Feel Like Going Home begins with a voiceover of Martin Scorsese saying, “I can’t imagine my life or anyone else’s without music. It’s like a light in the darkness that never goes out.” His statement carries some weight, but some music is much more than an eternal beacon in the night. For some it is a form of identity, history, community, and resistance. And when it comes to blues music, Corey Harris says it best in his opening voiceover: “Blues is the one thing they can never take away from black people.”
Feel Like Going Home is the first episode in a seven-part series titled The Blues: A Musical Journey. The series aired on PBS in fall 2003 and now is available on DVD. Directed by Martin Scorsese, this episode takes us on three journeys. One journey is geographical, settling on various porches in the Deep South all the way to West Africa. Another is through the history of blues music legends, both living and passed on. A third is through the music itself, with both live and archival performances. Harris serves as our guide on all three intertwined paths.
Through voiceover and on-screen presence, Harris leads us on a musical journey through Alabama and Mississippi, particularly the Delta regions. Various shots show him traveling by car and by plane to his destinations, and he ends up talking with legends on front porches and in back yards. The significance of these locations emerges in the voiceover in that the blues can still be felt in there, or at least Harris can feel it. The blues emerges from the types of work African American people were forced to do there, cotton-picking and other field work, on the land.
Harris visits with a variety of blues players still living in the Deep South. He talks with them about their careers and about the other legends no longer with us. His first stop is with Sam Carr, who played drums for Robert Nighthawk. Carr talks about making music then: “Then you had to play. String for string, you had to play.” His fingers fold around the air as if forming invisible notes on invisible frets as he talks. Harris also visits Willie King, who explains why blues lyrics often refer to women as keeping a good man down: Women actually referred to the owners and bosses.
A particular treat is Otha Turner, who plays the fife or cane flute. Turner recalls “blowing the cane” as a child and how his mother hated the racket it made. But the fife has an even deeper meaning than just a way of irritating your parents. According to Scorsese’s voiceover, the fifes and drums were forbidden by punishment of death before the Civil War. Scorsese continues, “When you listen to the fife and drum, the presence of Africa is unmistakable. Something was kept alive in this music. These rhythms were carefully preserved and passed down, generation to generation, through slavery, through Jim Crowe, right up until the present. It was an act of survival.”
The film also talks about the legends: Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker. Archival footage and interviews, and contemporary commentary, provide some insight into the extent of these greats’ lasting influence and their styles. Son House tells us, “There ain’t but one kind of blues. And that consists of between male and female that’s in love.” He then notes that he had been married five times, so he knew a lot about the subject. His performance in the archival footage shows his passion for the music, with the sweat pouring off him and the slide working the strings.
A still shot shows a young Muddy Waters in a suit with a record. The story behind the picture is this: When Waters got the record in the mail, he put on the suit and tie and arranged for that picture. It was at that time that he knew he could leave the Deep South and pursue his music elsewhere.
Robert Johnson’s life was short, but his contributions are immeasurable. Only two known pictures of him exist. He died at 27 and left behind a catalogue of 29 recorded songs. Yet a short series of shots of contemporary artists who have covered Johnson’s work demonstrates his lingering influence. Harris and Keb’ Mo’ perform “Sweet Home Chicago” (which many recognize from the Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi movie The Blues Brothers) and discuss Led Zeppelin’s cover.
John Lee Hooker’s music “was born in the Delta and cut right to the bone,” even though Hooker performed in Detroit. Audiences in the Motor City knew nothing about the music’s origins, but they did know you could dance to it. Archival footage shows Hooker performing while young couples move along to the music.
Harris’s journey eventually takes him to several countries in West Africa, and it is here the connections between the blues and West African culture become stronger. Harris explains that the key connection between Africa and the blues is the rhythm. The drums in polyrhythmic African music get replaced by other instruments in the blues, notably the guitar.
Harris talks and plays with several men in Western Africa, and these African men share their thoughts on music, blues, and identity. Salif Keita, of Mali, says, “Every time I listen to American blues, I think about slavery. And for me it is always talking about love or suffering. And I feel it.” Habib Koité points to the similarities in African music and blues music through their focus on melancholy and their use of a pentatonic scale.
A scene of a small group of men singing in Africa helps in creating some of these musical connections. One man sings about a hunt (or so the titles tell us), and as he says a line, the rest of the men echo it. The style is like the call and response structure often heard in blues, gospel, and other forms of African American music.
Harris also learns about different instrumentation. Toumani Diabate comes from a long like of kora players; as he talks, different shots show how the instrument is made. Diabate also mentions the griot, another traditional instrument. He says, “You can take people. You can take off his clothes. You can take off his shoes. You can take off his name, and give him another name. The only thing that you can never take from him is his culture.”
Harris meets with Ali Farka Toure, a man considered royalty in his country. As royalty he was forbidden to play music, but he ignored that taboo and learned anyway. Toure has a lot to say about Black Americans, mostly by emphasizing that they are Africans and their music is still African, even if they lost their ethnicity and legends along the way. He laments, “Our souls, our spirits are the same. They are the same thing. There is no difference.”
Toure also provides the most extended commentary on John Lee Hooker and his response to hearing Hooker’s music: “The first time I heard John Lee Hooker I heard his music but I said, ‘I don’t understand this, where did they come up with this culture?’ This is something that belongs to us. But it’s different. Because he had to play to make a living. Otherwise, these tunes are made neither for whiskey, nor for scotch, nor for beer.” During this commentary he and Harris perform “Catfish Blues.”
Aside from Harris and the audience, there is another traveler in this journey: Alan Lomax. In the 1930s and 1940s Lomax traveled the Deep South and the world to record music for the Library of Congress. Lomax first recorded Leadbelly singing “Good Night, Irene” while he was still in prison. Scorsese provides voice to Lomax’s words and one particularly insightful comment stills holds an ominous warning: “When the whole world is automated, mass-distributed video music, our descendants will despise us for having thrown away the best of our culture.”
In all this film provides a lot of historical information about blues music and blues legends. The dazzling amount of archival materials brings history to life. The film also works to create the connection between blues music and African music, and through the interviews and performance, it explains the connections through instrumentation, rhythms, and feeling.
The film gets confusing at times. A lot of information gets crammed into this 75-minute episode, and some points and themes could have been developed more, such as the subversive aspects of the music, the importance of the Deep South to it, or the history of the legends, particularly those living. Two voices in the voiceover – Harris and Scorsese – forces a pause once in a while, as both narrators use first person to infuse their own opinions and thoughts on the music. Harris’s contributions add more insight; with comments like, “I can’t imagine my life or anyone else’s without music. It’s like a light in the darkness that never goes out,” Scorsese’s voice brings little more than weightless platitudes. Either way, the film needs to be longer or narrower in scope to accommodate all of the information here.
Appreciation of any music comes through in listening. This is something Scorsese knows quite well; witness his tribute to The Band in The Last Waltz. The film contains a fair amount of contemporary performance, mostly informal. Harris performs with Taj Mahal and Keb Mo on a soundstage, and he plays with Carr and Turner on their porches. But the performances in Feel Like Going Home didn’t seem like enough. Songs were often cut short, and performances were fragmented at best. There needed to be more performance, with more time allowed for completed songs, than there were in this film.
Feel Like Going Home takes us on a long journey from porches in the Deep South to the shores of the Niger River in West Africa. The journey through the blues is a detailed one, but it needed to take more leisurely stops to listen to the music along the way.