“You See Me Laughin’,” a documentary of the Mississippi Hill Country blues

(Note: I see that Fat Possum has asserted a copyright claim on this film, which I had been showing below. I’m sorry it’s no longer available. It looks like it may be available online, if you search for the title.)

Most blues fans have probably heard about, and even heard, the primitive and powerful Mississippi Hill Country blues style. If you haven’t, you’re missing a primeval blues experience.

It’s a rhythmic, hypnotic, drum-and-guitar-heavy style that grew up in the Mississippi Hill Country and almost never left home. Most of its practitioners rarely or never left the areas where they were born and raised. A few were found and recorded by Fat Possum Records.

Some, like R.L. Burnside, recorded and toured and became, if not exactly household names, well-known to blues fans. In fact, Burnside’s 2009 album, “Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down” on Fat Possum, was named the second best blues album of the preceding decade by the old Blues Revue Magazine. (I know that mainly because I, in my previous incarnation as BlueNotes, was one of the blues writers asked to help pick the top 25. Here’s that list, if you’re curious.) But I digress.

Mostly these bluesmen lived their hardscrabble lives in rural towns and played their blues in jukes and on front porches, where they made music for the simplest and best of reasons — for their own pleasure.

T-Model Ford at the 2008 Chicago Blues Festival (Jim White photo)

All of this was brought back to me a while back when, whilst perusing the interwebs for music, I ran across the 2002 documentary on this Hill Country music, “You See Me Laughin’.” The film features artists Asie Payton, Cedell Davis, David Cardwell, Johnny Farmer, Junior Kimbrough, Kenny Brown, R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford.

Davis, who suffered crippling polio, played his guitar with a butter knife as a kind of slide, Ford saying how he “can’t read, can’t write, can’t spell nothin’, but I can play this guitar when I have to.”

Fat Possum co-funder Matthew Johnson hovers around, trying to get gigs and record these men. “I don’t want my guys to die unknown,” he says near the end of the film. If you watch this film, he will have at least partly succeeded.

Cedric Burnside, grandson of R.L. Burnside, at the 2010 Wheeling, W.Va., blues festival. (Jim White photo)

The film was directed by filmmaking newcomer Mandy Stein, who described her work for the website Stay Thirsty:

“My first documentary was titled, You See Me Laughin’ (2002) where I followed the last of the Hill Country Bluesmen.  The idea was sparked in early 1999, from a Mike Rubin article in Spin Magazine about the Bluesmen.  So I went on and called Mississippi where the label (Fat Possum) was based.  I had no education in the field and never attended film school. The funding came from borrowed money from my grandfather, and I just went down there, figured it out and created a documentary.”

It’s an excellent look at the music lives that these men lived, and how and why they made their music. There’s power and beauty in the music, but a poignant undercurrent throughout of struggles to survive, to live. And to create music.

Here’s the movie. Play it through your TV if you can.

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