Q&A: Montreal director shines light on Louisiana's neglected blues history
This image shows a scene from Daniel Cross's 'I Am the Blues' film.
David Friend, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, June 1, 2016 7:21AM EDT
TORONTO -- The last of Louisiana's original blues musicians are dying, but one Montreal filmmaker hopes his new documentary will bring them awareness before it's too late.
Daniel Cross's "I Am the Blues" is a breezy ode to the men and women who picked up guitars, stomped their feet and sang their hearts out in the name of the blues.
With many of the musicians now in their 80s, the film is an urgent tribute to the players who frequented the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta.
Cross has been a blues fan for decades and fondly recalls a teenage encounter with harmonica legend Frank Frost and his touring caravan of musicians at the Vancouver Folk Festival.
"I Am the Blues" begins a week-long run at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto and the Loft in Coburg, Ont., on Friday. Upcoming dates are scheduled in Winnipeg, Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa and other Canadian cities throughout June.
Cross and blues musician Bobby Rush, who's featured in the film, spoke to The Canadian Press about making a film steeped in the musical history of the deep south.
CP: It's surprising a Montrealer would shoot a documentary on Louisiana blues. Bobby, what convinced you that Dan was the right storyteller?
Rush: When Dan called me ... I said, "You're crazy coming out here from Canada. What are you going to find?" I saw quickly where he was going. He saw something nobody else (did) because he came to Louisiana and recorded things people in the state -- and even myself -- never thought about doing.
Cross: It's tricky, I'm from Canada, they're from the South. I'm white, they're black. I'm 50, they're 80. Bobby took me under his wing. He realized the value of (the project) in his own life and what would become of a film people would see.
CP: Working with Bobby opened doors to meeting underappreciated blues artists. Why is it important to tell their stories now?
Cross: If you want to know about the last 100 years (in) America -- warts and all, racism and all -- listen to the blues and talk to the people who played. Learn about the history, not only the things they endured, but the things they created such as rock 'n' roll ...
Rush: ... and gospel. 'Cause see, the blues had a baby and they named it rock 'n' roll. Rock 'n' roll had a baby and they named it acid music. And out of that came country western, ya know.
CP: So it's about tracing modern music back to the blues?
Rush: The young guys singing rap, or whatever they're doing, (it's) nothing but the blues. They just don't know they're singing the blues. I'm not endorsing what rappers do or say with their pants down, using the b-word.... So we've got to educate them.
CP: "I Am the Blues" forgoes interviews with blues celebrities in favour of musicians casual fans might've not heard. Why no big names?
Cross: I didn't want to work with management. I found smaller musicians who had been playing blues all their life, many of them very accomplished, but for one reason or another have stepped back from stardom to live at home.
Rush: Most of the guys who have managers ... bypass people like Dan who try to do a film about the nitty gritty because the ones who can say it, won't say it.
CP: You mean tell the truth?
Rush: They're owned by record companies ... I believe if he went through people who were managed, he would never (have a film) like this. Everybody don't come to be Eric Clapton or B.B. King or (myself), or whatever. That doesn't meant they're any less a musician.
CP: Bobby, in the film you tell a story where you were forced by white club owners to perform behind a curtain. They wanted audiences to hear you, but not see you. Eventually you were allowed to perform out front, but your band still had to hide. What was that like for you?
Rush: The hurtin' thing of that was when they separated me from the band and said, "You's OK, Bobby Rush, but not the band. You're one black guy we can tolerate, but we cannot tolerate seven black guys." That's a hurtin' situation because they're patting me on the back saying, "You're better than they are." They were separating me from the guys who have been loyal to me -- my family.
CP: When did you start to see a social change?
Rush: It didn't change. You have to remember, everything changed but remained the same. You were out from behind the curtain but you had rules and regulations on paper of what you can't do because you're a black musician. It was still a curtain.
CP: Dan, one of your goals on the film was to observe rather than simply ask questions. Why was it important for the musicians to tell their own story?
Cross: It's a slice of real life that influenced us all, and changed us all, and it's about to die. These people lived with massive amounts of prejudice.
Rush: That's right.
Cross: And they weren't filmed 50 years ago because they were black.
Rush: That's right.
Dan: We don't have (historical footage) we should have of Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf, (where it's) not just being told by the Rolling Stones or Eric Clapton that they're good. I don't want Eric Clapton to tell me someone's good -- (a blues player) who has already done so much. Let them have the authority and empowerment (for audiences) to see them and learn directly from them.
-- This interview has been edited and condensed.