Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Robert Mugge’s Deep Blues

In 1990, you could walk right into Wade Walton’s Big Six Barber Shop in Clarksdale and get a shave, a haircut, maybe even a song from the Blues and civil rights icon, just like Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf once had, back in their day. As a local activist, Walton’s shop had once been bombed during the 1960s, but he had been largely overlooked by the music industry since cutting a few records in the 1960s. He was exactly the sort of real-deal Blues artists music journalist Robert Palmer and Eurythmics guitarist Dave Stewart set out to document in Robert Mugge’s freshly 4K-restored Deep Blues, which opens virtually tomorrow.

If you scratch a rock guitarist with chops, you will probably find Delta Blues in his blood. Stewart is no different from Keith Richards in that respect, so he seems to get along famously with Palmer (who wrote extensively about both Block and rock). They started their Blues tour in North Mississippi, which has its own harder-edged Blues sound, working their way down to the delta.

Their first encounter was with Booker T. Laury, a Blues and Boogie-Woogie pianist, who was a contemporary of Memphis Slim and Sunnyland Slim. He was still attacking the keys with explosive energy, making his rendition of “Memphis Blues” a fitting way to kick-off the film. Their next stop is with R.L. Burnside, whose plaintive vocals and rhythmic guitar sounds on “Jumper on the Line” were about as North Mississippi as you could ever hope to find. When you see his neighbors gather round his porch to listen to him play, you have to wonder if they understood how much European Blues fans would have paid to hear Burnside in such an intimate venue.

Palmer definitely kept it real, capturing Jessie Mae Hemphill performing both with her fife-and-drum band and her juke-joint Blues combo. Sadly, it is clear many Blues artists could not quit their day jobs, because Big Jack Johnson, a.k.a. “The Oilman” still held the day job that inspired his nickname, while Walton was still cutting hair in his barber shop. Weirdly, Walton is the only musician whose performance, an appealingly easy-going take of “Rock Me Baby” is not presented in its entirety. However, Big Jack Johnson’s “Daddy When is Mama Comin’ Home” is definitely one of the film’s highlights.

It is also cool when Mugge and Palmer literally take viewers into the jukes and soak up the ambiance while Junior Kimborough and Roosevelt “Booba” Barnes tear up multiple numbers. Barnes also happened to own the club where he played, on Greenville’s notorious Nelson Street. At the time, Barnes’ Playboy Club was part of the mayor’s campaign to revitalize the historic Blues district into a musical destination, much like Beale Street today. Sadly, that has yet to happen.

Appropriately, the film concludes with Lonnie Pitchford channeling the king of Delta Blues, Robert Johnson, on a appropriately eerie interpretation of “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” and a suitably suggestive “Come on in My Kitchen.” Tragically, Pitchford, who was mentored by Johnson’s protégé, Robert Lockwood Jr., also died far too young, at the age of 33 in 1998.

It is sad to note how many of these great Blues musicians are no longer with us—and to realize how insufficiently their music was recorded and documented. That makes
Deep Blues especially valuable. Someone like Walton should have had standing offers to record his music. (Instead, some of us are still hoping to score an affordable copy of his Bluesville LP online.) As a veteran music documentarian, Mugge knew better than to try anything too cute or too fancy. He just records them playing in a familiar setting. The earthy, blues-drenched results are marvelous. Very highly recommended, Deep Blues starts screening virtually this Wednesday (10/13), via the Metrograph.