Q&A: Is Blues Music on the Verge of Extinction?

(Originally appeared on Vanityfair.com, November 12 2008)

In the spring of 2008, two blues producers, Roger Stolle and Jeff Konkel, piled into a Dodge conversion van and drove through the Delta region of northwestern Mississippi, capturing an art form very nearly on the brink of extinction: the pre-war (World War II, that is) style of country blues originally made famous by—among others—Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson. The result is M for Mississippi, a DVD-only production shot over the course of one week, and available at mformississippi.com.

Stolle, the owner of the Cat Head arts and music store in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and Konkel, owner the Broke & Hungry blues label in St. Louis, performed a mission not dissimilar to what Ry Cooder set out to achieve when he recorded and filmed the musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club, beginning in 1996. These blues musicians, like their Cuban counterparts, are now mostly in their seventies and eighties and on the verge of passing away.

Vanity Fair spoke with Stolle and Konkel on the release of M for Mississippi about the complicated logistics required for such an undertaking, what constitutes an authentic juke joint, and where the blues, perhaps the most quintessential of all American art forms, might be headed in a digital, 21st century world.

VF Daily: One of the interesting things about this movie is how well you captured the essence of real-life juke joints. I think many people nowadays think of a juke joint as being House of Blues or B.B. King’s club in Times Square.

Roger Stolle: I think that’s true. I think the term “juke” has just been abused. People started calling a regular old club a juke joint. But if you look at these real joints, these rag-tag places, it’s totally different. You get the crowds that talk back to the acts. You have lighting that’s very dim. There’s a real atmosphere.

Sometimes you see the spotlight behind the artist, shining in the audience’s faces, and sometimes there’s no real stage, just a patch of carpet, and when you look around, you can’t help but think, How is it possible that a fire marshal didn’t get involved here? But I’m grateful for that, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The audience really becomes a part of what’s going on. They are not just the observer; they’re the participants.

True, but I don’t think many tourists necessarily want to feel that.

Jeff Konkel: Oh! I think you are absolutely right, but let me tell you something: I have been in gentrified blues and rock clubs where I’ve felt more endangered than I ever have in a juke joint.

Roger: We never had a problem in a juke joint. There have been very minor cases of someone, usually drunk, saying something obnoxious to us, but there’s been nothing too problematic at all.

How long did it take you to prepare for this movie?

Jeff: From initially sketching out the concept, signing up all of the musicians, to raising the funds, it took about two years. The idea, itself, was born in the fall of 2006.

How did the idea initially come about?

Roger: Jeff and I have been involved with many projects to document the blues—like producing records, owning a blues store—but collectively we started thinking about doing something bigger. Initially, one of the inspirations was the Living Country Blues three CD-box set, released in the U.S. by Evidence Records, which was a compilation or distillation of a much larger multiple LP project of field recordings done in the 1980s. In one month’s time, a small team of European blues fans recorded several dozen blues artists while traveling throughout the South.

We thought we could do the same thing; that we could record a multi-CD compilation, just one set or song from all these different obscure country bluesmen throughout the Delta. Then it became: Why should we just record audio when we could do video as well?

Jeff: In the end, the movie became a love letter to Mississippi. It’s a trip through this great state, showing how accessible and real these musicians are. The movie was shot over a seven-day time period, and anybody could have done it. We weren’t trying to act like we were musicologists or rock stars or the guys who’ve done these kinds of things in the past. We’re regular guys. Blues fans. We just hope this will inspire other people to do similar things; maybe not record or produce a film, but perhaps just to visit these musicians, to visit these cheap juke joints, to check out the Mississippi landscape, to get a feel for the atmosphere that allowed blues to be created and to have survived for this long.

I’d imagine a lot of these musicians have been ripped off in the past. Was there concern from their standpoint that they would be take advantage of once again?

Jeff: I think a lot of them at least perceive that they have been ripped off and a few probably have. It’s always complicated. There is a rich tradition of blues artists being ripped off that goes back decades, but, in today’s world, the market has shrunk and shrunk and shrunk. I think there are probably still musicians who assume that a record is selling hundreds of thousands of copies, whereas in reality, you’re lucky that it’s selling hundreds of copies. I certainly understand where there is suspicion, but we don’t have quite as much of that today.

How challenging was it to work with these musicians? A lot of them are real characters.

Roger: Many of them don’t have reliably working phones, many don’t have bank accounts and can’t cash checks. Several can’t read, most have health problems. This is really something you have to want to be involved with, because there are a lot easier ways to make money and a lot easier ways even to work within the blues genre.

Jeff: Absolutely. It’s always sort of remarkable to me when people will tell us, “Oh! I’ll bet you guys are making a bunch of money!” If I wanted to make money, there are far easier ways. I mean, name any genre of music and there will be easier money to be made.

Even bluegrass now pays well. Look at the recent Alison Krauss/Robert Plant CD. It’s sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Whereas the blues . . .

Jeff: Right. Bluegrass now ends up in commercials, whereas this type of music doesn’t. If we really wanted to make money within the blue genre, we would handle blues-rock or Southern soul musicians.

Have any of your CDs made money?

Jeff: It is hard to say. Take a guy like Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. I’ve probably sold more of his records than anyone, but, on the other hand, if Jimmy has a gig somewhere, I have to be there to make sure he shows up, that he has everything he needs. So I will drive eight hours through the dark, I will pay for my own hotel room, I will pay for all the gas and for my meals and so on. I am happy to do this, that’s part of the mission. But when you are factoring in all these costs, the correct answer is that the best-case scenario is that one of our projects breaks even.

What is it about the blues that you both love so much?

Jeff: When I first heard this music it seemed like it was being transmitted from another planet; like a ham radio from Mars. It just felt so immediate and surreal. More than anything, it’s real. I mean these guys are not reenacting something. They are not harkening back to an earlier era. This is their life.

When Wesley Jefferson sings about being a four-year-old and riding in his mother’s cotton sack while she was working in the fields, that’s a very real experience for him.

There’s a very homogeneous culture in America now. The food in St. Louis isn’t really all that different from the food in Chicago or Portland, Oregon, or New York. But in Mississippi everything is different. You can even have a completely different style of blues from one town to the next, and we’re only talking maybe forty miles. To me, that’s remarkable.

You mentioned earlier that you feel that your movie is a love letter to Mississippi. I suppose it’s also a love letter to a former way of life; not necessarily a better or simpler time, but a time when one could find regional differences, when the country wasn’t one large strip-mall.

Jeff: Yes, and Mississippi represents that. Our purpose in making this movie was to push Mississippi out to the wider world, while also pulling people into this world. That’s one of the reasons I like the movie so much. It’s push and pull. We are pushing it out and, at the same time, really trying to encourage people to come to Mississippi. It’s an intoxicating place.

It is really as near to a foreign country as you could find within the U.S.

Where do you see the blues headed? Do you think that this genre of music will live into the next generation?

Roger: Well, the blues isn’t going to go away. The blues will show up in rock, as well as in different formats for a very long time to come: hip-hop, soul blues and all the rest of it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a given. History has evolved, and technology has evolved, and entertainment has evolved, and will continue to evolve. But what’s also a given is that this world that we tried to capture will certainly dissipate at some point. This specific type of blues might disappear.

Jeff: It really comes down to this: the musicians you see in the movie aren’t able to travel that far, and they certainly won’t be able to in ten years time. See them now, or see them never.