I knew he was a blues fan, and he wasn't sure if I was one as well, so we started to talk about our favorite bluesmen first. I thought it was intriguing to be able to finally dedicate some time to my blues heroes. After all, I didn't know that much about them. Sure, I had every record I could ever find of Skip James, but I didn't know much about his life. And although I knew J.B. Lenoir's music for thirty years, I realized that if I had to tell anybody how he had lived, I wouldn't know what to say. I knew the music and just loved it. So the film was a great opportunity to really dive into the stories of these people and find out more about them myself.
I think my first memories of the blues are, rather, memories of spirituals. We didn't even have a record player at home when I was young, and the radio only played German music and classical music, but in school I once heard a record of so-called Negro spirituals. That was a sound I had never heard before, and its emotional honesty truly took me by surprise. I listened to it over and over again and soon knew some of the songs by heart, although I didn't speak English, so I didn't know what it all meant. I was just guessing. That was my first contact.
Later on, the first bluesman I actually knew by name was John Lee Hooker, and his albums were the first blues LPs I bought because he had impressed me so much on the first hearing. Blind Lemon Jefferson, too, B.B. King . . . I soon started to know more about this music, but I only developed a better knowledge of the blues when the English bands in the sixties started to cover all the old bluesmen and play them electrically. I was guided by Van Morrison, the Pretty Things, the Animals, and the Rolling Stones and discovered the original versions of the songs that had inspired them.
The blues is utterly emotional music, with a very simple pattern inside which musicians can take enormous liberties. I liked that supposition of a structure that is simple, inside which a lot of freedom can play out. The blues really deals with all kinds of troubles, with all kinds of worries and sorrows, with hardship, so even a young white fellow like me could easily identify with its subject. It's the best music to hear when you're down and when you need comfort. It's very strong rhythmically, really at the roots of both jazz and rock and roll. I was a jazz fan when I was sixteen, eighteen. I played tenor saxophone, heavily influenced by John Coltrane, and only later got into rock and roll and the blues.
Music has played a paramount role in my enthusiasm for the craft of filmmaking. It all started when I made my very first short 16-mm silent film. I had no money to record any sound, so I had these silent images when I sat down for the first time in an editing room at film school to put these shots together. I had my tape recorder with me. I played some of my favorite tracks to these images of mine, and that was the greatest fun I've ever had. In terms of filmmaking, that was the greatest discovery for me: how to put images and music together! As soon as you start that, even if you think you know your images or that music, when you put them together, a third thing emerges that's more than the sum of both. And that precious moment when you first see your imagery and hear the music together with it, that for me, ever since that short film, is why I like to make movies in order to get to that moment of joy. At times I think that's the whole reason I am in this moviemaking business to begin with. I just do not understand any director who'll have that taken away from him.
My musical taste is pretty wide: I love classical music, and I like Latin and African music. But when it comes down to it, my favorite music is really blues and rock and roll. That I'm so attached to American music, from early blues recordings of the late twenties up to the sixties, probably has a lot to do with the fact that I discovered this music for myself. It was something that belonged to me, a territory I found for myself that nobody had shown to me and that nobody had imposed on me. I had chosen it myself! Then these English kids came out of nowhere, when I was sixteen, seventeen years old. Bands like the Rolling Stones or the Beatles were quickly known, but the better ones, in my book, were the more unknown Them (with Van Morrison), or the Animals, the Pretty Things, or my all-time favorites, the Kinks. These kids, they were "my generation," just like the Who were saying it. They were just as old as I was, a couple of them maybe a year or two older, and most of them were art students who had invented that music from scratch. I identified with them that was my own generation, and the music they made was really my music.
I once heard a song by Skip James on a compilation album sometime in the sixties, just one track, but it stood out. It was more haunting than anything else around it, and I knew I had to find out more about this singer of whom I just knew this one song. It took me awhile until I tracked down another album. His other songs all had that same quality, different from anybody else's voice. His guitar and piano playing, too, were very elaborate and didn't sound like anything else I knew. So I think he was the first hero of mine. I felt here was the first guy who I picked myself, and I really got attached to him.
