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About the Film Series
Feel Like Going Home
The Soul of a Man
The Road to Memphis
Warming by the Devil's Fire
Godfathers and Sons
Red, White & Blues
Piano Blues
Film Producers

Godfathers and Sons
Director Interview
What's unique about this documentary series is that there's an overall historic narrative on the blues, but unlike the more traditional approach, here we have all these directors picking a part of that story and that chronology and then diving in and somehow personalizing it.

Chicago blues and Chess Records have always been my love, since I was a kid. The first Paul Butterfield Blues Band album originally got me into the Chicago blues during the summer of '65. We used to look at that album cover that showed one of the first interracial bands. Sam Lay, the black drummer, was the coolest — it was like, "That's what we want to be like." So with this film, I got to come full circle and go back to where it all started.

For me, rock and roll comes out of the Chess Records sound — Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Koko Taylor, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley. That whole world was a revelation to me. I was thirteen, fourteen years old and listening to rock and roll, but I didn't realize where it came from. Rock and roll had an element of danger, and it was sex, it was liberated, it was bohemian, but I didn't realize it came out of Chicago.

Marshall Chess, the son of Chess Records co-founder Leonard Chess, has obviously been radioactively supercharged by being exposed at a young age to all these great blues artists. He had to calm down by being the Rolling Stones' manager for ten years. This story of Chess we tell in the film is his personal story — his family's story. We decided to take his personal story, which encompasses all this great music, and hook it up with today's younger generation. We wanted this music to come alive — not come across as a thing of the past. This music is now; you feel the beat, you feel it in your gut.

Marshall called me one day and said, "You're not going to believe this, but I just got an e-mail from Chuck D. He read Spinning Blues Into Gold, the book on the Chess family that Nadine Cohodas wrote, which is a great book. Chuck D said, 'It was Electric Mud' — Muddy Waters' blues-rock album produced in 1968 by Marshall — 'that got me into this. I hear you're going to do this film trying to connect the blues and hip-hop, and I'm down.'" This was literally an act of fate, and it became the inciting incident in Godfathers and Sons. What personalized the film was the idea that not only is the story intergenerational, but it's a family story, it's black and white, it's blacks and Jews, it's all these connections, but it's done in a very real, natural way, and it just happened. We didn't write it. We were searching for it, wondering what it would be. But Chuck D just sat down one day at his keyboard and sent that message into cyberspace, and that's what started it.

When we began talking about the film, we wondered about the connection between blues and hip-hop. Rock and roll and the blues is easy, and there have been many films and books about that connection. The bluesmen were the fathers and the rock and rollers were the sons. But somehow the grandkids got lost, because hip hop was a whole new thing, and it wasn't built around an electric guitar. It was built around turntables and beats.

It was built around digital technology, not the amplified technology of the electric guitar, which was what blues and rhythm and blues were, so, I wondered, looking at the twelve-bar structure, What is really the connection? But then, in the film, there's that scene at the Blues and Jazz Record Mart, where hip hop artist Juice is checking out the old album covers, and you start looking at the personalities, you start looking at the stories that are being told, and the whole vibe. And you see it's the same as rap music today. When Louis Satterfield says, "My grandmother didn't want me to play music because she didn't want me to play them blues." It was the devil's music, and it was sex, and it was all that stuff that your parents didn't want you to do, just like hip-hop and rap. You start seeing the similarities between the different kinds of music, and you see that every generation has got to find its own sound. In the world we live in today, which is so instantaneous, there are kids out there who don't even know who Chuck D is, who think that Eminem is the man who invented rap. We move so fast, you can lose that sense of history.

I hadn't realized that Chuck D is a musicologist and historian, and that he also has a tremendous interest in finding these parallels. There was also the indie record-label connection: Chess was an indie record label, and hip-hop and rap were born out of a new generation of indie record labels, which were also built on a new technology, a digital technology. So the basic similarity is that every generation tries to find what you would call that street, raw, real sound. That's what the Chicago blues had. That's what lit the imagination of my generation, and every generation has to find its way to turn on and light the fire — that's the source. "This world may put you down, but no, you don't have me down. Not tonight, you don't!" Koko Taylor said that, which is interesting because we shot a good part of this at her club, and I thought that was an interesting comment. She said, "People say the blues, and you think it's about the sorrows in your life and the difficulties and the troubles — obviously, a lot of music is that. But my blues inspire you. My blues makes you want to get up and dance." And I think that is the common bond, and that you want to make that connection. The album Fathers and Sons that Marshall produced back in 1968, which had members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band — Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, and Sam Lay, playing with Muddy Waters and Otis Spann — it was those guys doing it, connecting it. And this generation is just beginning, it's kind of worked its way back, it's gotten to funk and soul, and now it is about to discover the blues, the source.

Another level of this whole thing is that great art, great culture, great music are created sometimes in the craziest ways, in the most spontaneous ways, in the most insane ways. I've always believed that blues and jazz have that aesthetic, which is: You find the continuity in chaos, you find the inspiration, and you let go. That influenced me deeply as a filmmaker. It's what makes it authentic. Meeting a lot of these characters with Marshall and Chuck just reinforced that belief. In other words, that's what everybody wants to try to get: What is real? As Chuck says, "What was the Chess sound?" It was the raw, real sound. Why did the Rolling Stones want to record in Chess studios? It had that authenticity, that sense that this is really it. And that kind of feeling just can't ever be truly programmed. In the end there is something spontaneous and alive that moves you. As Willie Dixon said, "The blues are the roots and everything else is the fruits."

—Marc Levin

Read an archived version of Marc Levin's Washington Post online chat.


 

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