Monday, February 08, 2010

Feel Like Going Home - Martin Scorcese's Exploration of the roots of the Blues

In the DVD box-set "The Blues: A Musical Journey" which Martin Scorcese put together in collaboration with a whole series of producers and writers, Scorcese himself contributed one film. All kinds of aspects of the blues are covered in the series, such as Clint Eastwood's superlative Piano Blues film, and Scorcese set himself the task of examining the roots of the blues.

Any exploration of American Blues would have to have examine the African roots of the music, as well as the distinctive forms the music took in Texas, The Delta or Chicago. The USA is probably the most racially-hyphenated nation on earth, in that vast swathes of the population describe themselves as 'Italian-American', 'Irish-American', 'Polish-American' or 'African-American' etc - each group bringing different things into the whole. Scottish folk music, for instance, has a huge following in the USA, where the descendants of Scots have carefully treasured, preserved and developed elements of the culture that were carried across the Atlantic in the wake of the clearances.

The preservation of Africa in the 20th Century culture of African-Americans is, within this mix, a unique and amazing story of human resilience. Obviously the migration of this population was uniquely inhumane, involuntary and grotesque; but in addition to that the slaves were subjected to a systematic programme of de-culturalisation. The film points out that in the ante-bellum period merely owning a drum was a capital offence for an African American.

Scorcese's film seeks to establish if the much-vaunted African-roots of the blues are a reality or merely a sentimentalised culturally galvanising tool to assist in forging a resurgent Black identity in the wake of the civil rights era. In the company of Corey Harris (American Bluesman, and African musician), archive recordings from the Lomax's, interviews with musicians past and present, from Mississippi to Mali the common threads linking this musical heritage are established - alongside the distinctive forms which the music has taken in different locations.

As well as featuring great performances from Corey Harris, Keb' Mo', Taj Mahul and various lesser known African musicians, as well as archive treats from John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Son House; this is a thoroughly entertaining piece of social/cultural history.

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