And then I remember in 1967, a new record came out by John Mayall, the godfather of the English blues movement. I had all of his LPs. Mayall's band was like a breeding ground of blues musicians in England. I loved this new album, Crusade, especially one song on it called "The Death of J.B. Lenoir." When I first heard it, I just had the shivers. That song was so moving and so personal, and there was such a great sense of loss. He was mourning the death of a friend, and I had never heard of this man he was singing about: J.B. Lenoir. So again I tried to find out everything I could, and I dug out a record of his. It actually had come out in Germany. It was acoustic blues, songs about the American South. Very powerful songs, very contemporary, dealing with the Vietnam War, for instance, and that was the first time I heard anybody sing about that war. Other songs were dealing with the fights of the black people in America for equality. When I originally heard the first notes of that first album of the real J.B. Lenoir, I thought I had been mistaken. This must be a woman, I thought at first, but it became clear after a while that this was not a woman. It was a man singing with the most unique high-pitched voice, but not really falsetto. Very emotional on top of that. By then my English was better, and I understood more of the words already. I understood that there was somebody who was singing about things that nobody else was singing about. Over the years, I found out that he had made music in Chicago in the fifties with a big band, using electric guitar and a big-band sound. I collected five, six, or seven obscure albums by this J.B. Lenoir, and in my heart he became my favorite blues musician of them all. Every now and then I would meet somebody who knew him. I remember, for instance, years later I was driving with Sam Shepard in his pickup truck across America; we were writing Paris, Texas together at the time and Sam had a few cassettes, and at one point he put in a new tape and said, "I bet you don't know this guy," and it was J.B. Lenoir. So he was one of the connoisseurs. All these J.B. fans had something in common: They were convinced that this was one of the greatest singers ever, yet he had remained strangely obscure. I found out that the first records I had bought in Germany had never come out in America. And that these songs about the Vietnam War, his song addressed to President Eisenhower from the fifties, his songs about Mississippi and Alabama, Americans simply didn't know them. No wonder he remained so obscure and unknown.
Musicians, like Jimi Hendrix, knew him; J.B.'s most famous song, "Mama Talk to Your Daughter," had been a moderate R&B hit. But nobody really knew so much about the man's life. So when Marty gave me the chance to select my territory in the story of the blues, I knew it had to be about J.B. Lenoir and Skip James. Later on, I figured it was a bit bizarre to just pick my two favorite musicians; I didn't even know how to link them, so I realized I needed more of a "theme." It hit me that the one topic in both of their lives was an overall issue in the blues anyway, which is that a lot of bluesmen are torn between the worldly side of their music and the spiritual side of it. It seemed like an important theme in the history of blues, this gap between the sacred and the profane. The tension between gospel and blues is a strange demarcation line that goes across the entire history of the blues. A lot of blues musicians travel between the two lives; others could only live inside one of them and then at one point in their lives would break with that life like Skip James, who one day stepped out of the history of the blues and became a minister, never touching the blues again for thirty years. And not just him a lot of blues musicians felt that they had to leave the devil's music behind to play God's music. So when it finally came time to write some sort of treatment for my film, I wrote that it was about the sacred and the profane. That might sound abstract, but it was really about two men.
And while I was preparing the film, I realized they both had a forerunner, and that there was a third musician I should really include: Blind Willie Johnson. I knew even less about him than the other two. There is not a single photograph of the man, just one rather graphic portrait that was an ad for a recording of his in the late 1920's. You can't really judge from that what he might have looked like. So Blind Willie was a total mystery, but he had written some great songs, one in particular, "Dark Was the Night," that I had at one point selected and used as temp music for Paris, Texas when I first showed the film to Ry Cooder. I had indicated to Ry that a bottleneck guitar style was what I would love to hear on the film somehow. Ry was very taken by the idea. He knew that song really well; actually, he had recorded it once himself. The theme of "Dark Was the Night" eventually became the main musical theme of Paris, Texas. Blind Willie Johnson only sang sacred music, never touched a single secular song, although his techniques especially his bottleneck style are among the finest in blues history, to quote somebody as competent as Eric Clapton. And of course as far as guitar playing, rhythm, or singing is concerned, it's the same music. Later on, Blind Willie became the "narrator" of my film. That might sound weird, as he died in 1947. But Blind Willie really saved my film. I was at a loss as to which perspective I could tell our story from, until I remembered that Blind Willie's song "Dark Was the Night" had been picked as one of the handful of songs that represented contemporary twentieth-century music on the record that went out with the space probe Voyager into outer space.
