Filmmakers Roger Stolle (far left) and Jeff Konkel (middle) interview blues musician Terry "Harmonica" Bean of Pontotoc.
Photo by Courtesy Broke & Hungry Records
The blues in Mississippi refuses to die. Despite music scholars regularly predicting its demise, fans can find the distinctive music everywhere around the state, from small clubs to major festivals. And while many legendary blues musicians have passed on, a few mostly older bluesmen continue to perform the traditional style of acoustic blues in the state.
A group of music producers, headed by Roger Stolle of Clarksdale and Jeff Konkel of St. Louis, introduce several of these performers to the broader blues community through their new documentary film, "M for Mississippi." The film follows Stolle and Konkel on a blues road trip around Mississippi, during which they visit a dozen blues musicians in their hometown communities.
The film is their first collaborative project. Stolle, owner of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art store in Clarksdale, has produced a number of recordings by the St. Louis-based (and Mississippi native) blues singer and harmonica player "Big" George Brock. Konkel heads up Broke & Hungry Records, a label that releases CDs by "under the radar" blues performers from Mississippi, including Jimmy "Duck" Holmes from Bentonia, and Wesley Jefferson and Terry "Big T" Williams from Clarksdale.
The duo conceived the film as a way to promote Mississippi and many of the musicians they've been working with over the years.
"We want to draw people to Mississippi," Konkel says. "A lot of these guys, they're not going to be on the road. The only way you're going to be able to see them is to come and visit."
Working with filmmaker Damien Blaylock, and assisted by co-producer Kari Jones and audio recording engineer Bill Abel, Stolle and Konkel traveled around the Delta and north Mississippi this past February, visiting with and filming the musicians, including harmonica player and vocalist "Cadillac" John Nolden, singer and band leader Wesley Jefferson, and guitarist and harmonica player Terry "Harmonica" Bean. The film attempts to capture the feel of the regular visits that Stolle and Konkel make to many of the musicians.
"We've made the movie probably 50 times, this is just the first time we brought a (video) camera," Konkel explains.
The film also reveals the trials the two producers often face when working with blues musicians. A number of musicians changed addresses and had only intermittent phone service. Including "The Mississippi Marvel" in the film turned out to be one of the team's unique challenges. The Delta-based "anonymous" musician released an album on Konkel's label, but has refused to be identified or photographed because of his church's negative view of the blues.
"This was hard enough to deal with for the CD, but how about for a movie?" Stolle asks.
The group ended up filming "The Marvel" in the shadows for the interview segments ("Like he's an informant for the FBI," Stolle says), and from the neck down for his performances in the film.
After completing filming in February, the group worked intensively to complete the film over the following six months, intent on releasing it as soon as they could.
"We really wanted to get this out while it still can promote the guys that we feel so much for," Stolle says.
"M for Mississippi" premiered in Clarksdale last month in a theater packed with blues fans, many of them in the area for the annual blues festival in nearby Helena, Ark. Stolle and Konkel were nervous about the reaction the film would get, but were relieved by the enthusiastic response.
"They were really into the film," Stolle says. "People were laughing from the get-go. The musicians they already knewlike T-Model Fordthey'd almost talk back to them on the screen."
The producers are submitting the film to festivals around the region, but it is available on DVD along with a companion soundtrack CD. They are optimistic that it will provide new exposure to the musicians, but the filmmakers are under no illusion about monetary rewards.
"This (project) is not a cash cow," Konkel says. "It's something we collectively agreed to lose money on."
View a free screening of "M for Mississippi" at the Jackson Street Fall Festival in Ridgeland this Saturday, Nov. 15, at 7 p.m. Three of the musicians featured in the film, "Cadillac" John Nolden, Jimmy "Duck" Holmes and L.C. Ulmer, will also perform. Call 601-506-6624 or visit jacksonstreetdistrict.com for more information on the festival. For more information on "M for Mississippi," visit the film's Web site at M for Mississippi.
What angers me about this article, and others of it's ilk about the intellectualization of the blues and bluesman by the majority culture in this country, is the total lack of respect for the people (bluesmen, blues culture, blues roots, etc.)the intellectuals appear to glorify in their theses, treatises, compendiums, anthologies and documentaries.
They wax poetic about the irreplaceable soul of the blues (men), while at the same time they blindly ignore the people and the conditions that are the source of the creative fountain of the blues.
It's like a group of highly trained doctors who see a patient bleeding to death before their eyes, right under the bright and sterile lights of the operating table, and rather than stop the bleeding they document their admiration of the color, texture and aroma of the blood.
Its like these blues intellectuals (I's) and their compatriot blues entrepreneurs (E's), sit back and admire the noble patients ability to bleed so profusely and beautifully for so long, and document the bleeding in black and white and technicolor megabytes.
