By Congressional decree, 2003 is the Year of the Blues — though given the economy, the war, and the state of the record industry, you might not have noticed. That will change on Sept. 28, when PBS begins broadcasting Martin Scorsese’s long-anticipated seven-part series ”The Blues.” Between episodes directed by the likes of Clint Eastwood and Wim Wenders, and ancillary projects including a book, multiple DVDs, and a radio program, the blues will be as high-profile this fall as the new Britney album.
Clearly modeled on Ken Burns’ 2001 ”Jazz” series, the campaign also rolls out a shelf full of CDs this week (all under a Martin Scorsese Presents rubric) — a five-disc boxed set, soundtracks for each of the seven shows, a dozen ”best of” collections showcasing individual artists, plus a one-disc overview for the Blues 101 crash course. All are presented with the utmost thoughtfulness and respect, and it’s almost impossible to find fault with anything that shines a rare spotlight on this thrilling, essential music.
The most significant flaw with the Ken Burns series was the shockingly short shrift it gave to jazz from recent decades. ”The Blues” avoids such conservative reverse ageism, almost to a fault: While the boxed set offers an exemplary end-to-end history of the music, from its earliest recordings up through the ’90s, the single-artist collections lean a little too heavily on rock-friendly contemporary acts. The Eric Clapton disc is a revelatory look at his blues work in different bands and configurations, but it’s hard to believe that the pleasant but minor Keb’ Mo’ deserves the same treatment as Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters.
Considering the cooperation among record labels that allowed this project to compile selections from artists who usually can’t mingle, the music from The Blues delivers the goods even at its most predictable. It is most interesting, though, when it shakes things up a bit — the soundtrack from the Wenders episode, ”The Soul of a Man,” features new recordings from Lou Reed, Nick Cave, and Lucinda Williams, singers who have maintained the spirit if not always the pure form of the blues.
While it’s odd to devote a full album to the relatively obscure jump bluesman J.B. Lenoir rather than such absent titans as Howlin’ Wolf or John Lee Hooker, nobody ever said the blues were about playing it safe. And from Blind Willie Johnson to Hound Dog Taylor, ”the devil’s music” might replace the tote bag on PBS pledge drives, but it will never lose the passion and beauty, the power and the glory, that changed the world forever.