Discovering the Roots of American Music
Directed by Edward Gillan. Australia 2004
DVD (Region 0 PAL) - Cube Media DVD5
The DVD, or Digital Video Disc, is a relatively novel format for the presentation of traditional music. Over the last six months I've noted the appearance of several releases, including The American Folk Blues Festival (2 volumes), none of which have been reviewed as yet on this website. After viewing the latest in this line, Desperate Man Blues, I decided it was high time to offer up some comment on this interesting development.
Ostensibly, this DVD contains a short feature documentary (52 minutes duration) about the famed American 78rpm record collector Joe Bussard. One of the advantages of the DVD format, however, is the option of adding 'extras' to the main course - featurettes, interviews, deleted scenes, essays, photo galleries etc. - and in this case the producers have been extremely generous with all manner of audiovisual paraphernalia.
First off though I must to admit I am not especially knowledgeable in the musical area covered - American 78s from the celebrated heyday of folk, country, gospel, jazz, cajun, 'hillbilly' and blues recordings dating from roughly 1925 to 1935. However I've been a blues fan, in a fairly unsystematic way, since my teenage years and got seriously interested in traditional folk music from listening repeatedly to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music when it was reissued on CD. That said, I can't really offer a detailed level of knowledge about the arcana of this music and its presentation here, though there is still plenty to bring to your attention.
As many of you may know (I didn't myself), Joe Bussard is one of the most important American collectors of these special and often extremely rare 78 records. As well as saving these discs from oblivion he has generally made them available via his various radio shows, for CD re-issues and for in-house visitors to listen to (though definitely not to touch!) Why are these records so special, apart from their simple rarity? In Joe's words:
“The 1920s and 30s, at that particular period of time, there was more traditional music preserved on commercial phonograph records than at any other time in the history of recordings.”He puts this down to a number of factors, including the dropping price of record players, the new discovery of a huge listening market, increased sound fidelity in recording and the general tendency of American rural communities to be bursting with great musicians and music-making. The true heyday he dates from 1925, with the introduction of electrical recording techniques through to the early 1930s, when the Great Depression saw a rapid decline in sales of such records. By this stage the musical styles and commercial processes had changed drastically, although much music of similar character was produced for many more decades.
Joe Bussard's interest in this music began at the age of 11 after hearing a Jimmie Rodgers record in the late 1940s. He soon began to hunt out old 78s from residents of his home town in Maryland and quickly became hooked on the magical qualities of music from this earlier period. Uninterested in the contemporary pop and early rock 'n' roll music of the day, his search for 78s developed into an overriding obsession which really kicked in when he got a drivers licence at the age of 16. From here on he began to canvas the country around by car, road by road, house by house, asking people for what they mostly considered 'junk' - old records in dusty boxes and backyard sheds, on the verge of being thrown out in favour of more fashionable music and the latest domestic appliance, the television set. These record-hunting expeditions would often take several days or a week, “from dawn 'til dusk” going down every little country or mountain lane he could find. The most fertile area of collection was West Virginia, especially in coal-mining communities where people had had the extra disposable income to spend on records. This continued up 'til the late 1970s by which time the pickings had gotten rather too thin to carry on in a concerted way - but by then Bussard already had a collection of some 25 000 discs, including some almost unique items.
We first meet Joe in Desperate Man Blues beating time to a blues instrumental in his basement sanctum, the walls lined with discs, record sleeves, photos and hi-fi and recording equipment. Actually he's not just beating time, but shaking, twisting and grinning with utter enthusiasm for the rhythm and instrumental prowess of the performer (Gitfiddle Jim), all the while puffing on an enormous cigar. This passionate response to music is evident throughout the film and is an inspiring complement to the detailed knowledge he offers us. Most MT readers will take no convincing that this music is great, but Joe's evangelical fervour for its inventiveness, virtuosity, emotional depth and sheer fun is a nice reminder and may well spark some curiosity among general audiences. For Joe this music is a few steps removed from being a serious hobby - it is his life and his 'cause'. He minces no words when talking about contemporary music style, stating bluntly, “there is no music today” and goes on to discuss how “Rock is the cancer of music” in many cultures around the world, displacing home-made varieties. Even back in the 1950s he considered Rock 'n' Roll “real kindergarten stuff”. Whether one agrees with this or not, it is obviously made without any real bitterness on Joe's part, only regret for what young people “have to listen to … out of peer pressure”. His daughter Susannah communicates an amusing anecdote about how as a teenager she 'rebelled' from her childhood of listening to roots music and brought a John Lennon LP into the house -a short time later it was sailing out over the back lawn. There's true parental concern for one's child's musical mental health!
The film continues to cover his various collecting experiences, with some colourful anecdotes along the way. Music-writer Eddie Dean also gives a good outside perspective on the man. Although other expert commentators could probably have been recruited to appear, the film retains a gratifyingly small-scale feel by using only Dean in this way.
The other major area covered is Joe's part-time occupation as a local radio DJ, in which he broadcasts songs from his collection and makes available tapes from his archives. Interestingly his radio career began at an early age with a pirate station transmitting from a shed, until one day he got a knock on the door from two Federal officials. They admitted they'd held off shutting his illegal operation down for 6 months because they liked the music he played so much! (After a quick internet search I discovered that pick-your-own-track compilations can be ordered from Joe via his website: www.vintage78s.com)
Overall, I would judge the film to be entertaining and ultimately successful in capturing Joe Bussard's live-wire personality, while also covering the broad facts of the music and his activities. The pace is laidback and the views of Joe's domestic universe are complemented with a host of archival footage from both the original musical period and a small amount from the record-hunting days of the 1950s. Fittingly, the film climaxes with Bussard following-up a couple of phone tips about old 78s. The outcome to this I will leave a surprise.
