Blues, as a musical form, isn't complicated. What can make it intricate and more interesting is the character and the life history of the person who is performing it. Sure, I could sing you Robert Johnson's Stones in My Passway. But I don't have anything like the passway which that man had, let alone his stones.
"If they sing for you, and you're smart enough to listen, these people will change your life." Director Daniel Cross is speaking about the subjects of his rich, ground-level documentary I Am the Blues. The Montrealer filmed players and singers on their own turf in Mississippi and Louisiana. We see people such as Jimmy (Duck) Holmes, a rough-cut Delta bluesman and charismatic operator of the Blue Front Café, a real down-home operation. Holmes plays the blues – a chugging, ragged gut-bucket kind – but inhabits the form as well.
The Blue Front Café has been run by the Holmes family since 1948. It originally catered to the cotton-field crowd during an era of segregation. Duck Holmes took over the informal business in 1970; it is a uniquely African-American institution.
While Holmes is an obscure blues figure, the film's central subject, Bobby Rush, has a much higher profile. An industrious, handsome and roguish octogenarian, Rush sat down with the documentarian Cross in the lobby of the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema recently to talk about I Am the Blues.
"I'm the last of a kind," says Rush, with pride and misgivings both. "I'm proud to be me. I'm proud to be a blues singer. And I'm loving being a black blues singer."
What Rush means is that he is, ironically enough, a bit of an outlier in the contemporary blues music scene, which is heavily populated by white audiences and white-run blues societies. "You don't go to Mississippi to hear the blues," Cross explains. "You go to folk festivals in Norway."
Rush, however, still tours the same Deep South "chitlin' circuit" that players such as the late B.B. King had abandoned years ago. "I've got the nerve to do it," says Rush. "I'd like to cross over to a white audience, too, but I don't want to cross out my own people to do it."
The kind of performers such as Rush who play to predominately black audiences are rare. And not only is that audience old and dwindling, blues music isn't in fashion among black musicians to the degree it once was. "A lot of guys younger than me are shying away from it," Rush says. "To them, the blues is something less. They don't want to be involved."
Rush was featured in Richard Pearce's 2003 documentary The Road to Memphis, one of the seven films included in the PBS series Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues. Cross's doc shares much in common with Road to Memphis, but watching it made me think just as much of Beasts of the Southern Wild, a beautifully strange drama from 2012 involving a Louisiana bayou community in danger of being wiped out by flooding.
"Everybody loses the thing that made them, it's even how it's supposed to be in nature," says one of the Southern Wild characters. "The brave men stay and watch it happen – they don't run."
Rush and the others of I Am the Blues are those brave men and women. They don't run.
"There's a joyous resonance to the music they make, when you know all the things they've lived through," says Cross. "They're giving back, and yet at the same time, they're largely ignored. And they're soon to be gone."