If "Jazz" had been Ken Burns' "Blues"

Art Schuna aaschuna@FACSTAFF.WISC.EDU
Thu Feb 1 10:07:48 EST 2001

While watching the final episode after having seen the rest
of the series, I got to wondering what if Ken Burn's "Jazz" had
been a similar aural and visual history of the blues?  It would seem
that if Burns had been attempting to use the music as a way of
commenting on race in America, as he claimed with his 3 part
triology  (Civil War, Baseball and Jazz), Blues would have been better
music to base that on.  Like jazz, it originated in this country and was
a product of African-Americans.  However, it seems the story of
civil rights struggles of blacks in America would have been a better
one with a blues-based documentary.  The music's origins are
African (like jazz), but is also based on
work songs performed in the cotton fields and elsewhere.  Not too
many people were playing their horns while toiling in those fields.  Many
lyrics might have lent themselves to the race in America theme.  "Jazz"
did have a piece on "Strange Fruit" which probably is as great a song
about African-American struggles as has been written, but there would
have been greater breadth of choices in blues.  The story of the history
of blues would have been as compelling as that told by jazz, maybe
more so for readers of this list.  The stories of many of the bluesmen and
women would have been a fascinating commentary on life in America.  The
civil rights movement of the 60s, the rejection of blues by blacks who turned
towards R&B and soul and the return in popularity of this music with the
rediscovery of great pre-war artists and the evolution to the present day
would make a great story.

Here's one question that I thought about but wasn't sure I had an answer -
"Jazz" chose 2 main characters who were there near the beginnings of at
least the recorded jazz era, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.  Who would
the main characters for a similar "Blues" multi-part documentary?  Muddy
comes to mind but he did not get his start in the documented history of the
until about 20 years after the first recording.  He would definitely be an
important figure
though.  Son House comes to mind but he is missing a big "middle period".  His
influence on seminal figures like Muddy and Robert Johnson are well known
and his rediscovery had a lot to do with the the resurgence of the blues.
Henry Townsend comes to mind because he's the only guy I know who has
recorded all of those decades from the '20s and would still be alive to
tell his
story, but he'd probably be considered a lesser figure in the history of blues
(whether or not that reputation is deserved).  Honeyboy Edwards also is a
known figure of the music but  I know from listening to him tell his
stories before
a small crowd and reading his book he's got amazing stories to tell and his
recollection of the details of what happened are fascinating.

One final thought before I give up this crazy theme for now....  I would guess
that there is far less video footage to base a Blues documentary on than what
"Jazz" had to work with.  I may be wrong but I'd be curious to see what
others thought.  My
guess is there would be a lot more shots panning still photo details....
maybe they could include that footage that was said to be Robert Johnson
playing on a street corner with his moving capo that was discussed here at
some time ago....  ;-)


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