posted 2012-11-21 22:17:15

True Delta Screening and Live Concert

Macaulay presents a Mississippi blues documentary    

Bruce Le

Staff Writer

On Oct. 19, the City University Film Festival at Macaulay Honors College presented the New York City premiere

of True Delta, a Mississippi Blues documentary. The premiere screened in conjunction with the Mountainfilm series at Lincoln Center, and was followed by a performance by Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry. Two screens were available for patrons, and the crew attended both events.

True Delta was directed by Professor Lee Quinby, a distinguished lecturer at Macaulay, and Daniel Cowen, the creator of the City University Film Festival. When asked how he got involved with the project, Cowen said, “As an undergrad, I made one film with Professor Lee Quinby, Facing the Waves, which premiered at the Mountainfilm Festival in Colorado. While that film was making the festival rounds, Erickson Blakney, the producer and man behind the concept, came to us with his idea [for True Delta]. I was over the moon to work with Lee on another project.”

The film shines a spotlight on blues music performers in the Northwestern Delta region of Clarksdale, Mississippi, which is considered the birthplace of blues music. The crew interviewed blues experts and musicians, and filmed the incomparable performances of artists like James Johnson, Foster “Mr. Tater” Wiley and Josh Razorblade Stewart.

Cowen uses imagery of undulating water and tombstones while interviewees discuss the dying state of blues music. Street signs mixed with shots of outdoor concerts create a lively juxtaposition of emotional connection with the local performers. The shots of Tater Wiley, a recently deceased musician, sitting on a chair on railroad tracks in the blinding sunlight are serene. The film later shows Wiley captivating blues-lovers with his calm stage presence and southern-twang vocals.
Among the featured performers, there’s Super Chikan, Jimbo Mathus, Lucious Spiller and Josh Razorblade Stewart. The film crew connected with many of the artists by attending the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival. Blakney stated that the “pure” festival features only Mississippi musicians. During the film, the musicians discuss the possibilities of the blues. Super Chikan notes that the blues can be upbeat and lighthearted. Mathus says country music and blues overlap frequently, creating a parallel connection to being a Caucasian performer in the blues genre.

Some of the musicians reveal touching personal stories that reflect their outlook on life. Sitting in his dimly lit kitchen, Lucious Spiller says, “Blues is nothing but feeling bad. When people can’t pay they damn bills, that’s the blues.” The film focuses on the troubled life of musician T-Model Ford. Ford grew up with an abusive father and spent time on a chain gang, having been charged with murder after fighting with a man who literally stabbed him in the back. Though they all have stories to tell, the musicians play their music professionally and hold respect for the preservation of the blues.
The latter half of the documentary focuses on the younger generation. Johnny Billington teaches students like 13-year-old Chris “Kingfish” Ingram how to play guitar through the Delta Blues Arts and Education Program at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. The purpose of this program is to teach students how to play music and keep the history of the Delta blues alive. Nine-year-old Stud White plays drums while performing with his grandfather, the blues musician T-Model Ford. Twenty-year-old Sharde Turner sings and performs with a flute-like fife in the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, started by her grandfather Othar Turner. Turner tells the audience she wants to keep playing music past the age of fifty. These young people preserve the original spirit of the blues from their elders.

In the film, Perry also speaks of the importance of teaching blues music to kids. Quinby said, “We’re really committed to helping support the Arts and Education Program at Blues-oriented museums and programs that support kids learning both the music and the discipline that goes with creating it.”
Lasting 37 minutes, the film packs in so much material that could be expanded if one were to take into consideration the amount of work that went into creating the footage. “We have around 100 hours of footage, including performances, interviews, and extensive B-roll,” said Quinby.

Comparing True Delta to the first film they did together, Cowen said, “The production and idea were great in scope. The blues has been covered in every angle and we were looking for something singular here.”

After the screening, patrons were directed downstairs to enjoy a performance by Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry and his band. People danced as Perry introduced them to the concept of a “jukenanny,” his version of a southern hootenanny or party. The room lit up, and everyone smiled as Perry effortlessly sang through songs with his southern drawl and gentlemanly charisma.

Coming from such hallowed ground, the blues can never be replaced by the digital conventions of modern music. Attempts to evolve defy the meaning of the blues. On the other hand, a specialized genre that isn’t being taught in classrooms nationwide is in danger of fading away. True Delta enlightens viewers to the unabashed, at times profound artistry of blues music while warning of a future that could be destitute without it.