As to why the film is called Desperate Man Blues, I am not sure. Such a song (by John Fahey or otherwise) is not played in the film and Joe Bussard himself doesn't seem a particularly desperate man. On the contrary, the whole tone of the film is relaxed and quietly celebratory - perhaps it was simply a catchy title.
Before moving on to discuss the 'extras' on this DVD, here's a list of some of the tracks played during the film:
Lewis Brothers - Bull at the WagonThere are also film clips of Clarence Ashley playing The Coo Coo Bird and Son House playing Death Letter Blues (included in its entirety in the 'Outtakes'.)
Charley Patton - It Won't Be Long
Billy Banks and His Orchestra - Bugle Call Rag
Lane Hardin - Hard Times Blues
Uncle Dave Macon - Whoop 'Em Up Cindy
Robert Johnson - Crossroads Blues
Down Home Boys - Original Stack-o-Lee Blues
Gitfiddle Jim - Paddlin' Blues
Son House - Death Letter Blues (+ spoken intro); March 1968; 6m:10s.
John Lee Hooker - I'll Never Get Out of the Blues Alive; February 1970; 4m:40s.
Eva Parker - Careless Love
Furry Lewis - Why Don't You Come Back Home
Ben and Valley Kane (?) with Scotty Stone - 4 tracks from a 1956 field recording
Barn Parker - He is My Friend and Guide
Blue Sky Boys - The Last Mile of the Way
Roy Acuff - This World Can't Stand Long
Flatt and Scruggs - I'm Working on the Road
Blind Blake - Hastings StreetOverall, this is a splendid set of extra features and the producers should be complemented on supplementing their short documentary with such an array. The extra music tracks are especially welcome. I should mention that a small booklet is also provided which lightly summarises the film. Apart from a few niggles (like the lack of credits on the extra tracks) it's good value for money - although perhaps a weblink to Joe Bossard's website would also have been nice. The overall design of the cover and menus is more than adequate.
Charley Patton - High Water Everywhere Pts 1 & 2
JH Birch - My Heart Keeps Singing
Washington Phillips - Take Your Burden to the Lord
Well, what does this bode for the possibility of other traditional music-related releases on the DVD format? I tend to think that, if carefully designed, the DVD could provide quite a fertile area for those creating such products. Where I think this particular DVD is most interesting is in presenting a combination of certain materials that could not come together in any other way. Putting a documentary film, archival photos, rare filmed performances and audio tracks together on one disc has some exciting possibilities.
Of course, the CD will still be preferable as far as music is concerned, basically for its simplicity. Likewise, print media remains far easier to grapple with as a dependable reference than trying to navigate through the onscreen menu of a DVD. And in some ways, the extra commentary and scene outtakes on a DVD like Desperate Man Blues are pretty lightweight - such information as they contain would be more coherent if presented in a book (though less entertaining). Perhaps this partly to do with the documentary film genre, which never really needs to contain comprehensive coverage of a given topic - instead it usually summarises the field in a compelling way within a certain timeframe. Solid contextual background, to which one would come back to repeatedly, is obviously still best presented in a book.
But one of the highlights of this examining this DVD was the opportunity to see footage of Son House performing, something I personally would never get to see in any other way. This has impressed on me how one can listen to the recordings of a singer for many years and still miss some crucial aspects of their music. Until you see Son House playing, his powerful physical gestures, playing stance and performer's skill are not readily apparent. (This was also the revelation of the American Folk Blues Festival discs, for one born well after the event: being able to see actual live performances by Willie Dixon, Howlin Wolf, Lonnie Johnson et al.) The point is that a performance by a traditional singer is obviously more than just the sounds they create which can be captured on audio tape - it is wrapped up in the gestures they make, their facial expressions, the eye-contact with the audience, the contrast in their demeanour when they are singing and not, etc. etc.
I think the inclusion of this footage indicates where the real innovation of the DVD may lie. As stated above, this is in compiling together a range of archival materials which are otherwise inaccessible - films, photos, artwork, interviews. Imagine a release which includes representative filmed performances by the Copper Family or Fred Jordan (they surely must exist), coupled with extra audio tracks and interviews with musicians, writers and family or a documentary, if one exists. Now put this in a plastic slip-sleeve in the back of a well-written book on the singer(s) - and wouldn't that be a great release!
Desperate Man Blues is at present only available from certain websites in Australia. Here is one reliable vendor I personally know of: www.vidzofoz.com.au There is also the official website: www.desperatemanblues.com.au which seems to have the best price - AU$29.95.
A soundtrack CD for Desperate Man Blues (not heard) has also been released and can also be obtained over the internet for about AU$26.95. Here is the complete tracklist:
Long Cleve Reed and Papa Harvey Hull (Down Home Boys) - Original Stack-o-Lee Blues
Blind Willie Johnson - Dark was the Night Cold was the Ground
Lonnie Johnson - Death Valley is Just Half Way to My Home
The Carter Family - John Hardy was a Desperate Little Man
Floyd Ming And His Pep Steppers - Indian War Whoop
Jimmy Murphy - We Live a Long Time to Get Old
Billy Banks And His Orchestra - Bugle Call Rag
Joe Hill Louis - When I'm Gone
Gitfiddle Jim - Paddlin' Blues
Stripling Brothers - Lost Child
Lane Hardin - Hard Times Blues
Son House - Death Letter Blues
Clarence Ashley - The Coo Coo Bird
Charley Patton - It Won't Be Long
Blind Willie McTell - Statesboro Blues
Uncle Dave Macon - Whoop 'Em up Cindy
Uncle Bunt Stephens - Sail Away Ladies
Tennessee Messarounders - Mandolin Blues
Michael Brown - 9.1.05
Wellington, New Zealand