It’s probably fair to say that filmmaker Daniel Cross is obsessed with the blues— in a great way. Thanks to his love of the musical genre and its strong and talented artists and rich history, the world now has a slice of the past and a greater sense of blues power and influence. Cross’ documentary I Am The Blues, now available on DVD, highlights the remarkable journeys of blues musicians Bobby Rush, Barbara Lynn, Henry Gray, Carol Fran, Little Freddie King, Lazy Lester, Bilbo Walker, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, RL Boyce, LC Ulmer, Lil’ Buck Sinegal and their friends and the special legacy of their amazing music.
I caught up with Cross to find out more about I Am The Blues and his inspiration for diving into this music-driven project.
As a documentary filmmaker, you’ve covered many fascinating topics. Why the blues?
When I was a teenager the “World’s Largest Winnebago” was bringing a caravan of blues-devils to perform at the Vancouver Folk Festival. I headed to Jericho Beach hours before the opening act and spotted blues harmonica legend Frank Frost. Dressed up in polyester showman black, he was one of the blues-devils I dreamed of meeting. I nervously said “hi.” He said, “Boy! Where’s the liquor store?” Off we went to the Kitsilano (a neighborhood in Vancouver, British Columbia) branch where he handed me an empty liquor box and proceeded to fill it up with 40s (bottles) of vodka. After safely delivering the case of booze, I was christened an honorary roadie and spent the week inside that Winnebago listening to the most incredible blues music and stories. At the time, I wasn’t a filmmaker, but this experience motivated me to become a documentary filmmaker and taught me the beauty of first-person lived experiences, a storytelling approach that my films are renowned for.
So, today I am fulfilling a dream of mine in making this film about the last remaining blues musicians, mainly in their 80s, documenting their historic songs and fantastic stories, filming the last originals before time runs out.
Over the past three years I have filmed throughout Louisiana and Mississippi with many of the last original blues musicians, who, despite being inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, had to give up their music careers to get a job and make a living. Prejudiced against by the color of their skin, they were relegated to the ghettoized corners of society and largely forgotten. Today these musicians are once again being rediscovered and celebrated for their immense talent. They are not only busy recording and performing in the juke joints of the Chitlin’ Circuit but also as headliners at music festivals around the world. With such immense life experiences they are important characters to document and help us better understand the last 100 years of American history.
With their determination and ability to survive and flourish, their life stories are testimonials that empower all of us. The musicians recorded in I am The Blues are gifted storytellers who by singing the songs of their life are able to capture the raw imagery of humanity as only a blues song can.
They stole my heart. Let them steal yours. Now the last are in their 80s or older and I knew I better make a film in their honor or I would forever be pissed at myself, so I did and it is I Am The Blues.
Documentary filmmakers are known for digging deep, but did writing, directing and producing this film, leave you in a different place when it comes to music and the genre?
I love the blues now more than ever, having a deeper friendship with these musicians helps me to better connect and feel the “blues” when I hear the real deal music. They are very generous people. Producing this film was very straight forward. The key for me was knowing from the beginning that my objective was to work direct with the musicians and NOT with managers. Also, I wanted to film the musicians in their geographical homes/hometowns around their friends, family, their dogs, on the front porch stoop. Being involved in all three areas of the production allowed for clarity of direction and simplicity.
During the filmmaking process, what most surprised you when it came to the blues and its players?
What surprised me was their openness, honesty and acceptance towards me and the presence of the camera. I am Canadian, living in Montreal, so I came from away, yet they were polite welcoming and inclusive, allowing me open access. They are really special people— full of vim and vigor, a “joie de vivre” that is contagious. For all the racism and exclusion they went through in their lives they are very positive and profound, with big hearts and warm souls. This film is very positive and uplifting, it has real energy, audiences come out really excited, engaged and awake. What I think happens is these characters fill your soul with their spirit and it rocks you positive.
You have captured the timelessness and importance of the blues at a time when many of the influencers are gone or have more than half a century under their belts. The documentary certainly offers audiences a rich history lesson. What do you think is the most important takeaway message from I Am The Blues?
The blues will never die, it is essential in all good music. As Bobby Rush explains, the rappers have the blues, they just experience it differently because times have changed. For me, this film gives you the last chance to meet 80-something-year-old musicians who are the last musicians alive to have lived the blues and experienced sharecropping, jukes etc.— a lifestyle directly associated with the origins of the country blues. So, this film becomes a very valuable historical film, shot in the current day, without any archive, yet still documenting one of the most American of accomplishments…the blues.
Nancy Berk, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, author, comic and entertainment analyst. The host of the showbiz podcast Whine At 9, Nancy digs a little deeper as she chats with fascinating celebrities and industry insiders. Her book College Bound and Gagged: How to Help Your Kid Get into a Great College Without Losing Your Savings, Your Relationship, or Your Mind can be seen in the feature film Admission starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd.
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