Culture Rover

#27 - Year of the Blues Blues (Blues Number Two)

Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues, A Musical Journey (5 CD Box Set, Universal)

I've still got a hangover from the inundation of blues CDs during 2003, the Congressionally-declared "Year of the Blues." So, hanging behind the beat, Culture Rover has decided to review the best of these releases, mostly for historical edification (and also because these days, we especially need to stomp our blues away).

There's something silly about a CD called, "Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues," but this is a detailed, wonderfully-drawn roadmap for the blues. It leads you astray at the end (I'll explain why in a moment), but along the way, there are some incredible sounds to behold.

There are few benefits to recording company consolidation, but this set demonstrates one of them: now that but a few corporations possess so much music in their back catalogs, they can piece together essential songs into a true overview. So this collaborative effort between Universal Music and Sony befits its subtitle, "A Musical Journey." The journey here is perhaps as comprehensive and wide-ranging as it can be on five CDs (save for the end of the journey).

Released in connection with seven films on the blues made by famous directors, overseen by Martin Scorsese, and aired on PBS last year, these CDs mostly include just the right songs by just the right artists. We get old work songs, jazz-age blues from Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith, the classics from Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and the like. But there are also a few less-obvious gems by the Mississippi Sheiks, Blind Blake, Blind Willie McTell, and others.

The CDs, of course, include later blues masters too, but not only Muddy and the Wolf; we get great songs from J.B. Lenoir, Sonny Boy Williamsons I and II (the latter being the great Rice Miller), Jimmy Reed, Freddie King, and Albert King.

Significantly, we also get a truer, more elastic, and fertile definition of the blues: as the CDs progress, we hear from Count Basie and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Chuck Berry and Professor Longhair, Ray Charles and Bob Dylan. And, in a slyly brilliant move, the selectors sneak in the original versions of Elvis Presley hits, such as Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right Mama" and Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog." As Muddy Waters once sang, the blues had a baby, and they named it rock and roll. Indeed.

Alas, the end of the box set falters. There's the smart effort to demonstrate how the waves of the blues washed up on the, er, rocks of rock, but then we wind up in the land of Bonnie Raitt, Keb' Mo', Corey Harris, and Susan Tedeschi. Not that these are bad pit stops along the routes of the blues. The music's great. But there's a consolidation and backward gaze present; we get nostalgia and its dangerous reproductions of the classics instead of a continuation of what makes this box set brilliant: its notion that the blues just keeps growing and expanding along many, mysterious, sad-and-dancing strands.

Why not follow the blues into funk, hip-hop, disco, house, techno, spoken-word, punk, new-wave, industrial, metal, indie-rock, even classical music? Or why not keep going down the trails of the CD track that features Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure to catch the sound of the global blues in its circulations and wanderings, so free yet far from home?

This box set starts to map out the rich terrain, the many nooks and crannies, of the blues. But it can't quite turn the corner on nostalgia at the end; it can't quite get our ears to hear the continued travels of the blues, which are bold and diasporic, rooted in memory, yearning, loss, yet as eager for mobility and freedom as ever.

17 November 2004

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