Sunday, March 1, 2020

"Good Morning Blues" (1978) - Deconstructing the Dockery Myth

"B. B. King hosts blues special," Clarksdale Press Register, February 19. 1978.

A 60-minute Mississippi ETV film program about Mississippi blues music from its earliest origins at the turn of the century until World War II debuted on MS Educational Television at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, February 21, 1978. Narrated by well-known Mississippi-born musician B.B. King, the program featured the music of 18 Mississippi blues musicians. 

The filmmakers shot King's narration near Cleveland on the plantation of Will Dockery, because it was the alleged "home of many of the singers in the film." New research into the history of the blues and blues tourism in Mississippi reveals, however, that the identification of Dockery farm as "the birthplace of the blues" was a socially-constructed concept devised by early blues scholars and more contemporary brokers of blues tourism. For more information about the myth of southern redemption through a love of Black music, see Deconstructing the Dockery Myth by ethnomusicologist David Evans.

Good Morning Blues, nevertheless, is one of the most comprehensive collections of Mississippi blues singers ever to appear in one film, according to producer Rob Cooper. Some of the musicians featured in the film were Son House of Lyon, Bukka White of Houston, Nathan Beauregard of Ashland, Houston Stackhouse of Crystal Springs, Big Joe Williams of Crawford, Gus Cannon of Red Banks, Furry Lewis of Greenwood, Johnny Shines, Honey Boy Edwards, Walter Horton, Sam Chatmon of Hollandale, Zula Van Hunt of Memphis, Memphis Ma Rainey of Memphis, Hayes B. McMullen of Tutwiler, and Hacksaw Harney of Jackson. Also featured were the recordings of Willie Brown of Robinsonville, Charley Patton of Bolton, and Robert Johnson of Hazlehurst. The film explores the roots of country blues music, which provided the basis for rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul and much of modern music today. 

Producer Rob Cooper hoped the film would demonstrate the connection between the lived experience of African Americans and the art form of the blues. "The blues is as starkly beautiful as the land its singers lived in," declared Cooper. "It is the purest kind of musical and lyrical expression, the perfect vehicle for communicating the pain and deprivation of the harsh and desolate existence of [African Americans] in the early 1900s. It is purely American art, and the majority of the artists came from right here in Mississippi and went on to influence popular music all over the world." 

An art form born out of a need for expression of the problems unique to African Americans, the poor, and the subjugated, blues compositions were put together with traditional verses handed down through the generations, with personal experiences added, perhaps even the singer's own name in the lyrics. Inspiration for blues music came from love, longing, and pain. The language is poetic, strong and vivid, but, at the same time, simple and unpretentious. 

According to the film's writer Edward Cohen, "Blues music is not an art in the classical, conventional, or sophisticated sense of the word, but is art in its simplest and purest state...The blues is not only a musical form, it is a feeling, a feeling that arose out of the years of slavery, of sharecropping, of the life Black men and women led in the early decades of this century. Blues songs are extremely personal; their subjects are hard times, lost love, the desire to move on to a better place." 

According to executive producer and director Walt Lowe, "I think one of the most significant things that can be said about the blues is what B.B. King states in the script: 'There will always be blues as long as people have problems.'"

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