The Soul of a Man is the soundtrack to the film by Wim Wenders about the blues (from the Scorcese series) in which he focuses on ‘three singers, all of whom died poor and forgotten but left highly influential legacies: Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson and JB Lenoir’. The liner notes also explain that ‘Wenders wanted their music to be the center of The Soul of a Man. He also, as he put it, wanted to “honour the enduring quality of their songwriting by finding contemporary musicians who would pick a song or two to reinterpret” – and in the process, he hoped, “make my blues heroes more accessible again”.
though it would be an interesting film to analyse, I’ll try not to tackle it
because there would many positive and negative things to say. I’ll try to just
review this soundtrack which is made up of 16 covers, an original song by each
of the three bluesmen, that is 3 original songs plus another original song by
John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers dealing with JB Lenoir’s death, an homage
of an English white band to the black bluesman which is significant regarding
So this soundtrack does not aim at releasing the bluesmen’ songs but at making their songs more accessible thanks to syllogism: B likes A’s music – the listeners appreciate B’s music – so the listener will appreciate A’s music.
brings up several questions:
Do modern covers of Pre-War Mississipi blues or 60’s blues that is linked with
the aforementioned style really make these gifted bluesmen more accessible as
Wenders suggests it ??
would be tempted to directly say No, No & NO because most covers do not
sound like the originals, are not as intense and subsequently do not provide a
good image of those originals. I won’t venture into discussing whether this
compilation aims at making money or not because I think Wenders really likes
these bluesmen and really believe in his statement. Some of those contemporary
artists’ die-hard fans might become interested in the bluesmen though but they
were probably before. For instance Nick cave already covered ‘Crow Jane’ in
Murder Ballads (the very song by Skip James here), Beck played ‘Mighty Good
Leader’ in One Foot in the Grave, and so on…
just depart from what I’ve said earlier and talk about the film just once. The
thing that really bothered me in The Soul of a Man – and that makes the
documentary boring from time to time – is the presence of these contemporary
artists who cover the bluesmen’ songs. Wenders should have restricted himself
to footage, reconstitutions and interviews and not included contemporary covers
that regularly break the film’s pace while the regular spectator (which
excludes Lou Reed or Nick Cave’s die-hard fans) would have preferred to listen
to the whole original song instead of this shift from the originals to the
covers. Furthermore, the reconstitutions are rather beautiful, except when JB
Lenoir is playing on-screen while the sound has been taken from another
However, this does not mean that the songs are bad. Most of them just differ from the originals and that’s precisely why I don’t think it will manage to give the listener who didn’t see the film a good image of the bluesmen. Even if they were all recorded live, most songs are played by bands and not just with a guitar. No one even ventured into playing a song jug band style, which would have been amusing.
Anyway, some tracks are really good. Lou Reed’s awkward version of ‘Look down the road’ sounds from time to time like The Velvet even if his voice seems on the way to becoming mute. Nick Cave’s rendition of JB Lenoir’s ‘I feel so good’ is played rock style but his personality comes over the influence of the original number. Same observation for The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Beck plays on his own a great fucked up version of ‘I’m so glad’ in which his harmonica introduces a clown-esque dimension.
Some covers unfortunately sound like redneck blues. If T Bone Burnett gets away with a big band down-tempo version of ‘Don’t dog your woman’ despite its redneck aspect, ‘Voodoo Music’ by Los Lobos is truly irritating.
Cassandra Wilson’s ‘Vietnam blues’ is too urban to make the line ‘Mr President, you always talk about peace but you must clean up your own house before you leave’ achieve its true power and her version of ‘Slow down’ sounds mainstream. S. Copeland sings the spiritual ‘God’s world’ in a nice gospel fashion whose mood remains in the blue format. I was scared to imagine what disaster would be generated by Eagle-eye Cherry but he gathered an all-star blues crew and ‘Down in Mississippi’ does not sound bad but its urban and contemporary mood differs from the original. Ribot suffuses his cover with his personal style and makes it an experimental urban track.
opted for stripped-down covers in order to echo the original songs’
atmosphere. If Lucinda Williams does not play on her own Skip James’ classic
‘Hard times killing floor blues’ and if there is something urban in the
cover, its smooth performance conveys a thrilling emotion. Bonnie Raitt has
changed Skip’s most famous lyrics ‘Devil Got my Woman’ for them to fit to
a female narrator but her delivery and her playing are rather enthralling.
Alvin Youngblood Hart seems to be a giant unable to play his tiny guitar but he skilfully plays on his own Skip James’ ‘Illinois blues’. As it is the case while listening to Skip James, your ears make you infer that there are two guitarists playing but there is only one who is singing his heart out at the same time. Garland Jeffreys offers an impressive emotional version of Skip’s twilight ‘Hospital Center Blues’. Wenders explains that ‘he sang his heart out and when he sang one chorus in a falsetto voice in honour of Skip, I got goose pimples’.
Despite the good songs on this soundtrack, the three original songs are the best
songs, which leads me to my following question: why the soundtrack does not
feature more original songs ??
With all the respect I have for some of these contemporary artists, the original songs are far more interesting and touching than the covers.
The film mainly focuses on Skip James and JB Lenoir. I prefer the first to the latter because he comes from the Pre-War period and was rediscovered in the 60’s along with my favourite Mississipi John Hurt. His blues convey a lot of emotions because they describe the life of most black people at a time when artists did not lead an extraordinary lifestyle, when they were poor and hard-working too. They were just farmers who were able to make money on the side playing dances. Listening to songs by Skip James and Blind Willie Johnson, you’ll learn more about the everyday life of black people during the 20’s & 30’s than from history books because you’re listening to the sufferings of someone who lived and sang them. They were both highly talented musicians.
Blind Willie Johnson only sang introspective spirituals songs. ‘The soul of a man’ is truly moving and should have started the album. Skip James played both the guitar and the piano and had a particularly high-pitched voice which makes him differ from other bluesmen. The choice of ‘Crow Jane’ is quite peculiar since it is not his greatest number but it surely represents its particular style. JB Lenoir’s blues is different both in music and emotion. His blues is bold and daring because it is often openly political (eg ‘Vietnam Blues’) and has to be linked with Martin Luther King’s struggle. However, when he reties his guitar style with Skip James’ or John Hurt’s, he easily reaches the same level of emotion his elder musical kin reached. His delivery of ‘Alabama’ in the disc is incredibly touching. The KKK just murdered his family and he tries to cope with it singing this blues. Truly eerie.
This soundtrack was not intended to re-release these bluesmen’ craft but let’s hope that the success of the Scorcese film series about the blues and of their subsequent soundtracks will generate a great demand for these bluesmen’ songs and eventually entail cd reissues.
One final question remains: why the film (and subsequently the album) does not
feature Bob Dylan ??
fact, Dylan was highly influenced by bluesmen such as Blind Willie McTell,
Mississipi John Hurt, Leadbelly, Guthrie or Skip James. He released blues albums
in the 60’s when American folk revival made these skilful bluesmen and their
arcane style reappear. He might even have met JB Lenoir or maybe seen him
playing live. He might have even already covered one of these three artists and
if he hasn’t, his political blues songs full of empathy with Black people are
an unquestionable proof of his ability to move you playing the blues.
/mar 1st 2004/