It's Only Rock 'n' Roll

By JOHN SWENSON, United Press International  |  Feb. 5, 2003 at 8:00 PM
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The year 2003 has been declared the Year of the Blues by an act of Congress in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of W.C. Handy's first published blues. The idea that a piece of sheet music is the cause for this celebration may seem odd, especially to young fans, but the fact is that before the recording era sheet music was the driving force of the music industry.

Taking a page from the popularity of Ken Burns' "Jazz" (and hopefully not from the abuse of history that Burns was guilty of in that documentary), a series of films is in the works.

"The Blues" series is composed of seven 90-minute films, each by a different director. After a brief theatrical debut the series will be aired by PBS later this year. Each film will have its own soundtrack released as a companion CD.

The first film in the series, "From Mali to Mississippi," is directed by Martin Scorsese and covers the middle passage that brought African slaves across the Atlantic Ocean to work in the Mississippi Delta. Deprived of all possessions and instruments, the music lived inside these people, who brought it with them in song, words and chants and played it on whatever makeshift instrument they could find. Performers in this film include the African musicians Ali Farka Toure and Salif Keita, and American blues musicians Taj Mahal and Othar Turner.

Charles Burnett is the director of "Warming by the Devil's Fire," an account of classic blues from the 1920s and '30s.

Clint Eastwood was put in charge of "Piano Blues," which stars the venerable Jay McShann and also covers Ray Charles, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino and Art Tatum.

Marc Levin, the director of "Slam," is behind the lens for "Godfathers and Sons," an interesting take on blues history from the perspective of hip-hop virtuoso Chuck D and Marshall Chess of Chess Records, whose father did so much to codify urban blues on record. The duo cover the Chicago blues era of Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Paul Butterfield.

Wim Wenders of "Buena Vista Social Club" fame is the director of "Devil Got My Woman," a study of the connection between blues and spirituals as reflected in the work of Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James and J.B. Lenoir.

"Moanin' at Midnight," directed by Richard Pearce, concentrates on Memphis and the music of Bobby "Blue" Bland, B.B. King, Ike Turner, James Cotton and Little Milton.

In "The British Invasion" director Mike ("Leaving Las Vegas") Figgis deals with the effect American blues had on young British musicians in the 1960s, including Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton.

A number of events in February are linked to Year of the Blues celebrations:

A benefit concert, "Salute to the Blues" is scheduled for Feb. 7 at New York's Radio City Music Hall. The eclectic lineup of blues and blues-influenced performers expected includes B.B. King, Robert Cray, Bonnie Raitt, Keb' Mo', Dr. John, David Johansen, Vernon Reid, Mavis Staples, Gregg Allman and Chuck D. The Rolling Stones are rumored to be involved but won't be listed on the marquee.

The concert will be filmed for theatrical distribution, and will be directed by Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day") and executive produced by Martin Scorsese. Net concert proceeds will benefit The Blues Music Foundation.

The Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Oxford, Miss., has scheduled "The Blues Today: A Living Blues Symposium" for Feb. 21-22. Scott Barretta, editor of Living Blues: The Magazine of the African American Blues Tradition, and Adam Gussow, newly appointed assistant professor of English and Southern Studies, are organizing the event, which will feature a plenary speaker and an evening concert on Friday, followed by an all-day Saturday program. Participants will include both scholars and blues musicians.

Also, Feb. 6-7, Charleston, S.C., holds its Lowcountry Blues Bash, Fargo, N.D., holds its Winter Blues Fest on Feb. 8, the Phoenix Blues Society holds its Blues Blast on Feb. 23, in Mesa, Ariz., and the owners of the Grand Emporium in Kansas City, Mo., are mounting an 11-day Bluesin Blast/Legendary R&B Cruise from Feb. 4-15 featuring The Radiators, Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Bernard Allison, Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials, John Mooney, Koko Taylor, Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, Lonnie Brooks, Tyrone Davis, Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band, Curtis Salgado, Terrance Simien and the Mallet Playboys, Alvin Youngblood Hart and the New World Vipers, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Tommy Castro, Duke Robillard and Kelley Hunt.

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