SXSW Interview: Blues Legend Bobby Rush and Director Daniel Cross talk I Am The Blues

This week, I sat down with Daniel Cross, the Director and Producer of the music documentary I Am the Blues here at SXSW, in Austin, Texas. The film takes us on a journey through the American South, led by the great Bluesmen who have provided a Soundtrack to the region over the last century. One of those men, Blues legend Bobby Rush, joined Daniel and myself to discuss the film. 

The first thing I want to talk about is how the project started. You ended up with so many great interviews in this film… What was the starting point? 

Daniel: Well, I made a call to a guy named Ira Padnos, “Dr Ike”, who lives in New Orleans and runs a thing called the Ponderosa Stomp Foundation. Over 15 years, [he] has discovered and re-claimed or re-introduced many musicians that were lost. Blues musicians, soul singers, mostly in that kind of Blues and swamp pop and kind of rhythm and Blues and soul…  So, most – not Bobby [Rush], Bobby has been busy all his life – but many of the players in the film in the 1970’s stopped performing and had to get day jobs. And then Dr Ike found them, and met them, and got them a gig to do this Ponderosa Stomp and it re-kick-started their careers as they got older. So, I called him up and he’s actually “Dr Ike” because he’s a neurosurgeon at the trauma centre in New Orleans, so he works and then he’ll get like 10 days off at a time.

He’s just told me, he says “come on down, I’ll meet you, I’ll pick you up on the street corner, just tell me where you are in New Orleans and we’ll hit the road.” No agenda, no arrangements or anything. As we would drive close to McComb, Missississipi, he would call up and go “hey, are you there?” And we’d just drive right into their house. We’d approach Jackson…  “Bobby? OK, you’re home, we’re coming by to see you.” We would just literally drop in. And they had an affinity for him, and we just did these interviews to try to find who were characters that could sustain a longer, focused documentary about them. We must’ve filmed about 40, and all those interviews are on our website, and focused on about 11 musicians for the film. Bobby’s the glue; he’s the main character that holds it all together. So, it was really just kind of like a little magical mystery road trip. That was the energy for the film too. It was like vérité, I didn’t want to just want to go in talking to celebrities talking about Bobby Rush, I wanted to hang out with Bobby Rush and his friends.

Bobby Rush in his own words [laughs]. And in your own words, Bobby, what was that experience like working with Dan, telling your stories and reflecting on your amazing career?

Bobby: Oh, it was a great time and a great experience for me. His personality came off so well with me, and with the other musicians and the entertainers that he met and who we met the together. Some of the guys I hadn’t met in a long time myself, I got to see Henry Grey, who’s a piano player, who’s 90-something years old, and Lazy Lester, who’s as old as I am, who’s about as old as dirt. Nice guys… it was a good reunion for me, and good for my heart to get back to see these guys again.

But the main thing about this film, it’s that he had the love for the guys who do it, and the music that they come from, and the bedding that they come from. The point I’m getting to is that, some of these guys haven’t gotten their dos, haven’t played them in many years, who never got recognised for the things they do, but they’re a part of the Blues system. And this is the last of it. And the hard part about this, is that there won’t be no more of this. This is it. You know, this is it. It’ll be a long time before you’ll find guys who got 40, 50 years in the business, ‘cause the younger guys come along now, maybe they don’t recognise what the Blues mean to them, or the root of the Blues because nobody is embracing that now. You got the last of the kind. So thanks to Dan for doing what you did with this film, and I’m glad to be a part of it.

Daniel: Yeah, well, I couldn’t do it without you, I really appreciate your constant solidarity in the project.

Bobby: You know, when you started making this film, we were business men, then we were at the middle where he was my little brother, then at the end of it he’s my son. So, that’s how the relationship’s gone. It really did. And I went out of my way to try to show my friendship back to him, to come to do this with him and follow him, and hope that he’ll make a mark in this world about the Blues and what it stands for, what it is and what it was and what it’s going to be.

