For the most part, I find BBC documentaries about American music often perfunctory and somewhat condescending - ‘the Yanks did it first, but the Brits do it better’- attitude. However, when I first saw “Blues America” in 2013, I thought is was one of the best produced, factual pieces I ever saw about Blues.
I recently, viewed it again, and glancing at the Youtube comments, there were the usual grips and complements. However, as far as the gripes go, they mainly were about not including musicians, but you can only include so much in a two hour documentary covering over a hundred years of Blues.
The documentary focused mainly on Mississippi Delta Blues, the electrification of Blues, and it’s evolution into Rock and Roll.
There’s all kinds of regional Blues styles that came out of America, and it would be a mammoth project to cover them all. As an overview, “Blues America” was a brilliantly produced piece of work.
The producers of “Blues America” stuck to coherent storyline and didn’t get bogged down in trivia, and they stayed focused on the influence of Mississippi Delta Blues on popular music. When producing a documentary of that nature, it’s easy to head down side roads and lose your direction.
Jazz, Blues, and Ragtime are uniquely American idioms. However, the Blues had the most profound effect on modern popular music, and even Jazz, during the Twentieth Century.
The guitar accompaniment was the focal point of Mississippi Delta Blues. Back in the late 1940s, Bluesmen were the first to fully embrace and explore the use of the electric guitar and innovate its use beyond single string leads or a rhythm backup.
They often used lead and rhythm guitars interplaying playing off one another in a conversational, call and response style.
Blues guitarists incorporated bass runs, and often switched from rhythm to lead in a heartbeat.
They were also instrumental in innovating effects such as distortion and incorporated them into the music.
What is considered the first Rock and Roll tune, “Rocket 88” recorded by (credited to) Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats in 1951, was the first time a fuzz tone’ effect was used on a recording. (The band was actually Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm - Brenston was Turner’s saxophone player.)
Elmore James modified his amplifiers to get his signature sound on the slide guitar back in the early 1950s.
Pat Hare was the first to over amplify his guitar and use power chords playing heavily distorted licks.
Muddy Waters (Mckinley Morganfield) is credited with forming the first electric ensemble incorporating electric and rhythm, lead, and bass guitars - along with the amplified harmonica of Little Walter Jacobs - it was a revolutionary concept that changed music forever.
When Little Walter Jacobs played his harmonica through an amplifier; it took the instrument into a totally different dimension.
Amplified Blues even called for new recording techniques innovated at Chess and Sun Records in the early 1950s.
When the first electric bass guitars were recorded, it caused the needle to jump off the track of the wax master.
The Jazz musicians didn’t fully embrace the electric ensemble concept until the late 1960s when Miles Davis broke the mold with the album, “Bitches Brew.”
I often feel fortunate to have come along when Country Blues was evolving into the electric ensemble which was the foundation that shaped the music we listen to today.
If you’re a musician, not into Blues, you should watch “American Blues” because it will be a revelation as to how Blues influenced what you do today.
If you just dig music, it’s an entertaining and informative documentary.
If you’re just prejudiced about “Those old Blues,” open your mind a little and you might just discover something new.