Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had numerous experiences where things I’ve done in the past have resurfaced in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Last week blues musician Willie “Big Eyes” Smith passed away. He was one of the only two Delta blues musicians still living who had been part of my first short documentary The Delta Bluesmen. That same week, I had a photograph hanging in an exhibit by the Copyright Alliance, Recording Our History: Faces Behind the Camera, in the Senate building rotunda in our nation’s capitol. It was a portrait of blues drummer Sam Carr, who I had photographed and interviewed for that same project, over ten years ago.
I knew if Sam were alive he would have been humbled and honored,
as was I, to have his portrait displayed in such a historic setting. I couldn’t help but “feel” proud at that moment in time. Sure, I felt proud of myself and Sam but I also felt a sense of pride to live in a country where I could still freely walk the halls of the Senate building, past the offices of the powerful of today and the ghosts from yesterday. I didn’t expect to feel that way. I was surprised and comforted that we still have this kind of access to our representatives.
It got me thinking about the trip I took last summer with my daughter when we left the country for 99 days, shooting Opening Our Eyes. We had circled the globe and had visited countries that crossed the spectrum politically, economically and socially. Our journey truly did open our eyes and when we returned to the U.S., it was a big adjustment. What hit me most was that everyone needed to be right, especially in Washington DC. I couldn’t watch TV for months because all I saw was 500 channels of “experts” pontificating and no one was getting anywhere. Worse yet, we all suffer. I remember a time, when I was growing up during the Kennedy era and we asked what we could do for others, instead of what we could “gain” for ourselves.
It’s a year later and I still don’t watch much TV. I’ve found myself absorbed back into the “culture” of America. But as I walked through those venerable halls of the Senate building, I was reminded of my purpose. I’m a storyteller. I voice the stories of people like Sam Carr so that future generations will remember the way things used to be. History gives us perspective and we can learn from it – or not. Without perspective – we can’t remain free.
I received some bad news today that Sam Carr died. Sam was a legendary blues drummer – he was also one of the sweetest people that I came to know. I interviewed and photographed Sam in 2001 at his home in Lula, Mississippi – the heart of the Mississippi Delta.
I was working on my first really ambitious documentary after getting into video the year before. It was a personal project that had I tried to get funding for but then 9/11 happened and money dried up over night. But for me this was a story that I needed to tell and now because these musicians were in their 70’s and 80’s. I wanted to tell the story of these musicians apart from their music. I was interested in their cultural stories – about the area they grew up in. the Delta and how that gave birth to their music – the blues.
My first trip to Mississippi was on a shoestring budget with my heart in the right place and open to whatever I may find. My husband, my 14 year old daughter and I hit to road for the Mississippi Delta the summer of 2001. To be honest I didn’t have much in the way of a planned itinerary. I had tried to line up interviews with some of the musicians but the cultural divide between us made it difficult to pin down a schedule. So I was open to letting serendipity happen and it did.
I had spoken with Sam Carr and his wife Doris who had been with Sam since she was 13 years old until she passed away last year. Sam was very cordial and kind and was quite willing to be interviewed. I had pinned him down with a date in a vague sort of way and we all – my husband, my daughter and I – showed up at the proper time. It was a typical August day in the South – hot and humid. So we sat on a bunch of mismatched chairs underneath a big old shade tree. Sam literally talked for hours and I was drawn into his stories about his childhood, his father, Robert Nighthawk a legendary guitarist who didn’t raise Sam, his music, his regrets and his life now during his older years. At times it was difficult to understand him because of his dialect but I listened carefully and his words made permanent marks on my soul. We talked until evening and it will be an afternoon that I will never forget.
Sam’s words became a big part of my film. That first interview also convinced me that these stories needed to be told – and by the musicians themselves. I went on to photograph and interview – Little Milton and Robert Lockwood Jr. – who have also left this earth since my interviews. We still have Pinetop Perkins – 96 years old, Big Jack Johnson, who played with Sam in the band Jelly Roll Kings, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Magic Slim. The outcome of my efforts was a 26 minute film and a still photographic essay about The Delta Blues Musicians that has become a traveling multimedia exhibition. View the trailor.
I heard this sad news from Pinetop’s manager who I’ve become friends with over the years. She told me that Sam died quietly with his family and friends around. She also told me that his family was grateful that I had captured Sam and his stories that day. And she told me that his epitaph may be “I lived a rich man’s life in a poor man’s shoes” – the last thing that Sam told me that glorious August day.