Restored ‘Deep Blues’ is just as colorful as before
Documentary filmmaker Robert Mugge has been making films since 1978. Most of his movies are about music, especially the blues, but he’s also filmed traditional Hawaiian music, Louisiana zydeco and reggae. Mugge has recorded performances by Sun Ra, Al Green and many musicians who are not famous. In 1992, Mugge made his best-known film, Deep Blues about little-known and remarkable blues musicians in Mississippi. And this restored work will be available via streaming beginning this week.
Robert Palmer, who wrote a fine history of American blues also called Deep Blues, serves as a guide along with English musician Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics. With them, the film visits R.L. Burnside who plays and sings on the porch of his very modest home.
And after that, because the film searches for the earliest forms of blues that still exist, Jessie Mae Hemphill plays in a field with her fife and drum band.
And Junior Kimbrough, before he had ever recorded, plays with his band in a juke joint he himself opened in the Mississippi Delta.
Robert Palmer explains that the name juke joint comes from a west African word for “have a good time.” In the movie, it refers to small clubs all over Mississippi where mostly Black people of little means gather to hear music and dance. The word comes to many of us in the phrase “juke box.”
Deep Blues is a stunning and unexpected film. As a guide, Palmer is more than casual. He chats informally about the blues with Dave Stewart as they wander down dirt roads. Palmer wears baseball caps, old t-shirts, sometimes with an unbuttoned green army shirt over them. He slouches on a motel bed to talk about music, and you might think the whole film is funky and haphazard. You’d be wrong.
Director Robert Mugge has a wonderful eye for the context of the singers and their songs. While R.L. Burnside sings on his porch, Mugge also shows a few women and children sitting at a picnic table listening to the music. Burnside taps his feet in the dirt; his porch is crowded with furniture and a washing machine; an old red pickup stands nearby.
Deep Blues makes it clear that to understand a song fully, you need more than just the song. Burnside’s porch or Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint are part of the music. The movie shows that this remarkable art comes from a time and place, from specific circumstances — in other words, the music comes from a full and complete world, so to know or understand these blues involves seeing the world that produces them.
Deep Blues takes viewers so far into the world of this music that I — a white film critic — felt like a trespasser, that I was secretly allowed into a world I could not enter otherwise. It’s a world of mostly poor Black people in a profoundly segregated time and place. Robert Palmer’s brief descriptions of Black life in Mississippi, from 1992, seem naive now, and even off the point. But you can see in the picture’s images how deprived this society is. These musicians live in rundown homes. Most of them are toothless. Junior Kimbrough has the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen.
And all of this is embodied in the richness of the blues — in the mostly simple lyrics and repetitive structure of the blues, and in the complexity of the music itself. The contradictions make your head spin — this inexplicable combination of poverty and artistry.