Television Reviews : An Affectionate Look at the Blues Idiom

Although the blues has been documented endlessly in print, it has seldom been dealt with adequately on the television screen. "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues," airing tonight at 10 on Channel 28, is the exception: a superb hourlong examination not only of the idiom itself, but also of its social origins, evolution and impact on black America.

Producer Carol Doyle Van Valkenburgh came to her subject armed with affection and understanding. The story takes us from sharecropper families (Koko Taylor talking about her origins) to the minstrel shows and river boats, to Ma Rainey introducing the blues on stage in 1902, and eventually via the vaudeville circuit northward to Harlem and recordings (Mamie Smith's pioneering "Crazy Blues" in 1920) and the movies (the one and only Bessie Smith film a decade later).

The archival footage showing blacks dancing and strutting around the turn of the century is skillfully mixed with live reminiscences by the historian Chris Albertson, the pianist Sammy Price (looking back at Jim Crow in the 1920s) and the guitarist/archivist Danny Barker with his wife, the singer Blue Lu Barker. Alberta Hunter sings "My Handy Man," not long before her death at 89 in 1984.

Despised by older blacks as "The Devil's Music," the blues was the chosen idiom of an Afro-American generation that flourished until the Depression, when record sales stopped, pop songs took over, and the talkies edged out vaudeville.

Some singers went back to the church; others, like Mamie Smith, died penniless. A handful, like Ethel Waters, became big-time stars.

In a poignant finale, Ida Woodson, in Florida a year or so ago, sings an a cappella blues verse.

Sounds, camera work and production in general are all first rate in this priceless piece of genuine Americana.

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