Sometime in late-2006, Roger Stolle of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art in Clarksdale, Mississippi and Jeff Konkel of Broke & Hungry Records, came up with the idea to record a compilation CD to capture the current state of the contemporary Mississippi blues community. The unnamed project soon expanded to include a documentary film, a dream realized with the help of talented filmmaker Damien Blaylock.
Enlisting the help of producer Kari Jones of Mudpuppy Records and guitarist/engineer Bill Abel to record it all with his mobile Big Toe Porta-Studio (his equipment stuffed in the back of a Volvo station-wagon), the five blues fans set out on a journey across Mississippi's famed landscape to document the essence of today's Delta blues. The resulting film, offered here on DVD, is an enlightening look behind the scenes, capturing the region's blues artists at home, in the fields, and in the Mississippi juke-joints that gave the blues its notoriety.
M for Mississippi
M for Mississippi, sub-titled "A Road Trip through the Birthplace of the Blues," opens with a light-hearted intro that provides valuable lessons in documentary filmmaking, especially the example of acquiring financing. The film itself is broken down day-by-day, the crew venturing out in its white Dodge fan to various locations in the region to meet with a select group of artists. Each bluesman is provided a brief vignette that includes an interview and performance, sometimes intercut for maximum impact.
The film opens with Foster Wiley, a/k/a "Mr. Tater," performing in front of Stolle's Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art storefront in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The last of the street-corner Delta bluesmen, Mr. Tater plays for tips from amazed tourists. His unique country blues style portrays a sense of wistfulness to go along with his intelligent humor.
The crew catches up with Terry "Harmonica" Bean at the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, which was opened by actor Morgan Freeman. A one-man band, Bean performs unabashed boogie-woogie blues a la John Lee Hooker. His manic foot-stomping keeps the beat while he pounds his battered guitar and blasts out emotional notes from his harp.
On the infamous Stovall Farm, where the legendary Muddy Waters once lived and toiled, Wesley "Junebug" Jefferson talks about sharecropping. His performance offers up a dark, menacing Delta blues sound similar to Son House, the song riddled with confessional, biographical lyrics.
Days Two & Three
Traveling up to Como, in the Mississippi Hill Country, the crew visits with veteran bluesman R.L. Boyce. Former drummer for the legendary Otha Turner's Rising Star Fife & Drum Band, Boyce is a skilled guitarist in the style of Junior Kimbrough or R.L. Burnside. Boyce is holding a houseparty, and accompanied by guitarist Steve "Lighnin'" Malcolm, the pair get more than a few guests on their feet and dancing to the hypnotic rhythms.
Pat Thomas is a real find - the son of guitarist James "Son" Thomas, the second-generation bluesman is an accomplished guitarist and a folk artist. Thomas clips newspaper articles, and creates amazing sculptures from lumps of clay, but his sound is characterized by a sparse, soulful voice and a complex guitar style. One of the film's funnier moments comes when Thomas, asked about the taste of the red clay residents know as "hill dirt," sometimes eaten by poor Southerners, replies that it "tastes like dirt."
Days Four & Five
Jimmy "Duck" Holmes is the last in the line of blues guitarists playing in the Bentonia School, which features exotic tunings and unusual chord-structure. Although Skip James is, perhaps, the best-known of Bentonia's guitarists, Holmes' association with the Blue Front Café, one of the region's oldest existing juke-joints, has earned the talented blues performer a considerable following of his own. The filmmakers speak with Holmes at the Blue Front, which was opened by his parents in 1948 and which Holmes has operated since the early-1970s.
Sojourning to Renova, Mississippi, we visit with "Cadillac" John Nolden, an old-school acoustic harp player with an expressive voice and gritty harmonica style. After talking a while about the blues, Nolden performs, accompanied by skilled stylist Bill Abel on guitar.
Meeting with Robert "Bilbo" Walker at Sarah's Kitchen in Clarksdale, the flamboyant performer talks about the origins of his outrageous showmanship as he jumps-n-jives across the stage. Walker's performance of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" is provided sans vocals (at the insistence of Berry's lawyers, who wouldn't provide licensing for the song), but shines with a display of his original duckwalk guitar style.
Days Six & Seven
Based in Memphis, but raised on a Mississippi farm, Robert "Wolfman" Belfour performs at Red's Lounge in Clarksdale, his hard, droning, mesmerizing guitarplay complimented by mournful, low-moaning and growled vocals that evoke the raw nature of the Delta blues style.
Another find here is 80-year-old veteran bluesman L.C. Ulmer, an obscure artist that has nevertheless honed his unique style over better than 50 years of performing. Ulmer's sophisticated guitar style blends blues with country twang and rocking tendencies. His warm vocals range from a whisper to a shout as the singer explains that the "blues will never die."
The Reverend's Bottom Line
M for Mississippi is a welcome musical travelogue, successfully proving that a wealth of blues music talent remains in the Magnolia State. An obvious labor of love for Stolle, Konkel, and the others, the filmmakers have crafted a beautiful film on a limited budget. The DVD includes the film's original trailer, a behind-the-scenes feature, deleted and extended scenes, and a discography and photo gallery.
Cinematographer Damien Blaylock and sound engineer Bill Abel do admirable jobs with their field recordings of the various artists, capturing the heart and soul of the musicians with once-in-a-lifetime moments of candor and insight. Blues is the common denominator among all the performers, and M for Mississippi presents the artists' fascinating stories of hardscrabble lives with reverence and respect. Both this M for Mississippi DVD and its accompanying soundtrack CD are highly recommended for any fan of Mississippi Delta blues music.
(Broke & Hungry Records/Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art/Mudpuppy Recordings, released November 18, 2008)