Take Me to the River

| September 11, 2014

In a documentary where British musician Robert Plant pays homage to the influence of Memphis Blues on the British playlist, unlikely folks are paired together to highlight the city’s great contribution to the musical lexicon, not only of the United States but the world over.

Take Me to the River won an audience award at SXSW and chronicles the making of a historic (and amazing) new album that joins the musicians who put Memphis music on the map with those carrying the torch today. Actor Terrance Howard narrates the documentary and even provides a Blues cut of his own late in the taping.

In the film, you witness legends from multiple generations working together to recreate the classics (with a twist) and candidly recounting stories and inspirations from their careers. Artists include Snoop Dogg, Mavis Staples, Bobby Rush, Booker T. Jones, Otis Clay, Yo Gotti, the North Mississippi Allstars, Lil’ P-Nut and Cody and Luther Dickinson.

I really enjoyed this documentary, because years ago I was part of a press junket on behalf of the Chicago Crusader that journeyed by Amtrak to Memphis, where I saw and marveled at all that is Beale Street and the Blues. William and Al Bell are prominent participants in the documentary, as they tell the Stax story, when Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas and Booker T and the MGs were blazing trails in a town where later racial unrest would further rear its ugly head in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.

“Stax lives in the hearts and minds of the people and not in the master tapes or the bricks and mortar. It is alive and well today,” said Al Bell, who was one of the co-owners of Stax Records. He also shares how he was indicted in 1975 in what he calls an attempt to take over Stax and squash the legend of Blues in Memphis. Bell prevailed, but it took him more than two decades to do so.

And there is none other with more swagger than Hayes, as he is introduced on the stage as Black Moses with Charles “Skip” Pitts on the Wah Wah pedal and the theme from Shaft playing in the background with a beaming Rev. Jesse Jackson not too far away.

“They cut the trees down to show us how to walk on the lawn, and it is a blessing to come back,” Snoop Dogg said while preparing to do his number with the young band from the StaxMusicAcademy and CharterSchool and others. They would perform I Forgot to be Your Lover, and Snoop writes his rap in about three minutes. This illustrates his respect for the music and the musicians of the time. “I cried and I laughed when I watched this film. The world needs to know all about this music—and it’s not just music, it’s a lifestyle,” he said.

Harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite is super excited to be asked along for the ride, as is Chicago South Side’s Staples, who shares stories about her father and family, while she works with North Mississippi Allstars Luther and Cody Dickinson on I’ve Been Buked. Clay and Lil’ P-Nut work together, as well as Rush and Frayser Boy.

If you want to learn how the name of Sam and Dave’s iconic song, Hold On, I’m Coming came to be, and much more cool Blues stuff, plan to see director Martin Shore’s Take Me to the River. This documentary celebrates the inter-generational and inter-racial musical influence of Memphis in the face of pervasive discrimination and segregation, and it brings multiple generations of award-winning Memphis and Mississippi Delta musicians together. The viewer sees the creative process of recording a historic new album, in an effort to re-imagine the utopia of racial, gender and generational collaboration of Memphis in its heyday. Although I didn’t think I would enjoy the pairings, these collaborations are fabulous.

Take Me to the River opens in theaters nationwide on September 12. Check your local listings.

 

About the Author:

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago. She is the author of "Old School Adventures from Englewood--South Side of Chicago" and the proud parent of "the smart rapper"--chemist-turned-rapper, turned humanitarian...Psalm One!
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