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Jack Goodstein, blogcritics.corg
Seattle Post-Intellegencer, April 2011

Unlike the other seven remastered DVD’s in the Masters of American Music series which concentrate on one significant jazz musician—Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Bluesland: A Portrait in American Music is devoted to the history of one particular musical genre, the blues (surprised?). Also unlike the others in the series which run about an hour, Bluesland has a running time of about eighty five minutes. Finally, unlike the others in the newly released second set, it has an on screen host in the smooth toned and sometimes overly emphatic Keith David. What it has in common with the others in this excellent documentary series is a wealth of rare and exciting musical performances.

It traces the history of the blues from its Southern roots in the cotton fields of Mississippi and the honky tonks in New Orleans to Kansas City where night clubs flourished in an open city that was flouting the prohibition laws. Then, when mechanization in the Southern agricultural fields sent a flurry of job seekers up north, especially to Chicago, the blues followed with them, and from there traveled to the rest of the country and then the world. It traces this history through the men and women, some well known, others long forgotten, who were instrumental in creating it.

There are classic clips of the likes of Leadbelly, the Whistlers Jug band, Bukka White, and Mamie Smith. There are extended film performances: Bessie Smith sings “The St. Louis Blues” in what looks like a scene from a movie where she is standing at a bar with a beer and the rest of the customers join her as a chorus. Count Basie’s orchestra plays “One O’clock Jump” and Jimmy Rushing sings “Take Me Back, Baby” (Both clips appear in the Count Basie DVD, as well). Duke Ellington and the orchestra appear playing “Ko-Ko” accompanied by a bevy of dancing chorus girls in a night club scene from some unnamed movie. There are exciting performances from Roosevelt Sykes on the piano, Muddy Waters at the Newport Folk Festival, and Louis Jordan jumping with “Caldonia.” Modern blues musicians are not neglected. Etta James and Dinah Washington both appear in extensive clips. There is at least a picture of Ray Charles.

When film clips of the artists were unavailable, the DVD uses still shots of sheet music, old seventy eight records, and period photographs to accompany the audio. Blind Lemon Jefferson, who began recording in the 1920s, sings “That Black Snake Moan.” There are recordings of Ma Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues” and Charley Patton. The legendary New Orleans trumpet man, Bolden plays, as do King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton.

Most of the talking head commentary is provided by critic Albert Murray and musician Robert Palmer. They make somewhat abortive attempts to define the genre. Murray talks about it as a “ritual of purification” that depends on a kind of “playful” confrontation and improvisation. Palmer emphasizes what he calls the dialectic of the music based on call and response. Their commentary on the influences on individual artists is perhaps more illuminating. B.B. King, for example, we’re told, combines Single string Texas guitar picking with the slide guitar style. Muddy Waters was perhaps the earliest to electrify his instrument, and could well be called the first of the modern rockers. After a clip of Son House talking about the conflict between God and the devil and the need to keep them separate in music, they explain about the legendary associations of the blues and the devil.

Murray tries to make an interesting distinction between early blues as an example of folk art, while later artists like Basie and Ellington were able to develop it into a fine art. Palmer says he can’t understand why people call blues primitive. If any music is primitive, he goes on, it is Mozart. Mozart’s music lacks the rhythmic and tonal variations of the blues. It is limited by its traditional structures.

After pointing to the relationship between the blues and modern rock, the documentary takes a look at modern figures like B.B. King, Elvis Presley, and The Rolling Stones. Chuck Berry sings “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Big Joe Turner, the Boss of the Blues, does “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” There is even a clip from the Alan Freed television show. Palmer makes the point that early rockers tended to be more imitative, but the later artists came along and translated the blues into their own idiom, and were more successful artistically.

Bluesland is a documentary that belongs in the collection of every lover of blues, every lover of jazz, every lover of good music. It provides a window into what many believe is the only truly American art form.

