The introduction to this two-part history of the blues trumpets the music as ‘the ultimate brand of authenticity’, surprisingly failing to continue, ‘as imagined by middle-aged Uncut readers and advertising creatives who think it’s still the mid-1980s’. It’s a grim start to a documentary, but it does create a challenge. Can the film relocate the subject of its adoration in the milieu of its birth – the filth and danger of the Mississippi Delta? Via the stories of ‘Race records’, Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Leadbelly (sample newspaper headline: ‘Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel’), it just about manages it.
Towards the end, another current emerges: the likes of Leadbelly weren’t that popular with black music fans who generally preferred the early stirrings of jazz. And so, via Leadbelly and Robert Johnson, we see the beginnings of the blues as white hipster music, embodying an earthy ‘realness’ that is essentially documented rather than experienced by its fans. Expect part two to expand upon this theme which may be less evocative, but more revealing than this opener.