The overall parameter of the entire series that Marty had discussed with the directors was to shoot these films digitally. We all more or less agreed that DV-Cam would be the ideal, very portable, very light equipment to shoot this. So I knew that most of the film (or at least anything that was contemporary) would be shot on DV-Cam, and I was fine with that. We had used similar equipment for some of Buena Vista Social Club , and I knew it was good enough to be blown up to film in the end. But my film's time period started in the late twenties, and the most glorious moment in the life of Skip James was a legendary recording session that took place in 1931. Of course, there is no filmed record of this whatsoever, only a few scratchy 78s on shellac. There is not even a single image of Skip James from the time when he did that recording. So I decided to reenact some of the lives of my heroes in order to show them: Blind Willie Johnson in 1927, and Skip James in 1931. And I figured to go back to the twenties or early thirties and shoot on DV-Cam was not a good solution. To reenact some of the lives of Skip James and Blind Willie Johnson, I needed to find a different medium. I chose to do that on a hand-cranked camera from the early twenties, a Debrie Parvo. I had shot on that camera once before and knew it worked really well. I love the effect of the irregularity of the hand-cranked camera movement. It is a really beautiful and authentic effect and transports you right back in time so successfully, in fact, that when we showed a first cut of the film, most of the people who saw it believed we had found all this original archived material and didn't really understand that we had produced it ourselves. The hand-cranked camera enables you to make this time jump and single-handedly, so to speak, produces the feeling of the era. And it's a lot of fun to work with such an old camera. It was also a challenge shooting with a hand-cranker: You're completely out of sync, because already the hand movement is never regular, and we shot on sixteen frames on top of that. Most of the scenes we were shooting involved playback! I first thought that playing in sync with these old recordings from 1927 or 1931 was a ludicrous idea and probably totally impossible, but we did a test and it actually seemed possible to sync up our hand-cranked material to the music. But it was not easy. Every second frame of our film, shot at more or less sixteen frames per second, would have to be doubled up to get to around twenty-four frames, and then you still had to manipulate it tremendously to achieve any synchronicity. Basically, you had to find sync moments for every word, or every stroke of the guitar, so you could advance second by second and extract or add frames, which you can only do now with digital technology. So our idea worked with a mix of the oldest possible technique and top-notch digital technology, thus enabling us to produce scenes that look as if they were filmed at the time.
The second half of the film concentrates on the life of J.B. Lenoir, in the fifties and sixties, when I felt the hand-cranked camera would no longer be appropriate. To get into the spirit of that period I decided we should shoot in 16 mm so it would look really different. And then we found this incredible material that nobody had ever seen, these two films actually shot of J.B. Lenoir in the early sixties.
These two 16-mm films were shot by a couple of art students, Steve Seaberg and his wife, Rönnog, in Chicago. They had never made a movie before and didn't know much about filmmaking. But they had become friends with J.B. Lenoir, loved the music, and loved the man so much that they thought, We have to do something to get him known to other audiences. Rönnog was from Sweden, and Steve was American. And Rönnog had the fabulous idea that if they would shoot a little movie about J.B. and take it to Sweden with them, they could show it on Swedish television. So they went about it and made the first film, actually shooting in a photographer's studio. They put J.B. in front of a backdrop, never moved the camera, and shot four songs in that one angle. Then they took these ten minutes or so to Swedish television. The Swedes looked at it and were horrified: It was uncut material that the Seabergs presented to them, and the sound was only on an optical track, which was not very good, so the Swedish television executives just flat-out said, "We can't show this, and also you should know that we don't have color here in Sweden, we only have black-and-white TV, so if you shoot something, it has to be black and white." So Rönnog and Steve went back home to Chicago a little disappointed and put their ten-minute color 16-mm film on the shelf.
But a year later, when they were going to Sweden again, they shot a second film. This time it was in black and white and much more elaborate. It was about twenty minutes long, was shot in J.B.'s living room, and had a lot of different setups, although every song is only one shot. They covered about twelve songs with J.B., and as they intended it for a Swedish audience, Rönnog and Steve were translating simultaneously whatever J.B. was saying even what he was singing. Rönnog would translate in the middle of a song what the song was about. It was quite unique and extraordinary. Who at the time would do that go to somebody's house and shoot a movie with him? Again they took it to Swedish television, and this time they were very sure of themselves, they had made these elaborate setups, the film was in black and white, and the sound was much better now, but Swedish television refused it again. By now they had color, and somebody had recently covered the Chicago blues scene for them, without J.B. Lenoir, of course. Rönnog and Steve sadly went back to Chicago again, put the second film on the shelf, and that was the end of their filmmaking career. Very disappointing. And nobody ever saw these two films again.
How did we find the Seabergs? Via the Internet and through research, we started to secure any photographs or footage that existed of J.B. Lenoir. Somebody knew that at some point these young art students had shot some footage, but nobody knew who they were, and finally we found somebody who knew their names. By now the Seabergs lived in Atlanta, Georgia, no longer in Chicago; forty years had passed. They were still artists, into acrobatic poetry, which sure is an elusive branch of the arts. They are no longer in filmmaking after the two disasters, but they still had the two films. And they had these memories of J.B.; they really had known him well and had become very good friends with him and also with his family. J.B. had died very early, and they had stayed in touch with his wife and his kids, so there was finally firsthand information on J.B. Lenoir. So the Seabergs and their two movies became the backbone of the second half of my film.
But as The Soul of a Man is really about the music and about the songs, and not so much a film that is dealing with the biographies of my heroes, I really wanted to have the music speak for itself. I wasn't so much interested in making a film with talking heads and people who remembered J.B. Originally I had shot lots of stuff, interviews both on Skip and on J.B., but in the editing process I decided not to use any of it. I used very sparse comments. Basically the only one who is commenting on Skip James is his manager Dick Waterman, who worked with him the last two years of his life and who was also a photographer. I felt it was better that people would hear about Skip and J.B. from one source only. It was more intimate that way, and you'd get to know these bluesmen more than if you'd hear lots of people talking about them. I have also shot extensive stuff with J.B.'s wife and his kids, and I regret that none of it ended up in the cut, but it would have been such a different film. And I can still make a whole chapter for the DVD of these interviews and these witnesses about the lives of Skip and J.B. We have a great piece, for instance, of a very old lady in Bentonia, Mississippi, where Skip grew up. She was in her eighties, and she remembered that when she was a teenager, she had a crush on Skip. When we shot it, I was sure this was going to end up in the film, but even that is not in. I also found people who knew Skip in the fifties when he was working on a farm and didn't play the blues anymore. We found people who knew J.B. in the fifties and sixties in Chicago. But I finally just eliminated all these testimonies. There was no need for them.
With a documentary, even if you might have a clear view of the film while you're shooting your material, when you come to the editing room, you have to start from scratch. The film is still hidden in there, somehow, and you have to find the secret story inside. It took us almost a year to find that story in The Soul of a Man . Twice we went in the wrong direction. My editor, Mathilde Bonnefoy, and I basically finished two entire cuts before we managed to find the good one that we have now. Our problem from the very beginning was: There were these three bluesmen who had never met, who lived in different eras, and played very different music. They were basically only linked through the fact that I loved them more than any other blues musicians of the twenties and thirties up to the sixties. That wasn't such a solid link, as we had to find out painfully. The first version of the film we cut had me narrating it. We did that whole thing and recorded and arranged my voice-over, and then we looked at the film, and I just hated it. It was simply not the right thing to have this German fellow talk about his three American blues heroes. Everything I wanted to achieve, everything I loved about them, was gone. The very fact that I was confessing it, so to speak, with my own voice, made it all strangely ineffective and pretentious. I wanted it to be a film just about the music, but had somehow destroyed my very aim. All of a sudden, my own experience had become the center of the film, which was the last thing I wanted.
So we threw that entire cut away and started from scratch. And now we were going to do the opposite; we were not going to have any narration, we were just telling it from inside the songs. Which we did, very elaborately. But that didn't work either. So we threw that away and started a third time. This time we were successful. I realized that the secret narrator of the film had always been there, we just hadn't noticed him. It was the first of our three characters: Blind Willie Johnson. The fact that his voice was out there in space on Voyager by now on the outskirts of the solar system made him the perfect instrument to narrate our film. He had the necessary distance, so to speak; he had a beautiful "objective" point of view. Plus, there was a certain irony in the fact that a man who was long dead now became the commentator on the lives of his two colleagues who had lived after him. That narrative perspective really worked well for the overall film. It gave it a certain lightness that certainly my voice never had. I just knew I needed a good voice for that! My first idea for that was Laurence Fishburne. He sure has a gorgeous voice. I knew Laurence from long ago when he made Apocalypse Now in the late seventies he was a young man then. I didn't have to twist his arm. He accepted the invitation immediately. With his voice, talking from the impossible perspective of a man in outer space, everything fell into place, and all the problems we had before with the structure and how to find a story that would unify it all vanished into thin air. Everything I had ever hoped for was there. In documentaries, you often have to run into a dead-end street, make a U-turn, and come back in order to see the right passage for the film. You have to shape the story from inside the material, and it's not obvious right away what that might be.
