From Ethnomusicology, Spring/Summer 2014
Published by the Society for Ethnomusicology by University of Illinois Press
Review by Robert W. Fry, Vanderbilt University
Troubadour Blues. Directed, produced and edited by Tom Weber. 2011. DVD, 91 minutes. Distributed by Tom Weber Films, LLC, website: http:// tomweberfilms.com.
The film Troubadour Blues follows the careers of modern day American folk musicians as they travel through the country and document their experiences and the stories of those they meet along the way. The film opens by linking musicians, including Peter Case, Chris Smither, Dave Alvin, Mary Gauthier, Garrison Starr, and Slaid Cleaves, to a long history of musical storytelling, most notably the American blues, a connection that is suggested in the title of the film and reinforced by the musicians who, in interviews, praise the honesty and realness of folk musicians such as John Lee Hooker, Bukka White, Mississippi John Hurt, and Ralph Stanley.
In the process, these musicians authenticate their own musical path through personal and artistic connections to these legends and their craft. Their honesty as folk singers is further reinforced in the opening scene, where the viewer is first introduced to Peter Case performing a song about homelessness. In the following montage, the song stays the same while the venue’s location and decor, and Case’s dress and hairstyle, continuously change, reinforcing not only themes of travel, but also the authenticity of the performer and his role as a travelling storyteller. Case supports this in the opening interview, where he states: “You’ve got to look inside your heart. You’ve got to look in the eyes of people around you, listen to their voices. You’ve got to find a song in there worth singing, and you’ve got to go wherever it goes.”
The theme of travel and its connection to the blues and America’s musical past is further reinforced during the opening credits, when we are introduced to the many singers featured in Troubadour Blues while also visually joining the journey through the windshield of the filmmaker’s vehicle. The trip begins in Nashville at the intersection of Interstates 40 and 440, leads towards Memphis, and ends up in the Delta, home of the blues and the famed crossroads of Clarksdale, Mississippi.
While the film is not geographically isolated to this region of the country, Weber’s choice to make this connection first immediately links the featured folk singers to an ideology and place that is firmly rooted in a nostalgic look at the American South and its famed soundtrack. In his book, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity, James Cobb writes, “I soon noticed that in Mississippi one spoke not of going to Clarksdale, Greenville, or Greenwood, but of traveling ‘into the Delta,’ the implication being that of a passage back in time.”
In Cobb’s observation, the Delta becomes a stage for a performance of the past, which is also a theme throughout Weber’s film, established through the connections made among the blues, the Delta, travelling, and nostalgia for music and performance that is in opposition to the current music industry. While this dichotomy between commercial and folk music is clearly discussed in the film, the musicians show that they are not wholly dismissive of new technologies, but instead utilize them as a new way of bypassing the industry to share their music and stories. For instance, folk musicians Chris Smither and Karl Mullen comment on the many ways social networking has been used to circumvent industry control and help introduce a lot of new non-commercial music to mass audiences.
Such references to technology in Troubadour Blues were a highlight for me and spoke to the power of community in the success of folk music in the twenty first century. In fact, one important theme addressed throughout the film is that live music is about not only the music, but also the community it fosters. For many of these musicians, the process and the interaction with those listening is the most significant aspect of the performance. In the film, singer-songwriters Amy Speace, Anne McCue, and others discuss this relationship, suggesting that a live show is about experiencing something together.
While the relationship between listener and performer is emphasized throughout the film, the listener’s voice is absent. The interaction between audience and performer that is repeatedly praised by the musicians in the film is not represented in the film itself, other than in the segments of concert footage that include the backs of audience members’ nodding heads. An inclusion of how fans of the folk genre interact with the music, why they are drawn to this music, and their interpretations of the genre, and its place in contemporary society would have made this a more complete story and would have helped reinforce the importance of the shared experience suggested by the featured musicians. In addition, this would have potentially yielded answers to questions about the reasons for the continued success of folk music, especially its revived popularity in the first decade of the twenty first century.
Despite the lack of the audience presence in Troubadour Blues, Tom Weber effectively captures the struggles and joys of being a musician outside the mainstream industry. Viewers are provided insight into specific artists, songs, and the songwriting process and are reminded of the importance of music as a storytelling device and a biographical and historical document, as well as the many ways music can reflect the individual and collective. While the film’s central character is Peter Case, and his story and songs bookend the entire film, the other musicians introduced throughout provide a larger picture of the many songs and artists that are continuously travelling around the country.
Like many roots music documentarians before him, Weber has captured a group of musicians and an underground music scene that is often ignored by the media in favor of more commercially profitable music. The artists featured in the film praise “real” folk musicians who came before them, such legends as John Lee Hooker and Mississippi Fred McDowell, who benefited from a new interest in American roots music during the 1960s. Similarly, the growing interest in the Americana music genre in recent years has given today’s folk musicians new musical opportunities, while also catering to the tastes of audiences who are eager to interact with music that is deemed “real,” i.e., in opposition to commercial music’s offerings.
Both researchers and those interested in the sounds of Americana will find in Troubadour Blues the inspiration to close their laptops, turn off their stereos and televisions, and move beyond passive listening to interact with music and musicians at local clubs, festivals, and on make-shift stages, and—finally—to pick up an instrument or a pen and tell their own stories. As singer-songwriter Billy Matheny states in the film: “I think songwriters have a responsibility to write about their hometown and the six blocks around their house, because nobody else is going to do it otherwise. That’s the biggest thing, you know, the songs are all around everyone. They’re yours for the taking. They really are.”