by Wim Wenders
Let's imagine for a moment that the Blues had all but disappeared
and had just vanished from musical history. Let's say we had lost
any trace of its legendary performers from the Twenties and Thirties.
Let's assume that the hardships of the Depression years had erased
all that memory. Now, by chance, someone would dig up a few of these
old recordings! Necessarily, the one fundamental question immediately
arises: Where did this music come from? Where were the roots of
these plaintive laments, these mournful rhythms, this steady, relentless
If that determined researcher wasn't deaf or blind, he or she would
quickly come to the conclusion that this music just had to have
been born in the south of the United States, probably in Mississippi,
Louisiana or Alabama. Of peculiar interest would soon emerge what
the local residents of Mississippi call "The Delta", that
expanse of wet flatlands that fan out from the river just south
Actually traveling through Mississippi in the early twenty-first
century, looking for traces of two of my blues heroes, Skip James
and J.B. Lenoir, my real life quest didn't feel all that different
from that researcher's imaginary mission. I seemed to be crossing
a territory out of synch with our modern times and lost in a daydream
of itself. The river moved slowly as ever, in its very own timeless
dimension. Still, the muddy current had its own ominous momentum,
a latent power to rise up and overflow its banks and its man-made
barriers built to contain the waters. Even today, these levees seem
to reverberate with the work songs and field hollers sung by the
slaves who built them. And going even further back in time, the
chants of the Algonquian Indians resound. All we understand is that
they name their mystical stream is "Mississippi", meaning
simply "big river". It still has an air of eternity about
it. Its domestication, then as now, seems a temporary, futile effort.
The white puffs of cotton in the bushes here or there, are they
left over to remind us of the past, before the big harvesting machines
came in? When was that? In the thirties? Or was it only recently?
And what's that growing over there, all of a sudden? Rice? Could
that be right or am I dreaming? And those still waters over there?
"Aquaculture" the signs say. How does that song go, the
"Catfish Blues"? "I wish I were a catfish, swimming
in the deep blue sea
" But "catfish farms"?
No Blues song ever dealt with those
A lonely shotgun shack here and there, the same old metal chair
in a faded blue or green forgotten on the porch. If I had to just
say the first word that would come to my mind about houses in Mississippi
I would say "corrugated iron." In hindsight, that seems
like the surface of choice - rusty, patched together, trees growing
out of the roofs of these huts. Close your eyes, and in a flash,
you can still see smoke coming from the chimneys in the back. A
guitar starts, joined by a harmonica
even the soft breeze
of the wind here sounds like the blues.
Once I entered one of these places. There were still plates on
the table, covered with dust. A fork and a knife. Form behind the
broken cupboard I pulled a newspaper that was sticking out. The
headlines were about the war. No, not Vietnam, not Korea. The year
Those men in the striped suits out there, they must be shooting
a prison movie. What do you mean? They are what? Really?
Whole forests, riverbanks, even buildings and abandoned sites are
overgrown with the thick impenetrable green of Kudzu. Early in the
20th century, locals brought the plant in from Japan to forestall
erosion. But the weed had no enemies here in the South and it spread
everywhere quickly, wrapping trees and rusting tractors alike, as
if on diabolical instructions from nature's own demented Christo.
Kudzu has created mysterious landscapes of leafy castles, hiding
enchanted palaces of the past underneath. All of it frozen in time.
Arms stretched up in despair, reaching for the sky, heads bowed.
Half fairytale territory, half giant graveyards. You park your car
here and fall asleep, a few hours later you will be covered and
suffocated as well. Cinderella country, sleeping in the sun, forgotten,
forsaken, waiting to be kissed awake.
Once, these places had a voice. The blues was that voice. The blues
spoke powerfully and proudly and with confidence. But the blues
moved away. It went to the big cities. It became electrified. It
turned into Jazz and Rock'n roll and Punk and Rap. Here, where it
was born, it is history. Kudzu growing over it.
We're so far away from Africa, light years away. That continent
is on another planet. Yet its music moved here, on the slave ships.
It grew in this heat, and with the blood and the sweat and the tears
of generations of exploited and oppressed people it became the music
of America, its most authentic and powerful expression. Now it has
transformed into the world's most popular and widespread sound,
has turned into the best-understood universal language. Only here,
at its origin, time has stood still.
We were shooting scenes in this landscape that were supposed to
take place in the Thirties, during the Depression. No need to dress
anything. Mississippi is still depressed. It is the poorest state
in the Union. But how friendly, how generous, it is! Give me any
of these sleepy towns anytime?-with their high sidewalks, the stark
shadows, the deafening sounds of the crickets?? over any of those
shopping malls, that theme park no-man's-land everywhere else. Give
me those Sunday mornings, with everybody walking to church, in white
shirts, pressed suits, abundant colors, gorgeous hats. People look
at you, yes, look at your eyes, smile, and invite you in.
Poverty is certainly no privilege, cannot be glorified, and must
not be stylized to be what it is not. But poverty is no shame, that's
for sure. Wealth can easily turn into a shame. Poverty can be worn
with dignity. Wealth is only too often an ill-fitting suit.
Mississippi is like the music it brought to life. Like the blues,
it is honest and pitiless and patient and sad and relentless. Like
the Blues, it is broken without ever losing its pride. Like the
Blues, it speaks of misery and pain and suffering, but it also knows
about the highest aspirations of the human soul.
Blues is utterly worldly and profane, and yet able to transcend
our lives. It can get to the bottom of it, but can also lift us
up to the highest heavens. The landscape in which this music was
conceived had these contradictions in its genes to begin with. It
is embracing them still.
to NewsReel February 2004