Blues, folk giants preserved on video


And now, some good news for fans of traditional country blues: Your heroes have finally made it onto video.

For years, rock buffs have had it easy when it comes to finding historical performances on videocassette. Retrospectives of the Beatles or Elvis Presley featuring vintage footage, for example, are readily available; just about everybody has seen the Fab Four's first appearance on the "Ed Sullivan Show" and a young Elvis' pelvic gyrations. Vintage blues and folk performances are a different story.

Sadly, many of the now-legendary giants of traditional music were working at a time when filming concerts was far from routine, and scant thought was given to preserving their performances for posterity. Toss in the fact that the contributions of many of these musicians weren't fully recognized until late in their lives or after their deaths, and it's easy to see why so little of the music has made it onto video -- a state of affairs that Shanachie Records' Stefan Grossman plans to remedy.

Recently, Shanachie launched its "Masters of the Country Blues" series with a trio of videos through its Yazoo subsidiary, featuring vintage performances by Southern blues legends Son House, Bukka White, Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin' Hopkins, Sonny Terry and the Rev. Gary Davis. Each 60-minute video features a brief introduction by contemporary bluesman Taj Mahal and a pair of blues performances originally filmed by the Seattle Folk Society in the 1960s. Future releases will feature Elizabeth Cotten, Jesse Fuller, Big Joe Williams and Fred McDowell.

"We're also negotiating for footage shot at the Newport Folk Festivals from 1963 to 1967, when all of the great blues names from the 1930s, like Howlin' Wolf and Mississippi John Hurt, were still alive," says Mr. Grossman, a well-known guitarist who studied country blues as a teen-ager with the Rev. Davis and joined Shanachie in 1987 as art director, blues A&R; man and musician in residence.

"It's important for us to find all of the old blues material that we can," he adds. "If any of your readers know of any vintage material, I hope they'll give us a call."

Shanachie, an independent label based in Newton, N.J., has built a reputation over the past two decades as a leading light in the field of Celtic, historic blues, African, world music and reggae recordings. Since plunging into video a couple of years ago, the label has released scores of folk, blues, Tex-Mex, reggae and world music titles; plans call for more than 100 different VHS-format videos to be on the market by the end of 1992 at retail prices ranging from $24.95 to $29.95. All videos are also available by mail from Shanachie, priced at $19.95 each plus shipping.

Besides the country blues videos, some of the newest titles are entries in Shanachie's "Ramblin' " series, a collection of acoustic folk music concert videos originally taped circa 1980 at Ohio University as a telecommunications department learn-by-doing project. The series, which aired on various PBS stations in the early 1980s, includes performances by Mr. Grossman, the John Renbourn Group, Dave Van Ronk, the Bert Jansch Conundrum, Elizabeth Cotten and Mike Seeger, Norman Blake and the Rising Fawn Ensemble, and Celtic harpist Alan Stivell. Shows featuring Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Vassar Clements, Happy Traum, Tom Paxton and John Hartford are due out in the near future.

"There were about 45 shows in all," Mr. Grossman says. "When Shanachie started thinking about getting into video, I thought of those concerts right away, and we struck up a deal with Ohio University to put them out. A lot of this music is timeless and historical."

For Shanachie, vintage sounds and a couple of contemporary trends, including the mellowing of the Baby Boom generation, have added up to what Mr. Grossman characterizes as "tremendous success" in the last year or so.

"There seems to be a revival of interest in acoustic folk music," he says. "A lot of people, I'll call them yuppies for lack of a better word, have CD players and VCRs and laserdisc players, and they're very hip to getting old music to play on the new gadgetry.

"There also seems to be a thirst for acoustic blues. In the last year or so, Shanachie has licensed old blues tunes for use in several major Hollywood films, including 'Fried Green Tomatoes' and 'Mississippi Masala.'

"And it's amazing how many TV commercials use solid country blues as background music," adds Mr. Grossman, who has played guitar on phone company pitches and Connecticut tourism spots, among other things. "People are hit with country blues all the time. I'm not saying there's a direct connection [between blues in commercials and films and Shanachie's success]. It's more subliminal. But the videos that have gotten the biggest reaction are definitely the 'Masters of Country Blues.' "

"We're doing well with the country blues videos," confirms Lee Budowsky of Video Beat, a Chicago video shop that specializes in music video. "These are legendary blues figures, and nobody really has had a chance to see them until now."

While most of Video Beat's blues video customers are in their 30s and 40s, Mr. Grossman hopes that the availability of vintage blues videos will help turn twentysomethings on to classic country blues.

"My son David, who is 22, listened to Led Zeppelin and the Doors all through college," Mr. Grossman says. "Now he listens to reggae music and John Coltrane, and I'm trying to get him interested in blues. But when I would tell him how great the blues are, he would ask, 'Who can I watch?' Now he can watch Bukka White and Son House and all the other legends."

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