“You can have the blues if your woman leaves you, but you can also have the blues if they stay too long,” reasons blues legend Bobby Rush in I Am the Blues, an engaging, must-see documentary about the men and women in the Mississippi Delta and Louisiana bayou who helped create one of America’s richest art forms.
The documentary, directed by Daniel Cross, travels deep into the rural South to hear the stories of less famous musicians than Rush — who serves as a tour guide of sorts — but who were vital blues building blocks. I Am the Blues opens in New York on Wednesday and rolls out across the country in the coming weeks.
“I thought it was so important to do this because Daniel had so much love for the people doing the music — the black music and the black entertainers, people who never got into the light but were part of making this music,” says Rush, who devoted two and a half years to the project. Indeed, the documentary shines the spotlight on such pioneers as the famous — Rush, Barbara Lynn and Little Freddie King — and the amazing characters who worked alongside them but never achieved the same level of success, including Carol Fran, Lazy Lester, Henry Gray, Jimmy “Duck” Hodges,” and LC Ulmer and Bud Spires, both of whom have died since the movie was completed. Most are in their 80s, living in the rural South, some in poverty, and still devoted to their music.
Several of the musicians in the film lament that the blues as they know it — developed by and played by black artists — will die with them. “It’s almost dead now,” Rush tells Billboard. “I believe I’m the oldest blues man living now. Little Richard, Fats Domino — they don’t want to be blues singers. This is the story of black America. Most people talk about blues being the blues. I’m a blues man, but I’m a black man first.”
At 83, Rush, who won his first Grammy earlier this year for best traditional blues album, still plays up to 200 dates a year, making up to $30,000/night — a far cry from playing for $3/night or even for hamburgers (he and his band would eat some and then sell the rest) in the ’50s. Still, he says even at his level, it’s not easy, citing having to pay $16,000 in airfare alone for a recent gig. “I’m independent as a black man, yet I have a boss — that’s satisfying the people who come to see me,” he says. “People don’t hire me because they love me; they hire me to be able to put butts in the seats.”
Rush is eager to promote the film, which premiered at South by Southwest in 2016 and won the best documentary feature film award at this year’s Canadian Screen Awards. “I hope the movie will last long enough to teach people about the blues, who’s still doing it.” He notes that the mainstream attention is often so focused on white blues players instead of the originators of the music, that the pioneers get lost. “There won’t be another movie like this in life,” he says. “Who’s going to interview Ray Charles or B.B. King now? You can’t do it. They’re gone. This is the last.”
Watch an exclusive clip from I Am the Blues below: