In “I Am the Blues,” the documentarian Daniel Cross spends part of three years driving the cracked back roads of Louisiana and Mississippi to some of the last enclaves of the Delta blues, finding the heart of this indisputable American art form still beating, if growing fainter.
It’s not a history tour, like Martin Scorsese’s “The Blues: A Musical Journey”: There’s no deep dive into Charley Patton or Robert Johnson. The film takes its name from a Muddy Waters song, but he is mentioned only in passing, a onetime colleague of several musicians featured here, mainly regional heroes who eke out livings playing the juke joints that still make up the chitlin’ circuit. Less of a solemn pilgrimage than a folksy visit, this film is a chance to set a spell, watch longtime musicians play and boast and reflect about their lives on and off the road.
Mr. Cross’s guide is Bobby Rush, who after more than 60 years in the business won his first Grammy this year, for best traditional blues album. Mr. Rush is amiable company, quick with stories about playing for next to nothing in the 1950s and ’60s. Some business hazards are eternal: We see a promoter crying poor and shortchanging Mr. Rush just before one showtime.
Mr. Cross makes a home base of sorts out of Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia, Miss. The owner, Jimmy Duck Holmes, sings with a deep, soulful phrasing as he casually picks on an acoustic guitar. Other musicians, many in their 80s, also make appearances: the harpist Lazy Lester, the guitarist Lil’ Buck Sinegal, the pianist Henry Gray. Barbara Lynn smiles at the memory of making “You’ll Lose a Good Thing,” her No. 1 R&B hit in 1962, at the age of 20: “That song took me everywhere.”
Bluesmen gather for jam sessions in homes, at crawfish boils, at senior centers. But the traditions are not being passed on, and the music’s prospects, at least in its birthplace, are not bullish. “It’ll be here,” Bud Spires, a harmonica player says, “until the last old man shuts his eyes.” By the end of this sweet-hearted elegy, Mr. Cross has shown us Mr. Spires’s grave site.
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