Film Review: I Am the Blues

Engrossing, sympathetic documentary about Southern blues musicians takes the time to get to know its subjects.
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Years in the making, I Am the Blues crisscrosses the deep South to spotlight rural blues musicians. Deliberately paced and intimate, it honors an aging generation holding onto traditions that threaten to disappear.

Canadian filmmaker Daniel Cross and his small crew focus on two cities, Bentonia and Tutwiler, Mississippi, once hotbeds of juke joints and barbeques, now quiet backwaters filled with abandoned rail lines and boarded-up storefronts. They also follow Bobby Rush, a recent Grammy winner, as he drives to engagements, his stories about the past and present spilling out over the miles.

Stories are the most memorable aspect of the documentary. Jimmy "Duck" Holmes talks about his Blue Front Cafe, a nightclub he's run for 43 years. Barbara Lynn recalls how her mother chaperoned her as she toured to support her hit "You'll Lose a Good Thing." Freddie King turns a cigar box he finds in a ditch into a guitar, using hairs from a horse tail for strings. Buck Sinegal explains how he improvises: "I can't play it again if they ask me, something else will come up."

I Am the Blues doesn't provide much history or context. It simply watches as singers, guitarists and harmonica players gather in doorways, backyards and living rooms to play songs that stretch back a hundred years or more. The music here is almost all what was once called country blues, as opposed to the electrified urban blues that developed in Chicago after World War II. Genres fold and bend, styles merge and evolve, held together by the themes of loss, hurt and acceptance that define the blues. Cajun influences creep in, even country and pop.

If the musicians are chasing the ghosts of Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf, Cross chases his own ghosts. Les Blank, for example, whose The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins set the standard for country blues docs over fifty years ago. Maybe that's why I Am the Blues follows too many tangents, indulges in too many pretty landscapes, slows down for too many scrambled tales.

But that process also allows Cross and his crew to capture pure magic. Here's Lazy Lester, whose "Naggin' Woman" was a covered by guitarist Dave Davies of The Kinks back in the 1960s, turning Merle Haggard's country weepie "Sing Me Back Home" into a blues lament. Henry Gray jamming on the piano to "Lucky Lucky Man." Reverend John Wilkins softly singing a killer version of "Poor Boy," called "Prodigal Son" here in deference to his church setting. The late L.C. Ulmer playing the first song he ever learned. For blues fans, these are irreplaceable moments.

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