Once Blind Willie emerged as the narrator, the film's title came by itself. Blind Willie wrote and recorded a song called "The Soul of a Man," and in a way that song summed up the entire journey Skip's and J.B.'s, as well as his own. It defined the search that the blues is constantly on in very simple words. And it finally brought out the topic of the sacred and the profane that the film was still about, somehow. In short: It was the perfect song to come from heaven or from outer space. What is the soul of a man? How much can you tell about these people, how much can you try to know them, and what do you then know if you know their music and their lives? Do you know the soul of these men? Have they expressed it in these songs? The blues is a very existential medium, as it goes to the core of things.
Wanting the music to be the center of the film, I soon realized that the best way to let the music speak for itself was to rerecord the old songs and to find contemporary musicians who would pick a song by Skip, J.B., or Blind Willie, and reinterpret it. This would also help to make my three blues heroes contemporary again and have an audience from 2003 listen to their songs and be attentive. I was hoping I could interest a number of musicians or bands to play some of these songs. I looked for those who had already expressed an interest in that work, maybe had already covered a song by Skip or J.B. But I also approached some of my friends like Nick Cave and Lou Reed, who I knew would be interested because they love the blues. In the end I think there are twelve old songs interpreted by singers and songwriters and bands who work today. They all recorded live, during the sessions when we shot the musicians, so it's not playback. One of the highlights was Beck, because he wouldn't play a song the same way twice. He covered two songs by Skip James, "I'm So Glad" and "Cypress Grove," and each time he would start, he would play on a different guitar and in a different rhythm, and he would have a different approach. I think he played twelve variations of "I'm So Glad," but each one was different, and there was no way that you could intercut one with the other. That was exciting. And scary.
All these performances were fantastic, really. Over almost one year, we shot them in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and London. Bonnie Raitt was very generous she gave us two songs. The one that she played on her own was extremely demanding. She actually played in Skip's tuning. And that really breaks your fingers, because Skip played in open D, which is very unusual and difficult to get your fingers around. So Bonnie was really heroic. I was also very taken by the performances that Cassandra Wilson gave. She actually sang three songs, two of which ended up in the film. "Vietnam Blues" is my favorite song of J.B.'s. Her version of it was just very, very moving, and strangely contemporary. Eagle-Eye Cherry put together the most unbelievable band of musicians, including James "Blood" Ulmer, an awesome guitar player and singer himself. T-Bone Burnett got together a big band with an amazing brass section, Jim Keltner on drums, plus two other percussionists. T-Bone sang in J.B.'s high tenor voice, with a woman singer doing the lower voice.
The most fun was probably the shoot we had with Lou Reed. He did a rare Skip tune and a twelve-minute version of "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," during which he was smiling happily. The band did that entire song in a state of bliss. One take only! I don't know how often that happens in Lou's life, but I'm very proud and extremely lucky that I shot him for several moments laughing with joy!
A sad moment was our shoot in Chicago, because we just happened to arrive in time to witness the destruction of Maxwell Street. We were there to shoot when the bulldozers came in and tore it all down. None of it actually is in the film, because it didn't make sense to use it, but it was a really heartbreaking moment, to see this legendary place in the history of American jazz and blues just be obliterated to be turned into offices, banks, and restaurants. In a sense this makes these films even more important to me, personally, because they show that the music itself is so vibrant that it will survive even the sort of callow indifference that would fail to preserve an institution like Maxwell Street. And my awareness of how the music is still alive in our culture today, still flourishing, really allows me to feel less blue about the loss of Maxwell Street because no doubt the things that made Maxwell Street so remarkable at one time are happening right now, someplace else.
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