WUMB May Program Guide

Les Blank: Blues Documentarian

I came late to the world of streaming video. I don’t watch TV much these days, and I’ve never really been much of a movie goer. I suddenly became interested when someone mentioned to me that they had watched “The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins” on Hulu.

This is the first of the fabulous documentaries of filmmaker Les Blank. Whether you are a blues fan or not, this one is truly worth your time. Hopkins, perhaps the definitive Texas blues-man, is an intriguing character, but you also get a look and how Blank works his way into the life of Lightnin’, who agreed to the project without much enthusiasm. Hopkins’ only stipulation at the beginning was that Les not get in the way.

Many of Blanks’ other films are worthwhile, and many are available on the major streaming sites. Once again, whether you are a blues fan or not, I’d recommend “A Life Well Spent,” Blank’s portrait of Mance Lipscomb, who is as humble and retiring as Hopkins is outgoing. By the time Blank made this one his storytelling technique had become more subtle, and this is quite a story to tell.

Blank is perhaps best known for his documentaries on the music and culture of Louisiana. I’d start with “Spend It All” an affectionate and moving portrait of Cajun culture. Contrasting with the music, is the story of trying the reclaim the French language and culture of the area. He produced a pair of films dealing with Afro-Cajun culture in the state. “Dry Wood” features “Bois Sec” Ardoin and Canray Fontenot, two musicians who remained closer to the old culture, and were never really well known outside of Cajun Country. Contrast their story with that of the King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier, who, with his accordion, became a Grammy winner and an international star, as documented in “Hot Pepper”

He ventured to New Orleans for “Always for Pleasure,” a look and the social clubs and celebrations of the Crescent City.  Don’t just think Mardi Gras, NOLA is a year ’round party.

For perhaps my favorite of his films, Les went to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, for “Sprout Wings and Fly,” which centers on the fiddler Tommy Jarrell. He is both one of the last of the tradition bearers of his era, and an inspiration for current and future generations of musicians.  I dare you to come away from this film unmoved.

These are only a few of the Blank classics that are out there for you to discover. With titles like “Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers,” “In Heaven There is No Beer,” and “God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance” I suspect you’ll want to explore further. You will not be disappointed.


-Dave Palmater

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