Roger Levesque
Edmonton Journal, December 2010

MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: Bluesland – A Portrait in American Music (NTSC) 2057168
MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: The Story of Jazz (NTSC) 2057158
MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: Lady Day – The Many Faces of Billie Holiday (NTSC) 2057098
MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: Sarah Vaughan – The Divine One (NTSC) 2057128
MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: Celebrating Bird – The Triumph of Charlie Parker (NTSC) 2057078
MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: Thelonious Monk – American Composer (NTSC) 2057118
MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: Count Basie – Swingin’ the Blues (NTSC) 2057148
MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: The World According to John Coltrane (NTSC) 2057108

Thanks to the folks at EuroArts and Naxos Canada, eight fine jazz and blues documentaries made in the early 1990s have been remastered and issued in the DVD format, titled Masters Of American Music (all sold separately). The two introductory surveys Bluesland and The Story Of Jazz run about 90 minutes, bringing across the essence and evolution of the music using a mix of vintage clips and expert commentary. Six more titles take a specific hour-long focus on singers Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, and innovators Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Count Basie and John Coltrane, alternating between concert footage and interviews with their collaborators and contemporaries. The Monk and Parker films were especially memorable. © 2010 Edmonton Journal

Lloyd Kahn
Lloyd’s Blog, November 2010

This is a wonderful documentary of the blues. Skillfully woven together, soulful, all good stuff. So many documentaries are frustrating, but this one gets it right. Robert Palmer’s comments are insightful. Some of the cuts are scratchy sounding, and there are traffic (or train sounds) during Albert Murray’s comments, but it’s all the real thing. It was on the Ovation channel last week. I just ordered the DVD (I rarely order movies these days). Photo at left of Son House (what a beautiful man!); he’s talking about musicians either playing for the Devil or God. Bessie Smith, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson, a young John Lee Hooker…I’m going to film a couple of segments and will post later on.

Gypsy woman told my mother
Before I was born,
You got a boy child’s comin
Gonna be a son of a gun,
He gonna make pretty women
Jump and shout…

— Muddy Waters in 1960 at the Newport Jazz Festival

The BluesPowR Blog, November 2010

I came across an interesting documentary recently on Ovation called Bluesland – A Portrait in American Music. I’ve seen a pretty fair share of blues documentaries in my day, but somehow managed to miss this one, which actually dates back to the early 1990s. A bit of research revealed that Bluesland was originally broadcast as part of PBS’ Masters of American Music series and has received some great reviews during its history. This one will certainly be no different, for although the film appears every bit as dated as you might expect in a few regards (mostly in the appearances of the host—actor Keith David—and the music historians interviewed), the richness of its content and historical breadth has stood the test of time remarkably well.

In addition to performances and interviews with such blues greats as Son House, Leadbelly, Willie Dixon, Bukka White, Roosevelt Sykes, Bessie Smith, Lonnie Johnson, B.B. King, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, Otis Spann, Chuck Berry and John Lee Hooker, among others, the nearly 90-minute Bluesland also captures the perspectives of two respected blues critics and authors, Albert Murray and Robert Palmer. The film offers short looks at a number of the stories that helped make the blues famous, from W.C. Handy, Dockery Farms, and the boogie woogie piano of New Orleans to race records and blues as the Devil’s music, all the way from field recordings to the evolution of rock n’ roll and the popularity of blues festivals. These are interspersed with segments focusing on the music of the likes of Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell, Ma Rainey, Tommy Johnson, Peetie Wheatstraw, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Muddy Waters, Dinah Washington, and Etta James, making for a comprehensive and truly entertaining look back at the first few decades of the blues.

Much has of course happened with the blues in the nearly two decades since the release of this documentary, but we think you’ll find a trip back through Bluesland a great way to travel the portals of blues time. While you can view various segments of the film on YouTube and elsewhere on the World Wide Web, we encourage you to watch it in its entirety for a more complete and fulfilling experience. You can probably find it at your local library (perhaps even on DVD, either in its original converted form circa 2002 or in the remastered edition, released earlier this year) or on Ovation, where it is scheduled to air several times during November, including tomorrow at both 9 and 11 PM.

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1:28:34 AM, 2 September 2015
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