Blues You Can Use

A new documentary captures "the last generation of authentic bluesmen" on film

 Hellbent and Blue is a recently completed documentary on St. Louis blues that attempts to capture for posterity the words and actions of this city's venerable stable of blues legends, those same musicians you'll regret missing if you fail to see them before they retire. The documentary, which runs a half-hour, was directed by Matt Schneider and recent Wash. U. grad James Mann and filmed at various clubs around town. It's both a love letter to and a requiem for the city's rich blues tradition.

Explains Mann: "I went down to BB's (Jazz, Blues & Soups) one Tuesday night to watch Tommy Bankhead play. I got down there a little early -- or he was a little late -- and I was sitting at the bar drinking a water, and in walks Tommy Bankhead -- rolling before him was an oxygen tank, a couple guys behind him carrying a guitar. I was just watching this guy as he slowly made his way to the front. When he walked in, I really didn't think that that was the guy who was going to be performing.

"When he begins his show a little while later, he's this completely different person onstage. He's rocking back and forth, singing from his heart and just playing. It all really blew me away, and I think it was the dichotomy between the man and the musician that struck an interest in my mind.

James Mann, co-director of Hellbent and Blue: "The people in the film are the last generation of authentic bluesmen."
Jay Fram
James Mann, co-director of Hellbent and Blue: "The people in the film are the last generation of authentic bluesmen."
Fred Boettcher
Bob Reuter
Fred Boettcher

From there, says Mann, the seed of an idea blossomed, and he proceeded to contact the parties involved to see whether he could wrangle a few interviews. "We were kind of lucky," he says. "Somewhere in that summer (1998), we set up a show that was a sort of all-star jam. It had Henry Townsend performing, James Crutchfield, Tommy Bankhead, Bennie Smith. Big Bad Smitty couldn't make it. Before that show began, we did a kind of roundtable discussion with the artists. I didn't set that up; John May (of the St. Louis Blues Society) set that up. We worked together to organize it, and then he went and made all the appropriate deals. We brought in the equipment and the crew, and we conducted interviews."

Though the film barely scratches the surface of the St. Louis blues, that's to be expected; it's only a half-hour long, and that amount of time could well be devoted to a few years in the life of each subject (the film features footage of Townsend, Bankhead, Oliver Sain, Smith, Crutchfield and Big George Brock, in addition to the insights of the eternal Gabriel, longtime St. Louis blues and R&B DJ). But it's a dense half-hour, filled with thoughts on the history of this city's blues stretching back 60 years.

"The St. Louis-style blues," says Townsend at one point, "is not alone the St. Louis style. It has to do with a mixed thing coming from the South. Each Southern country -- Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia -- they all deviated slightly with the blues. St. Louis got to be a mixing pot. Most of the people that migrated here got together and played, and it had to do with mixing the sounds up."

Brock brags of his club, long since shuttered, the New Club Caravan, which, he says, packed in up to 1,000 people a night in the '50s and '60s, bringing in the best blues talent in the world: Albert King, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed. Adds Sain, "We were playing two nights a week to 700-1,000 a night, every week. That's deep, man, for a local band. Trust me, that don't happen today. And we were doing that every week, for years."

The legacy of the St. Louis blues is well represented in Hellbent and Blue, although, ultimately, it begs for a bigger, longer treatment. Says Mann: "The people in the film are the last generation of authentic bluesmen, and we're capturing these guys a little late in their lives. Most of them are past their prime but still playing real well, but not what they used to be doing. And something about the city itself seemed to mirror that same sentiment. I don't want to call St. Louis a city past its prime, but I was doing a lot of photography at the time down on East Delmar and close up into North St. Louis, and you look at those places, and you look at the architecture and the layout, and it's like, 'Wow -- this place must have really been happening at some point in time.' And you look at it now, and, well, it's kind of on oxygen."

The film is not yet available for purchase -- that's about a month away -- but interested parties can request copies when they become available by e-mailing [email protected]

FROM THE LOOP, AND WE'RE PROUD: It's for real: St. Louis' Nelly has gone nationwide: His debut single, "Country Grammar," is spending its second week as the nation's No. 1 hip-hop single, a first for our city's rap scene. Even more impressive, though, is the legs the track displays on the most important singles chart in the land, the Billboard Hot 100. There, in its sixth week, "Country Grammar" jumped from No. 55 to No. 37, a huge leap for a debut single (the Hot 100 combines the successes of singles in all genres; right now "Country Grammar" is positioned above superstars Kid Rock, the Backstreet Boys, Faith Hill and the 504 Boys, among others). MTV has added the video to its regular rotation.

Next Page »