Peter Guralnick, Robert Santelli, Holly George-Warren and Christopher John Farley (editors), Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues [the companion book to the PBS series] (Amistad/HarperCollins Publishers, 2003)
The film series The Blues grew from the vision of director Martin Scorsese to make a film about this most American of musical genres to an epic seven film series. Each film was created by a different director, who brought his own perspectives, who dealt with his own heroes, and who told the stories that brought him to the blues. As is standard practice these days, as well as offering a vast array of CDs and DVDs to accompany the original PBS broadcast, the marketers of The Blues have provided a hard cover book, "a companion" to the series.
Often these books are little more than an illustrated shooting script. Sometimes they are fleshed out with anecdotes from the making of the programmes. But Amistad's The Blues exists on a different plane than the video series does, entirely.
It's a smaller book than is typical. At just over eight inches by eight inches square, and close to an inch thick, it's a solid and portable package. Under the dust jacket the classic photos start. Front and back of the hard covers you'll find beautifully evocative black and white portraits of well-used guitars, and the hands that played them. Inside, this richness continues. Almost every page has at least one picture, it seems. Some are in colour, some black and white. Some are photographs, others are drawings, paintings, illustrations from record jackets. Every picture tells a story. Then ... there are the stories themselves!
The text is divided into seven portions, which match the titles of the films. But while each film-maker is allowed to describe his film in as many or as few words as he likes the sections are then filled out with material that complements the film-maker's vision. Some of the material is archival, quoted from other books or interviews; much of the material is new, written for this volume. There is a marvelous introductory essay which tells the history of the blues in under a hundred pages. Robert Santelli does a fine job of capturing the essence of the music, and of following its path from Africa, to Mississippi, upriver to Chicago, across to Texas, and beyond.
Many of the weaknesses of the film series are addressed in the book. For instance, there are any number of articles about the women who sang the blues. Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Memphis Minnie and others receive their due. Poets like Langston Hughes, even Julian Bond, wrote about the blues, and their work appears here too. W.C. Handy's tale of his first discovery of a blues guitar picker is recounted.
This (2003) is the Year of the Blues; the United States Congress declared it so. We've been celebrating here at Green Man Review with the unprecedented arrival of blues material, archival and new. The Blues is a gold mine. It is filled to brimming with tales and reminiscences of blues singers ... and journalists ... and film-makers ... and fans. For all of them it's just like Willie Dixon says: "The blues is the roots, everything else is the fruits."