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'Musical Journey' jumps track, misses the blues

THE BALTIMORE SUN

But if you was to ask me

How de blues they come to be,

Says if you was to ask me

How de blues they come to be -

You wouldn't need to ask me:

Just look at me and see!

- Langston Hughes

It's the funkiness of life electrified in the notes on a guitar. It's the weariness of the daily grind distilled in the ache of a human voice. Over the years, some have embellished the blues with different flavors - horns, strings and things. But you really don't need all of that to feel the blues. The nuances are complex, but what resonates at the core is straight-up and real - a penetration into the soul, a cracked mirror held up to reality. When did the blues come into being? Where exactly were they born? Music historians have debated those questions for years. However, one thing is certain: Without the blues, there would be no American rock. Willie Dixon, the famed singer-songwriter, said it best: "The blues are the roots; everything else is the fruits."

Premiering tonight at 9 on PBS, Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey attempts to educate and connect the dots. The program is in seven parts and each film documents in personal and impressionistic styles the emergence, the resurgence and the worldwide influence of the blues - but not necessarily in that order. Although the intentions may be noble, the execution of the program misses the mark.

In this rambling, disjointed series, you don't really get an idea of what informed the art, how it germinated in the racist, post-Reconstruction South. How it was nudged into growth by a people dealing with political disfranchisement, systematic economic subordination and police brutality, day in and day out. Nowhere in the series do you get a breakdown of the blues' subtleties - how the lyrics, at times, thinly veiled seething rage at political injustices as the music echoed the tension and release. How the lyrics - unlike what you find in much of today's hip-hop, punk and alternative rock - could be slyly sexual in an often humorous way. Unlocking the clues and double meanings was part of the fun. It was, as Erykah Badu would say, "grown folks' music."

Like light through a prism, the human condition is reflected and refracted through the blues, a musical structure of three basic chords, 12 bars and lyrics that repeat and answer. But, of course, some of the best blues performances deviate from the form. On Feb. 1, Congress proclaimed 2003 the Year of the Blues, spurring record companies to raid their vaults and digitally re-master dusty blues tracks. Blues-concert DVDs are in the works. And museums such as the Experience Music Project in Seattle will prepare its own Year of the Blues series on Public Radio International.

All of this is fine. But it seems so overblown, as folks rush to resuscitate something that has never died. Like Motown and rock before it, the blues these days look as if they're being co-opted by aging baby boomers who discovered Muddy Waters in college and never got over the excitement of stumbling upon something so raw, so in-your-face and so primitive. At the time, they were surely oblivious to the jagged lives and deplorable conditions from which such music sprang. And judging from the seven documentaries on PBS (of which only one was directed by an African-American, Charles Burnett's Warming By the Devil's Fire), the tragic-comic stuff of black life, which pulsates through the music, is still largely ignored.

How can a grand woman with iron-strong eyes croon "I won't call no coppa/if I'm beat up by my poppa?" It's the way blacks and other excluded folks have endured for years. You laugh to keep from crying. You put on a brave mask when you feel like hiding. You add a little sugar to the salt and vice versa. The blues - most times indirectly - deal with such paradoxes. Unlike Ken Burns' mammoth 2000 series on jazz, Scorsese's program doesn't take the time to deeply explore the ugliness, the funkiness that imbued the lives of such blues people as Howlin' Wolf, Robert Johnson, Son House and Bessie Smith. So you walk away from this series with a few solid performances, some nice archival clips but little depth and information. There's hardly any context.

The blues ain't polite - they don't say please, though sometimes they say, "Good morning." The blues are loyal to a fault.

- Kevin Young

One of the most entertaining films in the series is The Road to Memphis, directed by Richard Pearce. In it, you meet Bobby Rush, a Southern blues man who's known for his comically risque tunes. (The lyrics are often clever but a little too nasty to reprint in a family paper.) With his stringy Jheri Curl, tight pants and flashy shirts, Rush gyrates, grinds and struts across boxy stages in chitlin circuit clubs down South. A talented singer-musician but not in the league with B.B. King or Bobby Bland, the 60-something Rush has been performing for decades. But if you don't know jack about Rush and his journey, then you will feel lost as the camera follows him through the clubs, on his tour bus and in church. It's a good idea to feature him as one of the overlooked blues survivors who's still able to make a living on stages. But that, of course, is never put into any context.

In Godfathers and Sons, Marc Levin tries to connect hip-hop and Chicago blues. He trails producer Marshall Chess, whose father, Leonard, and uncle, Phil, started Chess Records, the Windy City label that put out seminal recordings by Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Etta James and others. Marshall reconvenes the psychedelic band that played on Waters' misguided Electric Mud album in '68. This time, though, he adds rappers Common and Chuck D of Public Enemy. Overall, the film, which is punctuated with great snippets of grainy blues performances, putters along. About midway into Godfathers and Sons, you wonder why Levin just didn't focus entirely on Chess Records and its relevance to the blues and other black music.

Mike Figgis' Red, White and Blues centers on second-tier British soul and blues, which basically imitates the American styles note for note. And Wim Wenders' The Soul of a Man and Charles Burnett's Warming by the Devil's Fire are heavy-handed journeys into the past that fail to engage. Devil's Fire follows a city boy through Mississippi, and Soul re-creates the stories of Blind Willie Johnson and Skip James in a corny, silent-movie-like way.

The archival snippets - Sister Rosetta Tharpe jamming on an electric guitar, Howlin' Wolf singing in a greasy club, Bo Diddley recording in the studio as a young Minnie Riperton warbles behind him - bolster the series. You just wish the directors had used more of the past to bring us into today.

To write a blues song

Is to regiment riots

And pluck gems from graves

- Etheridge Knight

Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey continues at 9 p.m. tomorrow through Saturday on PBS (MPT, Channels 22 and 67).

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