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FAME Review: Various Artists - Bluesland: A Portrait in American Music (DVD)
Various Artists - Bluesland: Adventures in American Music

A Portrait in
American Music

Various Artists

Euroarts 2057168 (DVD)

Available from Naxos.

A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark S. Tucker

Continuing the sumptuous releases so brilliantly marked in the Naxos / Euroarts line of Masters of American Music DVDs comes the second quartet, this time composed of Sarah Vaughn, John Coltrane, Count Basie, and this anthology history of blues. The initial foursome showcased Billy Holiday (here), Charlie Parker (here), Thelonius Monk (here), and The Story of Jazz (here), that last one a combined tribute much like Bluesland. As with those offerings, all in the second wave are remasters of TV specials broadcast through the 80s and 90s and may well be the very best such homages yet presented.

Bluesland starts off with Charlie Patton and Son House and is careful to cast an eye to the African / slave origins and simultaneous rise of the blues in rag, jug, minstrel, gospel, and other modes. W.C. Handy comes in for mention as the father of the blues industry—and please note an emphasis on 'industry', as he was otherwise completely ignorant of the form prior to stumbling across it while waiting for a late train in the deep South. From the moment he heard a lone slide guitarist playing what he deemed the strangest music he'd laid ears to, blues burst on the American music scene.

In a treasury of clips from ancient b&w sources, as well as commentary by the style's masters themselves, Bluesland is meticulous in avoiding dogmas that have been a bit too prevalent in the culture. The true narrative star here, though, is neither Keith David, looking like Lando Calrissian's bayou brother, nor Robert Palmer, the famed critic, but Albert Murray, who renders witheringly omniscient truths upon art itself, bidding us heed its contrasts to, and illuminations upon, life and thought, blues a part of that entirety. Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith aren't neglected either, finding their place beside the predominantly male stars and legends, nor are many of the more essential, rather than the more modernly popular, characters.

For an hour and a half, viewers are given the grand tour in a historical perspective set down in the cotton fields and shanty towns then into the concert halls and speakeasies. By the time it's done, there's little doubt just what happened between plantation, monolithic recording studio, and everywhere in between. The pace is brisk but easy to digest, catching as much of the milieu as possible but never so that a much-needed saturation is avoided, an immersion in one of America's greatest contributions to the world, an estate still being understood in fullness exactly because of efforts like Bluesland.

This DVD is one of four issued in a second wave by Naxos / Euroarts, an agglomerate in an ongoing series, all of which are the zenith of such documentaries. For the remainder of this "set" (they're available separately), see the critiques of John Coltrane (here), Count Basie (here), and Sarah Vaughn (here).

Edited by: David N. Pyles


Copyright 2010, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
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