I think an important message that comes from the film for my generation and people who have grown up listening to the Blues, and modern Blues, realising that yeah, this is it. The new artists like Gary Clark Jr and people like that are, you know, doing incredible things but it’s different. You can’t re-create what you were singing about in the 50’s and 60’s…

Bobby: You know, I’m glad you said that because Gary Clark Jr is an example, he’s carrying it on, in a different form and fashion, it’s still the same thing about the Blues, you know? I don’t know him on a personal basis but I’m hoping that I’ll come to be his granddad too, he’ll come on board and we’ll get to know each other and carry the Blues on. It’s a torch.

From a stylistic point of view, I was reminded of the documentary Muscle Shoals in the fact that the location becomes a character as much as the subjects themselves. How much photography work were you doing in those areas? There’s some beautiful, beautiful shots, especially towards the beginning of the film.

Daniel: Well, fortunately one of the things we had to do to be around Bobby is be on the road, ‘cause the road is his thing. So –

Bobby: It’s my home, man. [Laughs]

Daniel: – So, when you’re moving all around like that, it’s a great opportunity to pick up landscape shots and to visit the core of Tutwiler, or the dockery plantation, Po’ Monkey’s in Merigold… The cinematographer is a landscape documentary poet. He’s not a traditional documentarian… he would never do an interview if his life depended on it. So, anytime we stopped, he would just get lost and we’d have to go find him. He would just drift farther and farther and he realised he would have to be fast so he would get lost in a hurry! [Laughs]

Bobby: Gaining information, that’s what he was doing.

Daniel: Yeah, so, it became really important and there’s so much of that footage. Actually, we had to downplay it a bit because in some ways Mississippi is a state of, what you would almost call “ruin-porn”, the ruin is unbelievable. It’s like, you go into these towns and there’s the city hall, and the roof is all collapsed. And right next to it is the funeral home… between us we found the Hearse in Tutwiler under all this rubble. There’s the funeral home Hearse that carried Emmett Till, when he almost started the civil rights revolution. And it’s just like “Oh my God,” but some of the imagery is too powerful. It’s too political. We had to be really careful, that was maybe the hardest thing. Because, you know, the characters aren’t really talking that politically, they’re not trying to complain about it. Bobby explains some things and so do some of the others. And, as much as I wanted to infiltrate a certain reality to the film, I didn’t want to then on my own take the empowerment of overly politicising the film because it wasn’t my role to do that within this film. But, yeah, the landscape is something.

The music does that in itself though, I mean, the nature of the Blues is political in itself… 

Daniel: The daily toil and struggle of just getting your loaf of bread.

And it is, of course, mentioned in the film that with things so different in today’s age, that’s why the Blues is in itself so different…

Bobby: And another thing, Dan was so kind to dig into the Blues that are written, and what had happened. He was kind to get the best out of that. But that was a thing he didn’t talk about [the politics of the Blues]… he didn’t dig into those kind of things, but he did get some truth out of it, to make it a good movie and a true movie. He was kind to the guys who did it, even before my time and the whole bit, because we went through a lot of trials and tribulations to get to where we are now.

Some people who have done what I’m doing now have died for the cause. Some people got hung for doing what I do. Some people got killed for saying what I say. There haven’t been many people who crossed over to a white audience, and yet helped the black audience, as a black man. ‘Cause most people who did what I’ve done have had managers and record companies that say “this is what you do, you do this because this is what white people like. If you want to do this, this is what black people like.” But I happen to do anything that I want to do and hope everyone likes it. It’s not a black and white issue with me, but that’s not true for everybody. Dan was kind enough to be, to put me in a position that it wouldn’t embarrass me, [that it wouldn’t] make me feel bad about me as a person, and where I come from as a black man, as a Blues singer. And I appreciate that.

You were talking before about how Bobby has had longevity in his career, whereas some of the musicians you speak to have been out of the spotlight for a long time. What do you attribute your longevity to, is it just persistence?

