Tuesday, January 01, 2008:

The Roots Canal: Honeydripper (the movie)

I just thought I'd bring this blog back to life momentarily by suggesting that everyone go out and see John Sayles' new movie, Honeydripper, about the evolution of blues into R&B and rock'n'roll -- not just because it's a fantastic movie but because it's a historic one for anyone who cares about the forgotten roots of American popular music. I saw it this afternoon in New York, where it's currently in limited distribution (along with Los Angeles), but it's due for a rolling national release in January and February. (Tuwa, it's opening at the Hippodrome in Gainesville on February 22nd.) Here's the trailer:

The film is set in rural Alabama in 1950, right in the middle of that incredibly fertile period when jazzmen, bluesmen and other musical pioneers created an exciting new kind of music that went on to sweep the world. Danny Glover gives the performance of his career as a fading bluesman who now runs a juke joint and is watching his music get passed by, as young people flock to the newfangled juke box in the joint next door. To make a long story short, he saves his bar by hiring a young guitarist played by 22-year-old Gary Clark Jr., who knocks everyone's socks off by playing -- what else? -- Good Rockin' Tonight.

Keb Mo plays a mysterious street musician whose character has a surprise twist at the end. Charles Dutton, Stacy Keach, Mary Steenburgen and a bunch of other actors I wasn't familiar with were uniformly outstanding. Ruth Brown was supposed to play an aging blues singer, but when she became too ill to perform she suggested her friend Mable John (a former Raelette!) to cover her role. (Brown actually died on the last day of filming.) The musicians were great, of course; in fact, they played a few gigs last year as the Honeydripper All-Star Band. (The soundtrack will be released February 5th on Rhino Records.) There's also an important part played by the coolest handmade guitar you've ever seen; if you're interested in that sort of thing, here's an interview with the guy who made it.

Now I suppose I shouldn't quibble, but I don't fully agree with Sayles' interpretation of music history. R&B and rock'n'roll didn't grow out of rural blues, but from the jazzy urban jump blues that became popular in the 1940s as jazz musicians started playing in small combos like Louis Jordan's Tympany Five. In this otherwise terrific interview with Sayles, the writer quotes him as saying:
“There was no single moment when R&B, blues, gospel, jazz, and country all came together to create this thing called rock ‘n roll, but a big change came with the advent of the electric guitar."
Actually, the dominant instrument in early R&B and rock'n'roll was the saxophone, particularly the honking-and-screaming style pioneered by Illinois Jacquet in the early '40s. You put that together with the boogie-woogie piano that became popular in the late '30s; the Texas-style blues guitar of people like T-Bone Walker and Goree Carter (and later Chuck Berry); and some great blues shouters like Big Joe Turner and you had rhythm and blues. All it needed was for Wynonie Harris to add a gospel-inspired back beat to Roy Brown's Good Rockin' Tonight in 1947 to ignite the rock'n'roll revolution. That really was the "single moment" when it all came together.

This isn't my theory; it's all laid out in Morgan Wright's Hoy Hoy website which first turned me on to this music and inspired my earlier post on Good Rockin' Tonight. Just for new readers, I've made those songs available again. Listen to Roy Brown's remake (which he called Rockin' at Midnight) and then Elvis's version, and you'll understand why some people think Elvis was nothing but a second-rate Roy Brown impersonator!

Okay, I can't quit without posting a couple of songs for y'all. Gary Clark Jr.'s performance in Honeydripper reminded me a lot of Goree Carter. If you ever wonder where Chuck Berry got his guitar style, listen to this 1949 performance and wonder no more:
Goree Carter and His Hepcats -- Rock Awhile

Here's one more. John Sayles is credited with co-writing three of the songs in the movie. (Does this guy ever run out of talent?) One was called China Doll, after a character in the movie. Another was one of the movie's big gospel numbers. The third played over the closing credits and seems to express Sayles' musical philosophy: The Music Keeps Rolling On. It's performed by Barrence Whitfield, who I'd never heard of before but here's an apropos song of his since I saw Honeydripper on New Year's Day:
Mercy Brothers -- The New Year Blues

Here's something else that's pretty interesting. The filmmakers created a station on Pandora called Honeydripper Radio of music inspired by the movie.

And if you want to know more about the movie's title, check out my earlier post on the original Honeydripper, Joe Liggins. I've made those songs available again, too.

Finally, here are some youtubes of Mable John and Gary Clark Jr. performing with the Honeydripper All-Star Band in New York last summer: