Starting tonight, Friday 29 November 2013, BBC Four will be retracing the history of the blues in a special season of programming intended to put the music back into place and time and explore the shifting and unfolding place of the music in American culture from Mississippi shacks to New York City, from black Chicago to the white suburbs and, most recently, to the White House.
The documentaries explore the blues as a kind of secret history of American culture in the 20th century and beyond.
Cassian Harrison, Channel Editor, BBC Four, said: “The blues matter – it’s as simple as that – and I’m really pleased that we’ve been able to draw together such a fantastic range of programmes that show just why they matter so much. There are tears aplenty of course, but there’s even more to enjoy in what will be an incredible journey through some of the most seminal music of the 20th century.”
Mark Cooper, Head of BBC Music Television, said: “Blues is at the heart of American music and American culture. We wanted to make programmes that didn’t sentimentalise the music but would explore the blues’ extraordinary journey between black and white audiences and musicians. That journey is key to understanding the American 20th century and has also had a huge effect on British popular music.”
Narrated by Huey Morgan and produced by rock photographer and documentarian Mick Gold, the star-studded two-part series – Blues America – sets out to explore how the blues crossed borders and shows that it was not based only in racial oppression and rural poverty but also entertainment, dancing and sexual excitement.
The first programme ‘Woke Up This Morning’ (Friday 29 November, 9pm) looks at the birth of the blues from minstrel and medicine shows into a commercial industry. Gold and contributors including Keith Richards, Taj Mahal and Chuck D. look at key moments in its development, including the arrival of records in the 1920s, the first blues recording stars, and the effects of the 1930s economic depression which drove tens of thousands of black Americans from rural poverty in the South to factory jobs in the North.
The second part, ‘Bright Lights Big City’ (Friday 6 December, 9pm), begins in post-war Chicago, Detroit and Memphis and charts the blues migration to the cities which forged a style that would give birth to rock’n’roll in the 1950s. With insights from Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Seasick Steve and Buddy Guy, Gold charts its progress to the modern day, showing how the blues has now transcended racial and national boundaries to become a central strand of America’s DNA.
Continuing the season of programmes, BBC Four also presents the first ever film biography of Big Bill Broonzy, the American who brought the blues to 1950s Britain and went on to inspire a generation of musicians.
‘Big Bill Broonzy: The Man Who Brought The Blues To Britain’ mixes rare footage with archive and specially-shot live performances to trace the colourful and sometimes disturbing past of a man whose life story was shrouded in mystery. With insights from Ray Davies, Keith Richards, Pete Seeger, Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, Guy Davis and members of the Broonzy family, the documentary follows Broonzy’s remarkable journey from the racist Deep South to the clubs of Chicago and across the world.
BBC Four will also be showing Canadian director James Cullingham’s exploration of the great ‘Primitivist’ guitarist John Fahey, ‘In Search Of Blind Joe Death: The Saga Of John Fahey’ on Sunday 8 December. Fahey pioneered independent labels with his Takoma imprint, forged a unique guitar style that would build on early blues masters, indian music and eventually industrial music. Fahey was also key in the rediscovery of blues artists Skip James and Bukka White.
A BBC Four Session with American singer songwriter Bonnie Raitt, plus surprise guest Paul Brady at Stoke Newington Town Hall, London, is a great concert overview of Raitt’s career that began as a blues revivalist in the early 70s and whose repertoire still features her stinging slide guitar style alongside ballads like Nick of Time and Love Has No Pride.
Friday 29 November
20:00 BBC Four Sessions Tom Jones
Sir Tom Jones in a session of folk, blues and beyond from LSO St Lukes in the City.
21:00 Blues America Woke up this Morning
1/2 How the early blues musicians used the latest media to bring their music to the public.
22:00 Blues at the BBC
Collection of performances by British and American blues artists from the BBC archives. (R)
23:00 Seasick Steve: Bringing It All Back Home
Bluesman Seasick Steve takes a trip back to his old stomping grounds in the Deep South. (R)
23:30 Glastonbury 2013, Seasick Steve
A performance from the West Holts Stage by US bluesman Seasick Steve. (R)
Sunday 1 December
21:00 The Man who Brought the Blues to Britain: Big Bill Broonzy
Biography of the bluesman Big Bill Broonzy, who would inspire a generation of musicians.
Friday 6 December
20:00 BBC Four Sessions Bonnie Raitt
Bonnie Raitt and her band perform songs including Love Has No Pride and Nick of Time.
21:00 Blues America Bright Lights, Big City
2/2 How blues conquered the world and the music moved from black to white audiences.
22:00 Later… with Jools Holland 02/05/2009
With BB King, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Seasick Steve, ZZ Top and many more. (R)
23:00 In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey
Documentary about the legendary guitarist, composer and provocateur John Fahey.
00:00 The Godmother of Rock & Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Documentary about gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who influenced the early rockers. (R)