By James “Skyy Dobro” Walker
Everyone knows that the Blues came from the South and was born of slavery’s and sharecropping’s poverty and hard times. This documentary film helps viewers understand that the Blues never left the South and neither did the poverty and inequalities.
Dutch film-makers Saskia Rietmeijer and Bart Drolenga of Visible World Films came to America with the intention of producing a documentary about African American arts and culture in the deep South. Then they met an incredible humanitarian who happens to be today’s most important living bluesman, Alabama’s Willie King. Scrapping their original plans, they decided instead to create a DVD about Willie's life and times. He lives in an old trailer in Old Memphis, a small and mostly African-American community in rural Alabama.
Born on a cotton plantation in 1943 the son of poor sharecroppers, Willie was drawn to the blues at an early age. He made his first guitar out of bailing wire when he was seven and has been playing ever since. Cotton picker, moon shiner, juke joint owner, civil rights activist, and social worker, Willie has done them all and now is one of the most popular blues musicians around.
The DVD is an illuminating voyage into Willie King's life and his many humanitarian activities. Featuring live performances of King’s “Rural Blues” (he calls his music the “Strugglin’ Blues”) and encounters with family, friends, fellow musicians like T-Model Ford, and music experts such as Peter Guralnick, it enables the viewer to see King as a bluesman living in the Alabama Black Belt, "down in the woods." Over a period of several months, the couple recorded Willie King as he worked with his community in Pickens County and performed at festivals, juke joints and parties.
King's music held the attentions of Drolenga and Rietmeijer, but his life and message captured them. “The music, of course, is absolutely great and very original,” Drolenga said. “Willie's message is the other reason (we decided to make this documentary),” he added. “It's unique that a bluesman of Willie's stature is so involved with helping his community and that he practices a message of togetherness and peace. We found that Willie lives and breathes the blues every second of his life. We noticed that, for Willie, his life and music are all of a piece and very much interwoven. Playing the blues and working for the community go together for him and also the messages in his lyrics play their part in this.” His lyrics are often political, fighting racism and a voice for the poor blacks in the South.
*Willie’s explanation of the Blues, “The Blues is not made by man. It was sent down [by the Lord] in the form of a spirit to help heal people and help them cope with the circumstances they are in.” “...You could be in the worst of conditions, but with the Blues, you always keep that hope alive. This is what people are looking for. I found it through the Blues”
* Willie’s creed, adopted from his “granddaddy”, “Never let nothin’ go to you head, always be you, and if you can help somebody along the way, give them a helping hand.”
* The scene at Betties Place, a little juke joint near Prairie Point, Mississippi. Willie King plays his blues and the crowd dances in a down home style. The band is smoking when King gets off the stage and walks into the audience playing his guitar. Willie’s music is an exciting, dance inducing mix of rural blues, soul and boogie, all in King’s own distinctive style.
* King visits the place of his birth. “You barely lived back then, you existed.” Willie says. “Sharecropping was just another form of slavery. In debt all the time, you had to find ways to survive and earn some money. Gardening, berry picking, preserving, quilting, woodworking and music are all part of our cultural heritage. I call them survival skills. I believe teaching these skills to the young people will benefit them. We can sell beautiful quilts, preserves and woodwork on the internet and generate money for the community.” Willie spends much of his time supporting his local community and teaching young people the traditional culture and survival skills passed on to him from his people's share cropping and slave ancestors.
* The DVD also includes an extra 40 minutes of live performances of these songs in their entirety: “Ain't Gonna Work,” “Bettie's Groove Gumbo,” “America,” and “Terrorized.”
Visible World is a video production company with a global footprint. Traveling around the world, our portfolio of services includes documentaries, news reports, educational and promotional videos, camerawork, video editing, production, photography and written articles.
Rural Members Association
In 1983 blues musician and community activist Willie King started the Rural Members Association (RMA), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, to bring together the elders of the community in and around Old Memphis, Alabama, for the purpose of passing on the local heritage of traditional African American cultural arts and survival skills to the next generation. Over the years RMA projects have impacted thousands of children and adults through educational workshops in traditional crafts like sewing, quilting, carpentry, farming, canning, food preserving, blues music and gospel music, and the internationally renowned Freedom Creek Blues Festival.
The RMA started Freedom Creek Blues Festival in 1997 to bring all walks of life together once a year to celebrate the outstanding blues heritage in our region. This festival allows local musicians to display their musical talent alongside nationally and internationally renowned musicians, helping to keep the local music culture alive and introducing it in the depths of the Alabama black belt to an international audience.
RMA is presently seeking help to rehabilitate a building that will be the community center where quilting, food preserving and music workshops and performances can be held. Donations are greatly appreciated and will be used wisely in the community.
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