Various Artists 
Warming by the Devil's Fire
/sony; 2004/

 

 


Last rainy Wednesday night, I felt like going to the movies. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to see Warming by the Devil’s Fire by Charles Burnett since it was its release date but when I entered the cinema 10 minutes before the beginning, the queue was sparse so I opted for the blues documentary. I went to a half-indie cinema (they run films in the original version but you have to bear commercials before the film). It was the big theatre, about 300 places, large comfortable red velvet armchairs, large rows in which you can spread out your legs.There was only one spectator when the commercials started. I pleasantly read Women by Bukowski during the ads. I raised my eyes towards the screen once to see a biker’s tattoos come unstuck and blow off by the wind to advertise an insurance company. When the curtains moved and when darkness slowly overwhelmed the room, Bukowki was screwing a girl looking like Katherine Hepburn and pondering over his drinking problems. Usually when lights go out, everyone stops talking. Silence imposes itself upon the audience. Some kind of magic moment occurs. We were 4 when the first reel started to roll so it felt like a private screening and the magic moment cropped up when I first went down the stairs and entered the sacred place.The film works like a Bildungsroman, dealing about the development of an 11 years old black boy’s mind and character, entering the mature territory. As the liner notes specify: ‘Burnett explores the internal struggle between the sacred and the profane through the eyes of a 11 years old boy visiting his family in Mississippi during the mid-50s’. His grandma sent Charles Burnett all the way from California to New Orleans for his preacher uncle to baptize him before he was 12. However, his uncle is busy preaching the righteous word somewhere so his other uncle, Buddy, who preaches liquor, free sex and blues, picks him up at the station to drive him to Mississippi. In a few days, Buddy shows Junior all the things he was going to be saved from and one of these things, namely the Devil’s Fire, the Blues, will hereafter play a significant part in Burnett’s self-fulfilment.

Warming by the Devil’s Fire works like a charm because unlike many documentaries, it allows the spectator to identify with the narrator, with his initiatory journey. Through the meanders of Buddy’s car running the South, the Delta, Robert Johnson’s crossroad, Congo square, to his mistress houses if not brothels, to his shotgun house, to his blind man fellow guitar player, to blues parties, Burnett offers his lean but lucky audience the opportunity to discover the early pioneers (WC Handy, Ma Rainey for example), Delta Blues (Charley Patton, Son House), Mississippi heroes (Mississippi John Hurt), doomed legends (Billie Holiday, R Johnson), Gospel tradition (Sister R. Tharpe), New Orleans’ style (Jelly Roll Morton), and so on from Memphis to St-Louis, taking into account lesser known blues players. He even makes an interesting incursion into 60’s electric blues (Sonny Boy Williamson, JL Hooker). But the initiatory voyage goes beyond just discovering this thrilling music. It consists in discovering its themes as well, themes which were to become Burnett’s quest for identity. ‘The struggle between the sacred and the profane’: spirituals and gospels vs. Blues and the encounters with the Devil (Johnson’s Crossroad blues), bluesmen who didn’t die young often ended up preachers. Church morals were also challenged by blues metaphorically dealing with sex, ‘morally loose conducts’ and booze (e.g. Bessie Smith). Hard-working ‘pick cotton’ blues are highly interesting as well. Listening Blues songs, you’ll learn more about the everyday life of black people than from history books because you’ll be listening to their sufferings.

Warming by the Devil’s Fire intersperses the reconstitution of his initiatory journey with footage images and live performances in a lovely way, which conveys a pleasant sense of intimacy that was increased tenfold by the sparse audience in the theatre. After the film, I had to go back home. The rain poured down on me but I didn’t care. All I could think of was the film and listening to its soundtrack the next day.When I purchased the soundtrack, I guess I was looking for this intimacy even if I knew beforehand that I wouldn’t get it. These things do not occur anytime. Once I listened to Hips & Makers by K. Hersch in a stifling afternoon in a cool bedroom endowed with large blue curtains gently waved by the wind where I had just woken up, it was one of those delightful moments when you feel like time has stopped. Despite much exertion, I never experienced as mush pleasure listening to it. When I got back home and listened to the soundtrack, I shut myself up in my room, shutters closed, looking at the nice booklet. Even if this soundtrack is fine, I did not experience the same level of intimacy I had felt the night of the film.

Considering the numerous blues artists appearances in the film, it must have been hard to choose which one will make it to the cd and almost each spectator would have made a different selection so let’s not elaborate on the choice… The soundtrack begins with Jelly Roll Morton performing a nice smoky cabaret piece. Then there is Ma Rainey’s laid-back version of ‘See see rider’ recorded in 1924 accompanied by Her Georgia Jazz Band featuring Louis Armstrong. I’m glad to be able to listen to W.C. Handy’s legendary, lively and lovely ‘Beale st. Blues’. No need to introduce Billie Holliday and Bessie ‘Empress of the Blues’ Smith who both convey a similar atmosphere only sadder (depressive for Holliday). Sister Rosetta Tharpe is the only gospel/spiritual track here and it’s much more a Sunday afternoon song than anything else. It’s pleasant because it’s the only one. Burnett has chosen: his blues is profane.

My favourite tracks are the ones offering Bluesmen on their own with their guitar: Son House ‘Death letter’ is poignant (‘It’s so hard to love someone who loves you’) even if another song would have been better for the listener to discover him and to show his influence on Delta Blues, conversely Charley Patton can easily been identified as such in ‘Hang it on the wall’; my favourite Mississippi John Hurt is here playing one of his great melancholy songs ‘Big Leg Blues’ which is often missing from his compilations; the track dedicated to R. Johnson is surprisingly the mellow ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ while the film deals with the profane side of bluesmen; Tommy McClennan introduced something modern, almost rock in his singing as ‘Deep Blue Sea Blues’ shows.This modern touch surfaces in Sonny Boy Williamson’s ‘Cross my heart’ whose cabaret blues (piano, electric guitar, drums) is in my opinion somehow far away from the sparse urgency of the early pioneers. Even if this kind of song is pleasant, they are definitely not as touching. Elmore James’ cabaret cover of Johnson ‘Dust my broom’ backs me up. Same thing for Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker even though the old ’You can’t lose what you ain’t never had’ and ‘I’ll never get out of these Blues Alive’ are fine (Hooker’s ‘Boom Boom Boom’ performed on his own in the movie was nicer). However, I admit this kind of blues was easier to dance and party to than my favourite one. Warming by the Devil’s Fire soundtrack somehow offers a modest historic evolution of the blues from the Roaring 20s to the 60s. There is not a bad song here and if SJ Taylor’s Give Me Freedom’ is superfluous because it was recorded 2 years ago, it is a nice song that is supposed to evoke what the old Blues do to you. This soundtrack can be regarded as a good introduction to the Blues, a far better one than The Soul of a Man soundtrack.

-SEB ‘Monday Morning Blues’ WOOd.

/may 15th 2004/