The Blues Comes To The BBC

by Arne Brogger

In 1976, I received a call from a line producer for the BBC (British Broadcasting Company), aka, The Beeb. She was in the New York office and was making inquiries regarding a group she had heard about called the Memphis Blues Caravan. I told her she had come to the right place.

It developed that the BBC was doing a 12-part history of popular music entitled "All You Need Is Love" and wanted to shoot the Caravan as representative of the segment on the blues. We had a high-profile date coming up at the Erie Arts Festival in Erie, Pennsylvania, together with other supporting dates on the East Coast. The Arts Festival date intrigued her, and she made us an offer to shoot the performance and then go on the road with us to the next date. The finished program would be aired first in the UK and then on public television here in the United States. The air date was to be about one year hence.

Money and rights issues were addressed and worked out to everyone's satisfaction. We had a deal. It was decided that the camera crew would join us as we boarded the plane in Memphis and shoot for the next two days. As part of the deal, we were told we would have no editorial say in what was broadcast, and the piece would be shaped by "the director's ideas" as to form and content. This last line sounded a bit ominous to me, but what could he possibly do, I thought, to injure or disparage such a wonderfully innocent and exuberant group. I would find out, however, that what he ultimately had in mind was not going to sit to well with my friends on the Caravan.

Unfortunate Preconception...

If I might be allowed a bit of xenophobia, it has been my experience that there is a class of Brit who brings to an encounter with black American blues performers a certain elitist preconception. This preconception usually revolves around the British image of The Downtrodden American Negro. Part and parcel of this preconception is an ignorance of the humanity of the individual, the uniqueness of his artistry and specialness of his own life experiences. Rather, the artist is seen as the tragic result of society's dereliction, and his ovure is merely the resultant echoing of his unfortunate state. The fact that those who played the blues were gross victims of abuse and discrimination no one will argue. Especially me. But to view these people solely as a group, a sub-class, with no power of poetic mastery, no joy in life's revels, no special artistry but, rather, as a "cause and effect" result of the bad hand they have been dealt, is wrong. And, I say, it is also bullshit. So did the Caravan.

The Accent...

The encounter with the Beeb began innocently and affably, with the Caravan members being treated to movie-star attention. Orders were given by the director and quickly followed by his crew. These orders and their carry-through were dispatched and executed in the clipped and slightly nasal intonation of standard upper-class "A Levels" English, not the meat and potatoes argot of London's East End or the lilt of Newcastle's "Brown Ale brogue." No, these were well-educated accents: accents that a Cockney friend of mine once told me struck fear and shame in the heart of someone born within hearing distance of Bo Bells (the church of St. Bartholemew, in the heart of Cockney London). All of this, of course, was lost on the members of the Caravan. As far as they were concerned, the director and crew just "talked funny."

Fetchn' Coffee...

The director, "Sir Tony," obviously knew what he was doing. He was a thorough professional, a master of his craft. So was his assistant director, a young lady named Anunciatta, who seemed to enjoy a "special" relationship with her boss. The "specialness" of this relationship was quickly picked up on by the very hip members of the Caravan (they weren't road musicians for nothing), and the pretense of boss and employee being presented for our consumption was made considerable sport of over bourbon and fried chicken back at the hotel. "I reckon as how she fetches more than just coffee," observed Homer Jackson, Joe Willie Wilkins' drummer.

That aside, things went smoothly that afternoon and into the evening. "Sir Tony" filmed the set-up for the show, the sound check, snippets of backstage banter and the artists' performances. Everything was going as planned, until the next day.

"Sir Tony's" Folly...

The production company had engaged a bus for our use (with the Heaven sign in the front) and wanted to shoot "road" footage culminating in a supposedly impromptu picnic at a stop along the way. It was at this picnic that he would do interviews with various members of the group which would later be intercut with their respective performances.

The bus stopped by a broad grassy knoll that rolled gently away from the highway and down into a large meadow. The sun shone and the birds chirped. We were somewhere in rural Pennsylvania.

Chicken and cold-cuts were brought out, together with soft drinks, and we all settled down on the grass to partake. The camera crew set up, and "Sir Tony" summoned Furry Lewis over for his al fresco interview.

I walked over with Furry and helped him get settled. I sat to Furry's left, just out of camera range. The interview began with questions about Furry's past, how he first became interested in the guitar, what it was like trying to teach himself to play, if he ever learned to read music, etc. The tone of the questions, though not intentional, was condescending. But Furry was a patient man. Then "Sir Tony" asked Furry if his blues playing was all that he felt he could do, given the fact that slavery had denied the black man the opportunity for education and that "American racial repression" had denied him the right for any kind of social advancement.

At first, Furry just looked uncomfortable. He said he did not understand what "Sir Tony" meant. "Sir Tony" explained. He asked if "as a result of American social and political repression" did Furry feel that his role in life was limited to blues playing as his only avenue for advancement? Furry looked at "Sir Tony." There was a long silence. Then Furry said, "Well, I play what I play 'cause I want to. It makes me happy. It makes other folks happy. And I get paid a little bit of money. But this 'repression' stuff...maybe you don't understand. I'm black and this fella setting next to me is white" (nodding toward me). "But we both Americans." He then turned to me and said, "I think I'll get back on the bus now." The interview was over.

Cotton Eyed Joe...

"Sir Tony" was speechless. Furry got up, and I helped him on to the bus. The assistant director suddenly appeared inquiring if there was a problem. I wanted to say, "Other than the fact that Furry Lewis is royally pissed off, no," but I told her I needed to talk to Furry privately and would get back to her quickly. Once on the bus, Furry erupted. "Who the fuck did he think he was talking to? Cotton Eyed Joe?!" I tried to calm him down and explain that "Sir Tony" mean well, but.... Then it dawned on me. I was trying to excuse behavior which I took just as much offense to as Furry did. The questions belittled who this man was and what he did and had done. It gave no credence to his artistry or his passion and reduced him to a caricature. I told Furry to sit tight, and that I had to go have a conversation with "Sir Tony" before he had a chance to do the same with Bukka White and we had some real trouble on our hands. I had visions of the Times Mirror headline: "Noted Film Director In Hospital After Blues Fracas."

I asked "Sir Tony" if I might have a word. I explained that what his questions had done were to offend his subject. I explained why. I explained that perhaps he would be more successful if he were to remember who he was (nobody), where he was (the United States) and whom he was talking to (performing artists). To his credit, he got the picture.

Shake 'em On Down...

In the future, whenever we had press or broadcast interviews set, I had to assure everyone, especially Furry, that they would not be "like that English guy." I also made sure that the press was aware that they were dealing with artists and musicians who were every bit as proud of who they were and what they did as any rock star or opera diva.

The learning curve, of course, went both ways. After the encounter with the famous Beeb had cooled down, the members of the Caravan displayed a new-found sophistication (and tolerance) in dealing with members of the Third Estate. It was Sleepy John Estes who put the incident in its proper perspective. "Who cares," he said. "We're on the road again. Gotta shake 'em on down...."

Go To:

Robert Johnson / W.C. Handy / Willie Dixon

The Delta Map / The Essays / The Index

The Bluescasts To The Introduction The Blues Mall
The Blues News The Gutbucket The Blues Links

The Blue Highway
For the (not so) 'Buked and Scorned

Copyright © 1995-2004 by Arne Brogger