Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Preachin' the Blues

By the early Sixties, thanks to the widespread late-Fifties popularity of the Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte and, a few years later, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Folk Music scene was thriving--and the real folk musicmakers like Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley were getting discovered or rediscovered, and even listened to. Cambridge and Greenwich Village were in a happy ferment that mixed new songsters like Dylan (see the previous posting), old hands like Pete Seeger, and old new-handers or new old-timers or some such like half-brother Mike Seeger's New Lost City Ramblers.

And an amazing sidelight of this search for the real roots of American Music was the explosion of interest in the Blues. Seemed as though the entire East Coast was in a mad dash to track down old Country Blues performers like Son House, Skip James, and Mississippi John Hurt. Some of this was helped along by the Newport Folk Festival, which soon began showcasing rediscovered Bluesmen, and anyone else who played like them!

One album I bought around 1964 included a rousing performance by John Hammond (Jr., that is, son of the famous talent searcher and record producer), with John singing in a strangled voice and rippling his guitar masterfully and the elder true Bluesmen cheering him on from the wings. I thought, Yeah! White guys can play the Blues.

Which freed (presumptuous word) me too; I felt I'd been given the go-ahead for my own mad dash. But I was living in Seattle, so rather than searching for mysterious missing performers, I was searching for new albums in record stores (those astonishing RBF and OJL reissues), and old 45s and 78s in thrift stores and junk shops. (As you might imagine, the number of Country Blues 78s in the Pacific Northwest was limited. But I did assemble a small collection, spiced by Chicago Blues 45s, that I later sold to Bob "The Bear" Hite, lead singer of Canned Heat.)

Meanwhile I was reading every book, magazine article, and passing word that I could find about the Blues. There weren't many sources available then, back in the mid-Sixties--no comprehensive histories yet, no bios of big names published; just the groundbreaking books by Sam Charters and Paul Oliver, and one or two specialty mags from England, led by the great Blues Unlimited. (Even Rolling Stone was still a few years away.)

Somehow I got it in my head that I should write a film about Robert Johnson, whose reissue album on Columbia had stunned people everywhere, from Dylan and the young Allmans to Clapton and the Rolling Stones. I knew the few meagre bits of info available about his life, and I thought that he might be the perfect tragic embodiment of the rural Bluesman's life in the Twenties and Thirties.

I immersed myself in articles that mentioned Johnson (Pete Welding interviews with Howlin' Wolf and Honeyboy Edwards, for example), album liner notes for Johnny Shines, Johnson's own LP, and more, plus Oliver's astonishing book and accompanying record called Conversation with the Blues--even Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man helped me imagine Robert's world. I also studied Les Blank's Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb documentaries (got to know Les a little) and went to see every Country Blues performer that passed through the region; Son House and Bukka White were standouts.

And it was a help, I thought, that my mother's family had been farmers in Georgia and that I'd lived in Virginia and Alabama; I felt I had a broader perspective as a child of both North and South, son of a USAF officer, which meant I had been raised in the un-segregated world of the military. (The base teen functions back in the late Fifties were always racially mixed. Heck, I had a major crush on one beautiful black girl, me still too young and dumb to know it was a dangerous, racially fraught role for a white boy.)

Anyway, by 1969 I was ready to write, and over the next year and more I did just that: wrote, threw out, started over, revised, put away, kept thinking, rewrote again, until by 1971 I had a screenplay, Hellhound on My Trail, good enough, I was sure, to sweep Hollywood off its feet. I copyrighted it with the U.S. Government, then packed up and headed off to L.A. to sell it (and me as writer-producer). And thanks to filmmaker Blank, who owed me one and who was off filming somewhere, I had his bungalow to crash in...

(the rest of the story next time)

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