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VOL. 126 | NO. 61 | Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Still Singing the Blues

Local film to show misfortune, heartache of musicians

By Andy Meek

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Local filmmaker Lee Gordon has a simple goal in mind for “This is Why We Still Sing the Blues,” a documentary he hopes to wrap up by the end of the year.

Filmmaker Lee Gordon, right, and cinematographer Ryan Nichols interview blues musician Blind Mississippi Morris for a documentary called, “Why We Still Sing the Blues.” Gordon said the project will explore how blues musicians have been exploited.  Participating musicians will receive part ownership of the film.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Its subject matter is the singers and musicians like Blind Mississippi Morris and others for whom the blues has at times proven to be both their art as well as their misfortune.

Gordon’s film will tell stories of opportunistic record companies that presented bluesmen with the promise of riches dangling behind a dotted line. In those stories, the record companies often got what they came for, minting gold from the sound of the Delta blues – even though the recordings may have come in exchange for something as cheap as a false promise, $50 or a bottle of whiskey.

That’s why Gordon has a specific goal in mind for what he hopes his film will give its subjects once the credits roll.

He wants them to get recognition, as well as reward.

Any money he makes from the movie will be proportionally distributed to the musicians whose work and image he will capture.

That includes musicians like Morris, who sings in the film’s trailer, “Why do I sing, when I should be crying out loud?”

Gordon has been either working or thinking about the project since last year. He’s also become friends with Morris and his family.

“I talked to Morris a lot about not only what used to happen in the past but the fact that it’s still happening,” Gordon said. “I just thought, ‘I’ve really got to make this thing.’”

In the trailer for the film, which can be seen at www.whywestillsing.com, Morris can be seen on a rocking chair lamenting his fellow bluesmen who got record deals and then “never got paid a single dime.” An image flashes on the screen of Robert Johnson, the early 20th century blues great who supposedly sold his soul at a Mississippi crossroads in exchange for the ability to play the blues.

“Morris was telling me that last century there would be all kinds of folklorists and people who would come out to the country with portable recording equipment and just go to rural areas in the South,” Gordon said. “These folklorists would go out into rural areas and say, ‘Hey, who’s playing around here? Where can I listen to music?’ And they’d go and record these people and say, ‘If you sign here, I’ll give you $50.’

“And these people would legitimately sign their names, thinking, ‘Man, what did I do to deserve this?’”

The blues, of course, is deeply woven into the cultural and musical fabric of Memphis’ history, and it remains an expansive piece of that tapestry.

The city sits at a literal and figurative center of the art form.

The Blues Foundation’s 32nd Blues Music Awards will be held May 5 at the Memphis Cook Convention Center. The awards will be broadcast on Sirius XM’s Bluesville channel and will feature blues performers, industry representatives and fans from around the world.

Meanwhile, the history of the blues is still relevant to the story of how the art form has left an indelible mark – especially since Gordon’s film will also attempt to show how the exploitation of musicians is continuing.

Anyone who wants to help get the movie made can donate through Kickstarter, the fundraiser Website where Gordon is raising money to see the project through.

“And any musician who I interview or who is involved with this process, I’m going to give ownership of the film,” Gordon said. “For instance, I’m interviewing Blind Mississippi Morris, and he is going to get a percentage of the film. He’s going to be able to say, ‘I own that.’”

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