'Deep Blues,' plumbing the Delta's soul Delta sound says something personal

February 01, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

"When people say 'blues' these days, you can never really bet on what they mean," says Robert Palmer. "I mean, they might be talking about something on [the contemporary Chicago blues label] Alligator Records, or they might be talking about somebody in a cotton field. There's a lot of difference there."

Mr. Palmer certainly knows whereof he speaks. Over the years, he's dealt with the blues on a multitude of levels, whether as a musician, a critic, a festival promoter or a record producer.

But of all the blues he knows, Mr. Palmer likes the music of the Mississippi Delta best. That was the music he wrote about in his 1981 study "Deep Blues," a book many consider a definitive history of the Delta blues, and that's the music he talks about in Robert Mugge's recent documentary, "Deep Blues."

Given the Delta's cultural importance -- this, after all, was the region that produced Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Elmore James and Muddy Waters -- it's tempting to ascribe Mr. Palmer's interest to the natural enthusiasm of a music historian. That's not quite the case, though, because what Mr. Palmer likes about the Delta bluesmen is the personal dynamics at work in their music.

This is a genuinely personal art form, he explains over the phone from a record company office in New York. Delta blues is music "made by people for their neighbors. They're singing about themselves, about their neighbors, the people they've known all their lives."

As an example, he cites a performance by "Big" Jack Johnson of "Daddy, When Is Momma Coming Home," one of the songs on the album he produced as a companion piece to the film. "It's about his wife leaving him with the three kids," says Mr. Palmer. "You'll watch him sing it, and his wife is sitting right in front of you in the club, right? He sings it right at her."

Capturing that dynamic has never been easy, but Mr. Palmer feels that digital technology has made it easier than ever to get that juke joint ambience on tape. "With the way recording technology is now, you can fit a serviceable digital recording studio into a couple of suitcases," he says.

"So I don't see any sense in recording this kind of blues in a studio. I mean, right away it stacks a lot against the record coming out really great, because no matter how much or how little these artists have recorded, you've got to get them used to playing in the studio, using earphones, talking back and forth from the control room, and so on.

"Whereas if I go to a juke joint, it may be a little bit sloppy compared to the same people in concert at Carnegie Hall, but it sure is a lot more intense and gritty, and emotionally involving."

Still, there are some aspects of the juke joint blues that need to be seen as well as heard, and that's one of the reasons Mr. Palmer is glad to have been involved in the movie.

"One thing I really was interested in trying to capture is the way that the audience and the musicians interact with each other," he says. "Really, how long a song will go on, and how it's paced and all is pretty much totally determined by the audience. As long as people are dancing to it and encouraging it, that song's going to go on. There's a lot of vamping, and playing for the dancers.

"That's why there aren't any fragments [in the film]. I wanted complete performances, to have a record of how this process works in real time."

Mr. Palmer also likes the way "Deep Blues" lets the audience in on the non-musical side of the juke joint circuit. "If you look at Jr. Kimbrough in the film, you see his eyes ceaselessly moving," says Mr. Palmer. "It's his juke joint, right? So he's looking -- are those people into it? How's the liquor sales going over there?

"He's totally aware of everything that's going on in his place at all times, and it's all feeding into music. That's fascinating to me."

Best of all, "Deep Blues" shows the music as a living, breathing thing -- a style that stays current even as it holds onto the past. Listen to the chord changes in Jack Johnson's "Daddy, When Is Momma Coming Home," and what you'll hear isn't a stereotypical blues progression, but something that sounds an awful lot like Earth, Wind & Fire's "That's the Way of the World."

"I put that in there because, in addition to its being really good, it's fascinating to hear somebody coming out of really deep down blues playing on those kind of chords. That's basically what somebody like Eric Clapton does -- he plays blues guitar on non-blues kind of material. And to me, that's more blues than any number of white musicians who study at the feet of the masters.

"Besides, if the core blues audience likes it, then it's cool by me," he adds. "That's why being a purist just doesn't make any sense. A purist artificially draws a line, saying this is blues and this isn't. To me, what defines what's blues and what isn't is what blues musicians and their core audience thinks is blues."

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