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Memphis Flyer Blues Movies

Two new documentaries shatter the harmful myth of the bluesman.

By Mark Jordan

OCTOBER 4, 1999:  Kurt Gunn of the Delta Queens is working on a script, a mockumentary about a couple of white, college film students who set out to document the life of a hard-scrabble real-life bluesman -- the oppression, the poverty, the smoky juke joints, and the whoring. And they're not going to let the fact that their subject is really a sober, clean-living, middle-class, responsible husband with a good job, a nice home, and no taste for the blues get in their way.

Over the course of making their film, the two students -- through happenstance and conniving -- manage to turn their pseudo bluesman into something more closely resembling their fantasy. He loses his job, his wife leaves him, he starts to drink heavily, and for the Delta coup de grace, he goes blind. By the end, as the filmmakers drive off with their movie in the can, he's a living caricature of a bluesman, broken down and busted on the side of the road with no one to listen and no where to go.

It's satire, but it touches a raw nerve. The image of the hard-living bluesman has been used to sell records from the beginning. It's a myth not unlike that of the romantic poets -- the charismatic lyrist sucking the marrow from life. Unfortunately, in the case of the bluesmen, it is an image rife with the racial undertones of the drunken, lazy sharecropper. Today, that kind of bluesman scarcely exists, but like many harmful stereotypes, it stubbornly persists, perpetuatd by "fans" and chroniclers all too willing to believe the hype.

Hellhounds on My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson is the latest film from Pennsylvania filmmaker Robert Mugge. Johnson is the archetype bluesman. The man who, legend has it, got his extraordinary guitar skills by bartering with the devil and who lost his life by being poisoned by the husband of a woman he was wooing. Though the film contains interviews with Johnson's stepson, bluesman Robert Jr. Lockwood, and a childhood friend, the film is reportedly less interested in examining the enigmatic man but instead his considerable legacy. Mugge took his cameras to Johnson's recent Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony where an all-star lineup of artists, half of them white, feted the man who obviously has had a tremendous impact on them.

More modest in scope and scale is the Will Roy Sanders: The Last Living Bluesman, a new documentary from Sherman Wilmott and Shangri-La Projects. The film follows on the heels of a book by the same name (essentially a complete transcript of Wilmott's interviews presented partially in the film) and is accompanied by the release of an excellent soundtrack CD featuring old and new recordings from Sanders.

Sanders is something of a local legend -- a founding member of the Bingamton Blues Boys and the legendary Fieldstones, he has been playing around Memphis juke joints and fish fries for decades and is the author of the well-regarded blues standard "Cross Cut Saw." Though in many ways Sanders does fit the old bluesman mold (his stories reveal that he does have a mighty thirst), Wilmott's method of just letting him talk simply and directly for the film's entire 45 minutes reveals much more than that -- a man who loves his family (unorthodox though it may be), music, and making people happy.

But ultimately, The Last Living Bluesman may be more valuable for the little nuggets of hidden Memphis history it reveals -- the stories about $1-a-drink whiskey barrels, Collierville pool halls, and the jukes of Buster Road.


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