Bob Mugge, 54, born in Chicago to parents from the Deep South, has traveled the region, filming the music he loves for over 30 years.
After graduating from film school at Temple University in Philadelphia, Mugge thought he'd make features, but he ended up becoming known as a music documentarian, a title justified by films like "Pride and Joy: The Story of Alligator Records," "True Believers: The Musical Family of Rounder Records," "Deep Blues" and "Hellhounds on My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson," among others. Directors whose work influence Mugge include Marcel Ophuls and Louis Malle. He learned to let the people he was filming tell their own story. Now, with "Blues Divas," Mugge and his partner in Blue M Productions, Ty Warren, document and promote the blues corridor, from New Orleans to Memphis, with the Mississipi Delta at its heart, Mugge says. The two-hour version will be shown at Mississippi's welcome centers, to show visitors what the state has to offer. There's a DVD and a CD in the works, too.
How did the blues come to infuse your life's work?
I came here more than 20 years ago to make the Al Green film and got attached to the region. Dave Stewart hired me to do the film "Deep Blues" … that led me to come four years ago to the Crossroads Film Festival which led me to the Subway Lounge which led me to make "The Last of the Mississippi Jukes" which brought me to the attention of Mississippi Public Broadcasting who brought me down to be filmmaker-in-residence. Now I'm doing that for the Foundation for Public Broadcasting in Mississippi
You've got eight blues divas in this series. What process did you use to select/settle on these eight artists?
I felt that Scorsese's public television series had flaws, giving short shrift to female artists. I wanted to do something to help redress that. I've been a huge Irma Thomas fan ... I decided to do "Blues Divas" partly as a means of working with her. Then I was in Chicago, talking with Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records. He said, 'Let's go see Betty LaVette. She's been around for years and is making a come back.' I was blown away. I knew I'd have to have her. I was thinking who else is not just a name from the past and decided to focus on people still doing work. I knew Mavis Staples was still working, Odetta was still working, Ann Peebles from Memphis, I knew I needed Denise LaSalle, the queen of the chitlin' circuit, Deborah Coleman. It just sort of came together. The manager of Renee Austin got in touch with me and convinced me to listen, and I knew I had to include her.
How was this process—working out schedules with everyone, getting the film crew set up?
Logistically it was a big job. We filmed when we did to make it most cost effective. We shot around the W. C. Handy Awards and the Beale Street Festival in Memphis and Jazz Fest in New Orleans. So some of the artists were in the region anyway. We also filmed the Handy Awards, on Thursday. We filmed "Blues Divas" Friday night, Saturday afternoon and night, Sunday afternoon and night. That's several intense days of setting up simultaneously in both cities.
What's it been like being a filmmaker-in-resident in Mississippi, for MPB and the Foundation?
It's been very exciting in many respects. I've worked with great people and great equipment. In a small way, it's like being based in a Hollywood studio. And Ty Warren wanted to take the sort of films I do and channel them to benefit the state.
How have you made the transition to living in Mississippi? Is it home now?
Although I've acclimated myself to this place, when you've lived different places, you never really feel at home. I'll say this, though, about Pennsylvania and Maryland—I don't miss the heavy traffic. And there's too many people there. I like the laid-back mood down here. I like that I can be just about anywhere in Jackson in 15 minutes.
No, I ainít got the didnít see ìBlues Divasî film blues
Oh, I ainít got the didnít see ìBlues Divasî film blues
Cause my bootie was where it counts,
Watchiní women whoíve paid their dues.
Well now, I drove out to Parkway last night
Got my ticket and went inside
Drove out to Crossroads last night
Knew the blues was playiní inside
Won't miss the women
Who sang and played for this ride.
If youíve got the didnít see the ìBlues Divasî film blues
Couldnít get your bootie in gear last night for Crossroads
Watch MPB Thursdays at 9 for each diva an hour at a time.
Well, y'all, that's not quite real blues, but if you weren't in the audience last night, you missed a real treat.
"Blues Divas" airs on MPB Thursdays at 9 p.m. starting April 7.
- Lynette Hanson