Sometime around 1990, Dave Stewart of Eurythmics contacted Robert Palmer — the shambolic music journalist, not the dapper rock star — and got him to be his tour guide through America’s blues country for a short stretch between legs of a Eurythmics’ tour.
Palmer rounded up veteran music documentarian Robert Mugge and a crew and they headed to Memphis, Northern Mississippi and into the Mississippi Delta to meet the surviving, still-playing second generation of African American bluesmen and women.
“Deep Blues” had been the title of Palmer’s 1982 appreciation/history of The Blues in book form, and he revived it for the film that came out of that trip, a movie with a little history, some informal interviews and a lot of glorious live performances — at parties, in juke points, barber shops and radio stations in the heartland of the blues.
The music and performers animate this 1991 documentary, now restored and earning a re-release. It’s a time capsule, capturing a lot of places and more importantly a lot of musicians no longer with us.
Heck, even Palmer, long a New York Times music critic, died at 52 not long after the film came out.
Palmer passes on the etymology of “juke joint,” the history of the “diddley bow,” a wire attached to a pole that some kids learned to “play” before ever picking up a guitar and playing it with a bottle-neck slide. He declares, as he sings a lyrical hotel note about the place’s brown drinking water from a Greenville, Mississippi hotel room, “that there must be something in the water” that made this place the font of one of America’s most important musical art forms.
Here’s Lonnie Pitchford covering Robert Johnson, Junior Kimbrough playing with his band in his juke joint in Chulahoma, Mississippi, Wade Walton, the bluesman barber of Clarksdale, along with such practitioners as Jessie Mae Hemphill, Booker T. Lowry and R.L. Burnside— many of them legends without ever having a record deal.
Many of the places they performed in are gone, but a few survive. And that tiny corner of the public that maintains a passion for the blues ebbs and flows, and seems to be on the wane, now.
But Mugge and Palmer (Stewart went back on tour long before the filming finished) captured many of the lesser known but most authentic keepers of the faith on film and in pristine stereo for “Deep Blues.”
This interviews aren’t the sharpest, the voice-over isn’t book length. But this documentary from when the blues mattered most, when the old women and men who played it were in the process of passing on what they knew to a younger generation on the off-chance that the largely-unchanged places that gave birth to it would hold onto the music a while longer, is not just a relic of a time passed. “Deep Blues” is an invaluable artifact of an authentic American music form, and well worth tracking down for aficionados.
Cast: Robert Palmer, Junior Kimbrough, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Wade Walton, Booba Barnes and Dave Stewart
Credits: Directed by Robert Mugge, voice-over written and delivered by Robert Palmer, based on his book. A Film Movement+ release.
Running time: 1:31