Ken Burns postulates that America is fundamentally about baseball, the founding fathers, and jazz. Martin Scorsese's artistic output suggests he has a less academic view: America is a country of brutes, gangs, and the blues. Marty might be closer to the truth. The director of Raging Bull and Gangs of New York takes on the blues in a series of documentaries airing on PBS beginning September 28; the series is accompanied by an astounding 26 CDs, including this five-disc set that covers the history of recorded blues.
If you're new to the blues, A Musical Journey provides a great way to begin a trip into blues lore, transporting you from the Mississippi Delta to St. Louis to Memphis to Texas, with several connections in Chicago. One thing jumps out: Blues hasn't changed much since the days of W.C. Handy. The new version of "Sweet Home Chicago" by modern day bluesmen Corey Harris and Keb Mo' showcases the talent of both artists, but Robert Johnson could have recorded the same thing in 1930. While jazz has splintered so many times that the question "What is jazz?" has become almost unanswerable, the blues is still based on twelve bars of a basic chord progression, whether it's played on the piano, an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, or a harmonica.
Scorsese's set does a fairly good job representing the genre's big names, though it never dwells on any single artist. Robert Johnson, Son House, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and John Lee Hooker are there, but only Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf get more than one track. West Coast Blues gets its props with Percy Mayfield's smooth crooning on "Please Send Me Someone to Love" and Lowell Fulson's cool guitar on "Reconsider Baby," among others. But there are still unfortunate omissions: No Willie Dixon or R.L. Burnside, for example. Current artists breaking new ground are also ignored, like the hip-hop blues of Chris Thomas King and Otis Taylor's socially conscious tunes. And why would you ever include Fleetwood Mac's "Black Magic Woman" and leave out Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones? Alas, even Scorsese has lapses in judgment: He did direct the video for Michael Jackson's "Bad," after all.
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