This documentary was filmed in 1990, originally released in 1991 and this production is a 2003 re-release by a division of Sony Music Entertainment. The DVD includes outtake performances, discographies and bonus audio tracks.
Renowned blues historian Robert Palmer and Executive Producer David Stewart (lead guitarist with the Eurythmics) who financed the project are the tour guides. Their journey begins on Beale Street in Memphis with a stop at a shop which specializes in voodoo items and blues vinyl records on display which the proprietor explains were once sold for thirty-five cents or three for a dollar. Along the way, Palmer enlightens Stewart and the audience with regional historical details. The influence these little-known practitioners had on mainstream American music as well as how little they have benefited from their efforts will probably be a revelation for many viewers.
Booker T. Laury performs "Memphis Blues" on his living room piano smiling for the camera and conservatively dressed in white dress shirt and tie with a shining diamond stud in his earlobe. Then the journey continues to Mississippi where R. L. Burnside is spotlighted performing "Jumper On The Vine" seated on a porch with a washing machine in the background and family members lounging on parked cars in the yard. Stewart joins in on the tune "Long Haired Doney" and during this guitar duet, the expressions on Burnside's face are exquisite. Jessie Mae Hemphill's Fife and Drum Band struts through the woods demonstrating a traditional musical form which spans six generations.
The scene is hot at Junior Kimbrough's Juke Joint which is little more than a shack which unfortunately has since burned to the ground. Kimbrough performs "Junior, I Love You (All Night Long)" while the audience sweats it up on the dance floor.
Highway 61 takes us to Greenville, Mississippi and the Playboy Club where owner Roosevelt "Booba" Barnes holds forth. Barnes and his band, the Playboys, perform several tunes including "Heartbroken Man." Barnes is resplendent in a red suit with a huge heavy metal chain necklace. In Clarksdale, Mississippi, there is a stop at the barber shop of Wade Walton who tells of having cut the hair of bluesmen such as Ike Turner, Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson. Big Jack Johnson ("Oilman") is depicted in a scenario relating to his then day job as a truck driver delivering oil. The scene shifts to a club where Johnson performs a tune he wrote entitled "When Is Momma Coming Home" which is so emotionally moving it will bring tears to your eyes. He explains that he wrote the tune when his wife left him to raise three little daughters and it was absolutely a riveting highlight of the film. Along the way, there is a rusted Oldsmobile Delta '88 shown with a sign affixed stating "this is not an abandoned car." Down the road, we meet up with Jack Owens and Bud Spires with a musical performance of a folktale "The Devil." Lonnie Pitchford demonstrates the technique of nailing a string to the side of the house and playing with a pipe sized slide.
This DVD is an illuminating journey enriched by the stories of those who have lived this life which has resulted in the music we call blues. The musical segments focus at length on the performers. For blues lovers, this is a jewel of a film and should prove enlightening for musical fans in general. This one gets my highest rating - run out and get it immediately!
by Dorothy L. Hill