The history of the blues is filled with legends, both real (pioneer Robert Johnson) and fictional (his trip down to the crossroads to sell his soul to the devil). Daniel Cross's in-depth documentary I Am the Blues looks at the people who fall into neither category, the players that lack a mythology or much commercial acclaim, but continue to live and breathe the blues.
The film starts with Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, a Mississippi bluesman and proprietor of old school juke joint The Blue Front Café for over 43 years, then splinters outwards, soaking in the tales of tenacity and resilience from musicians — all of them African American — across the Southern United States. Through firsthand accounts, the film charts the music's origins in the cotton fields and churches, and providing context for its standing today as one of the country's defining artforms.
Bobby Rush, a Louisiana-bred and award-winning performer who looks way younger than 81, acts as an anchor for the film, describing both his writing process without a pen and paper and the music's history in the South, and acting as a connector between most of the film's subjects (after decades of shows together, almost all of them know one another). But it's the lesser-known artists — the ones that, like their guitars, have seen better days and don't have recognizable names — that really steal the spotlight by embodying the music and what it means.
In its spirit and execution, I Am the Blues feels like a continuation of the work Harry Smith and Alan Lomax did, Cross's footage acting as field recordings that document a dying artform and its originators. For that, I Am the Blues is a film with the utmost cultural value, a must-see for anyone who has ever picked up a guitar or been seduced by the sounds of a pentatonic scale.
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