Bobby: No, I don’t think it’s anything but a blessing. I was blessed enough to be at the right place at the right time. I was crazy enough to be sane but I had enough sense to be crazy, whatever that is. [Laughs] I didn’t know if this was going to be… 60-something years later I was going to be this guy talking to Dan about some movie that we’ve done, back in the past. And when you look at all the guys that did what I’ve done, most of them aren’t around to talk about it anymore. Most of them can’t talk about it. I don’t have the knowledge of it… I don’t want to speak about it. Because there are some things that guys in my years won’t talk about. When a guy my age…if B.B. King and I are sitting and talking, one on one, when you show up as a reporter, nine times out of ten, the conversation changes when you show up. You follow me? I happen to be the one guy that whatever I talk about when you’re not there, you can be sure that I talk about the same thing [when you are]. I’m one of the few guys who do that. And then there are guys who talk about what I talk about, and the way I talk about it, they’re not able to talk about it. You follow me?

I do.

Bobby: You know, Martin Luther King marched and got killed about the march. But I’m still marching in my music, and I’m still here to talk about it. That doesn’t happen to everybody.

The Juke Joint, as well, becomes a character in the film, and the beautiful locations that you came across. Did you learn a lot through this process? I imagine you discovered so much about the history of Blues music, especially the places they played and the people they played with.

Daniel: Of course, travelling around [on] the first trip with Dr Ike, and stopping at the graves of Robert Johnson and being at Dockery Plantation and ending up in Lafayette and the Hill Country with Robert Belfour and CeDell Davis and R. L. Boyce, and then ending up in Memphis, at Reverend Al Green’s church, and then going to the other church, Willie Mitchell’s studio to meet the high rhythms section, and sitting at Alain Toussaint’s piano. You know what, everybody I just mentioned almost aren’t in the movie. And there’s another score of people that are in the movie. So they’re all on the website, a massive website that people should go to.

It’s funny, I decided as I was meeting them that I wanted to focus on the musicians that didn’t have management, that were still living basically in their home towns and playing music, touring… Lazy Lester, Carol Fran, Barbara Lynn, Little Buck, Jimmy Dux, cutting a vinyl right now… they’re all active. But, you know, there was something more intimate about working with them in their homes and getting them together. Because they still visited each other, they still saw each other. They were still at home, I guess, which really appealed to me.

What I learned, ultimately, about it was to meet elders, who through the life of pain and racism and stereotyping that they’ve lived through, [they] maintain such a grace about them, and a positive outlook on life, and a love for people. They have no reason to love me, I represent the corporate person that stole all their stuff, the white guy… so you learn a lot just experiencing that, that was way beyond music or the caption of Blues. That was by far the most precious [thing].

Finally, if there’s one thing that you hope people take away from this film, what would that be?

Daniel: Well, when the film was called I Am the Blues that was for whoever reads it and says it, “I am the Blues”. They become the Blues because the Blues is about a certain way of processing things you experience in your life and taking that, “let’s just call it the Blues”, and turning it into something constructive and positive that can help others. And it’s not violent. So I guess that’s what I hope for.

[To Bobby] I know you haven’t seen the film yet… [laughs].

Bobby: I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’m hoping that people understand that the Blues ain’t something that you always cry about, but it’s not something you always laugh about [either]. Because the same thing that makes you laugh, can make you cry. It’s not always sad, it’s not always happy, but it’s part of life.

Because there’s nothing funny about losing your wife, or your girlfriend, to an enemy, but it does hurt [worse] when you lose her to the garbage man, you know? I’m talking about…loss is loss, dead is dead, but we talk about those kind of things… He gets this with this film. Because we’re coming from guys, when I spoke about dead I’m not talking about flesh that is dead, I’m talking about people forgotten. He’s got people who are forgotten, musically, they’re forgotten. They aren’t the Blues guys, they’ve got family, they’ve got Dads, they’ve got kids. These are people, these are human beings who never got a shot in life. He went back and got people who never got a shot in life, who haven’t been up on a totem pole or what have you, and given them a shot. This is history. This is life. We hope, I’m hoping that people will understand that the Blues ain’t no joke, it’s something that’s real life, it’s about the root of all music, and that all music comes from the Blues, and the gospel.

This is the origin story. [All Laughs] Well, I thank you so much for your time and congratulations on such a beautiful film. I hope everyone enjoys it at the premiere today!

Bobby: This is your film

This is everyone’s film.

This interview was conducted by Larry Heath.

Find out more about I Am the Blues’ and other screenings here.