To some the blues is a dead issue, an art form perpetuated by clubs catering to the tourist trade. But filmmaker David Carlson discovered the blues were far from done after he stumbled across I Was There When the Blues Was Red Hot, a 1989 self-published history of the local blues scene by the young guitarist Fernando Jones. “I didn’t know much about the blues other than its influences on rock music,” he recalls. “Like most people, I had this romantic notion of older guys from the Mississippi Delta regaling the audience with tales from a hard life.”

Jones’s collection of interviews with different generations of blues performers painted the picture of a genre still alive with innovations, Carlson says, “so I decided to make a documentary more about this new generation than about the familiar artists who did their best stuff in the 60s and 70s. Mine would be about the changing of the guard in the blues capital.”

Carlson, who’s worked as an editor on commercials and for the National Geographic Society, first got in touch with Jones in 1990. “He turns out to be totally different from the popular image of a blues artist,” Carlson says. “Fernando is a well-dressed, clean-cut guy who doesn’t smoke or drink. He’s very articulate and passionate about what he plays. He never does cover tunes, even when audiences urge him to sing “Sweet Home Chicago.”‘

With guidance from Jones, who acted as coproducer, Carlson spent the next five years hauling 16-millimeter cameras and sound equipment around town interviewing musicians and recording them in performance. He frequented familiar blues haunts and talked to such luminaries as Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, and Johnny Winter. But for Carlson the most revealing comments came from Young Turks like Jones, Donald Kinsey, and Shirli Dixon, Willie’s daughter. “These guys must work against the cliche that you can’t really sing the blues until you’ve lived the blues,” explains Carlson, who’s 28. “But most of them understand the structure, the pattern of the music. What they’re doing is bringing in elements from jazz, reggae, and other genres to liven things up.”

When the production finally wrapped last July, Carlson had more than 40 hours of footage. Now whittled down to an hour, the documentary, which has the same title as Jones’s book, is almost finished. But Carlson is still looking for a corporate sponsor to foot the $70,000 bill to make new prints and get the film on PBS. The visual texture of the movie is grainy black-and-white–a deliberate choice to evoke urban grittiness–but Carlson considers his effort unique in its perspective. “We need to be aware of the blues’ history,” he says. “But the news is that it has returned, and it’s being reshaped by a new generation of musicians in Chicago.”

I Was There When the Blues Was Red Hot will be screened at 8 PM next Thursday, May 23, at Chicago Filmmakers, 1543 W. Division. Admission is $5; for more, call 665-2815.

–Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.