They vicariously wait for the patient to die so they can cash in on their stockpiled intellectual property that vividly and humorously documents the "trials" the I's and E's experienced trying to deal with these blues mens inability to maintain a permanent address and pay their phone bills.
Not to mention (and the I's and E's never do) the high rates of poverty, pre-mature births, infant mortality, drug addiction, poor health care, etc..in the traditional blues culture.
While the majority culture of this country debates and responds to the ethical dichotomies around whether or not to use the human guinea pig medical research obtained by the Germans in their concentration camps, this same majority culture thinks it's AOK to perpetuate the institutions and attitudes that breed the "traditional" blues culture and it's 21st counterpart..gangsta rap.
If the history of gangsta rap follows the same path and timelines of the successful intellectualization and parasitic commercialization of "traditional blues", gangsta rap will be allowed to die and be resurrected by the majority culture I's and E's of the year 2050.
Hopefully, the new political mood of change in this country will finally open the blind eyes of the most successful, compassionate and generous people in the history of the world...the Americans of the United States.
After re-reading my rant above, my anger has turned to sorrow for the great people of America.
Maybe, just maybe, things will change...but probably not in my lifetime.
PS>>>I really don't expect for anyone to respond to this comment. Jackson's "creative class" has more important and positive things to address.
Casual Observer, back in 1997 I attended a forum on the blues. I won't say where, but I was the only white person in the room who looked happy to be there and tapped his feet in time with the music. The rest were taking it all in, of course, but they were too overcome with guilt and pity to just enjoy the friggin' music.
I think I had the right idea. If we're going to respect the bluesmen, we have to respect their art. And their art, no matter who controls it, is meant to invoke a specific reaction. And that reaction is very seldom guilt and pity. The music isn't even written for white people in most cases, but in cases where whites listen to it I think the least whites owe these artists is to appreciate their music on their own terms.
It's no surprise to me that the blues has gone mainstream. It's damn good music so people want to pay money to hear it. But it came out of more than suffering. Sometimes it's the moans of a patient bleeding on the table (more often because of sad relationships than anything else, in my experience), and sometimes it's a horselaugh and sometimes it's an orgasm. More often it's elements of all three. Because the authors of the blues weren't pincushions. They had lives. They had to deal with injustice but they had lives. And the fundamentals of those lives are fundamentals that every human being can relate to, and the blues express those fundamentals, and those fundamentals can speak to anyone who is willing to listen.
Look, we're all horribly oppressed and suffering pitiable masses to the generations that will look back on us 500 years from now--the gulf much larger, I suspect, than the gulf between a low-income black Southerner of the early 20th century and the wealthiest robber baron of 2008. (Likewise, even the poorest among us eat much better and have much better health care and much higher life expectancy than a 12th-century king.) Look at the art you produce today. (I don't know who you are but I can tell you're an artist.) Do you want future generations to be full of guilt and pity when they experience it? Or do you want them to just enjoy it for what it is?
That said, I do agree that anybody who listens to the blues but doesn't believe racism is still a problem is probably not an audience member that the early bluesmen and blueswomen would have been especially thrilled to have...
- Tom Head
Amen Fellows. Makes me want to hollow and throw up both hands. I love BB King because he fought through it all, unwavering and won, at least on some counts.
Wow, thanks for such a thoughtful and sincere responsse.
I must agree with you...enjoying the music is one of the highest forms of respect a person can pay an artist.
What I would like to add, with your support, is that I would rather see our future generations not only enjoy the music, but at the same time and instant "celebrate" the victory their ancestors accomplished.
The victory over the very human weakness of the subjugation of the poor, weak and neglected (blues, bluegrass, and undocumented others), by the combined begnign neglect of the rich and powerful(super minority) + the comfortable (super majority = middle class).
In my opinion, the future generations of the world will define the greatness of the Americns of the United States, not by their wealth, and power, but by the fact that in spite of their wealth and power, this great American people succeeded in fullfilling the Judeo/Christian/Musli/Buddist,Hindi, etc concept of love and charity.
The path the American people have thus far taken on this journey goes from slavery, to emancipation, to Jim Crow, to segregation, to intergration, to human rights, to voting rights, to affirmitive action, to tolerance to, election and hopefully and finally to true love and charity.
The phrase "not in my lifetime" will move from being afixed to "the election of a Black president" to the actualization of, what Dr. King so eloquently stated as, judging a person (not a super person) "on the content of their character" rather than on the reality of their "difference".
Of course the truly ultimate statement on judgement was made by Christ, and as quoted from Mathew 25:40 and 45
"Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have "done it" to unto one of the least of these my brethern, ye have done it unto me". Acts of Commission.
Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did "it not" to one of the least of these, ye "did it not" to me" = Acts of Omission.
As for believing if racism exists or not?...I don't care what you believe...I care what you do.
Where do you spend your time talent and treasure...for that is where your heart truly is.
Tom, I don't who you are as well, but I have a feeling that your actions speak well of your heart.