepburn said "Hank Fonda was a tough nut to crack. I tried everything, but he's just cold, cold, cold." Jane Fonda said, "Yup."

Posted by: annette on April 19, 2005 1:42 PM

Thanks for the recommendation - I'll be setting my Tivo in search of a repeat soon's I get home.

When a dedicated individual succeeds in capturing some wonderful but ephemeral aspect of culture like this, it's thrilling. But heartbreaking, too, to consider how much great stuff goes unrecorded.

Posted by: Nate on April 20, 2005 2:00 PM

I love reading other music fanatics. Great post...buying the DVD now. And hoping I get dumped in my 50s so I'll finally learn to play the guitar.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on April 20, 2005 7:46 PM


The blues strikes me as a mystery of life. First it exists on a sort of subterranean level for 50+ years (showing itself in wider popular culture only by its offspring, C&W and jazz), then enjoys a couple decades of something like popularity (apparently so that people like you and I can can learn of it), and then returns to being an ur-marginal art form.

Is it some kind of fundamental wrongness in the nature of things that blues is so neglected today? Or was the "error" the period of popularity, when blues temporarily shed its esoteric nature and became, well, exoteric?

The history of blues is almost enough to make a gnostic out of me.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 21, 2005 12:18 AM

Delta blues is pretty raw stuff. People, for the most part, want their stuff processed and gussied up. See current idiocy "American Idol".

My own theory is that it's so dang powerful, it scares the holy crap out of most people. This is the kind of music that touches you down to the bottom of your soul, and if you're not ready for that, well, it's hard to deal with.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on April 21, 2005 9:49 AM

Alan -- It's funny the way a blues performance can suddenly reach right out and get ya, isn't it? I liked the blues OK as a kid but not especially much. I learned a lot about the blues as a young adult interested in the history of American music and got familiar with a lot of the arguments and claims that are made for the blues at that time, many of which I found quite respectable. But the music never came into focus for me until (to my shame) fairly recently. I wonder why ... Age and wisdom? (I doubt it.) Maybe it was just seeing more and more of the music live. The blues as a whole life-thing, and not just a sound-thing, started to become more apparent: the way the personality and the performance style (and the sound) all mesh, the way the blues are stories, myths, philosophy, good times and more ... I dunno. Suddenly it all just seemed to open up and let me in. Not that I hadn't had a good time around the blues before, but I was like a kid hanging around the outside of the tavern. (That was FvB, by the way, who's the "Cities and Civilizations" fan. Superficial me has never read the book.)

Pattie -- I'm eager to check 'em out. Thanks for the recommendation. A good harmonica player is worth his weight in gold. Come to think of it, are there many good female harmonica players? And what would Larry Summers make of this state of affairs?

Annette --- Thanks for the Fonda report. You're very shrewd about performer-type personalities. Does that come from experience? A lot of looking into it? But I know a lot of people who have read a lot about performers and who still don't get them. My theory about why is that people really project themselves onto performers. ("Why, if I were in her shoes, I'd throw the bum out!" That kind of thing.) And performers of course specialize in encouraging and allowing us to project onto them. But I could be all wet. Why do you suppose it's so rare for people to understand what performers are really like?

Nate -- Let me know how you respond!

Scott -- Ever eager to learn more about music from you. Sadly, I suspect I'm going to make it through this lifetime without ever learning how to play the guitar ...

FvB -- The blues are (is?) a mystery, no? Something I found interesting when I began my own plunge into the field is the way it becomes a whole, all-encompassing way of life for many fans. They aren't weird about it. They just find it (the festivals, the recordings, the history, meeting some performers, the other fans, etc) a very satisfying cultural life. Easy to see why. I think Scott's right too about how raw and offputting some people find some of the music. My parents, for instance, would never have had any idea what to make of Delta blues. They'd probably have found it a bit frightening ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 21, 2005 2:37 PM

My mother was quite histrionic---I suppose that contributes!

Plus, I was a kid who read a lot and had her own dreamworld, and I picked and chose the qualities I wanted, so I had to read a lot, including about famous women, to make sure I had checked out the full smorgasbord of qualities there were to choose from! At the end of the day, what would I pick about Fonda? Her acting talent, which I admit I think is quite substantial, and, yeah, sorry Jane...but her figure!! She sorta had the quintessential All-American bod. Check out a 1963 photo on the back of the book jacket.

What wouldn't I pick? Her bulimia, which went on for years and contributed to that bod, her know-it-allness, her tendency to be rather undisciplined about sticking to the facts of a situation, her lousy parenting. she admits...she was parented lousy, too.

Posted by: annette on April 21, 2005 3:12 PM

My mother was quite histrionic---I suppose that contributes!

Plus, I was a kid who read a lot and had her own dreamworld, and I picked and chose the qualities I wanted, so I had to read a lot, including about famous women, to make sure I had checked out the full smorgasbord of qualities there were to choose from! At the end of the day, what would I pick about Fonda? Her acting talent, which I admit I think is quite substantial, and, yeah, sorry Jane...but her figure!! She sorta had the quintessential All-American bod. Check out a 1963 photo on the back of the book jacket.

What wouldn't I pick? Her bulimia, which went on for years and contributed to that bod, her know-it-allness, her tendency to be rather undisciplined about sticking to the facts of a situation, her lousy parenting. she admits...she was parented lousy, too.

Posted by: annette on April 21, 2005 3:12 PM

Just sat down and watched the documentary. Thanks for posting about it. What an amazing group of characters, and what great music!

I started listening to the blues in middle school, when I'd spend lots of time with a friend whose parents were blues fans. My interest brought my mother back into the blues (which she'd enjoyed in the 60s) and eventually it got my mother into bed with my friend's father, which is an aside, if kind of a bluesy one. But anyway, I remember being about 12 and thinking, geez, how repetitive, and what silly lyrics. But then, how simple and honest and sincere it was, in a way no other music seemed to be. Why use more words when the music was already saying so much? I was working pretty hard at classical piano at the time, and blues made me feel like I was spinning my wheels with frippery and artifice, while these guys, they just sat down and tapped into some kind of truth.

A couple of years later we went to a cajun/blues/bluegrass festival, and I watched bluesmen play day after day, smiling their missing-tooth smiles and wondering, why is music so easy for them, and how are they so got-damned happy all the time?

I guess they have the ability to just flow. They roll with the punches. They make lemonade. Life seems so easy for them, even when it's awful. I mean, that guy with the butter knife - how do you beat that, for grace in the face of adversity?

Somehow they've nailed that whole "Noble Eightfold Path" the Bhuddists came up with: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. I'd argue that their lives fire on most of these cylinders. And as true prophets, they do nothing to deify themselves in the eyes of their fellow men. They just go on driving their tractors, and when it rains, they make music.

Posted by: Nate on April 22, 2005 12:03 AM

Nate, that's beautiful.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on April 22, 2005 1:39 AM

I'll second that.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 22, 2005 10:54 AM

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