New Documentary Blends Civil Rights Murders With Hunt for Blues Icons ~ RollingStone

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The new documentary ‘Two Trains Running’ pairs the search for lost 1930s blues singers Son House and Skip James with the tragic Mississippi Burning murders. Dick Waterman

 

On June 21st, 1964 three young civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi were brutally murdered by the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan while they participated in the Freedom Summer voter registration initiative. Racially-motivated killings were nothing new in that part of the country during the Jim Crow era, but two of the victims were affluent, young, white males from the north. That was enough to turn their deaths into major national news, attracting the attention of the FBI and President Lyndon Johnson and acting as a catalyst for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

On the same day the killings, known as the Mississippi Burning murders, took place, another trio of young males from the north were driving through Mississippi with a different agenda. Led by guitarist John Fahey, the three men were obsessive fans of 1930s Delta blues musicians. Many of the key figures from that era had disappeared without a trace decades earlier, and they were determined to track down Skip James, whose sole recorded output was a handful of scratchy 78-RPM records in 1931. Through a combination of luck and guile, they found James at a hospital in Tunica, Mississippi.

Amazingly, another threesome of young, white males from the north were driving through Mississippi that same day in 1964 seeking out Son House, another Delta blues icon from the 1930s. They tracked him down via telephone and met up with him at his house in Rochester, New York two days later. Much like James, House had no idea that his old recordings had found a cult audience eager to see him play live. They both wound up attending the Newport Folk Festival the next month – James performed, though an ailment prevented House from taking the stage – relaunched their careers in the years to come after decades in complete obscurity.

The remarkable coincidence of these three historic events taking place on the same day in 1964 is the subject of the new documentary Two Trains Runnin’, which hit the festival circuit last year and is now rolling out to theaters across America. The incredible story was going to be told in writer Benjamin Hedin’s book In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now, but once the focus of the work shifted, he was unable to fit it in. “It pained me,” says Hedin, “I had done lots of research and interviews, [but] there was no place in it for the story of the searches for Son House and Skip James set against the backdrop of Freedom Summer.”

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“Two Trains Runnin’,” Sam Pollard’s compact, resonant documentary — part essay film, part road picture, part musical anthology — is built around an astonishing historical coincidence. On June 21, 1964, two lost giants of the Delta blues, Skip James and Son House, were found by separate crews of obsessed music fans after weeks of amateur sleuthing along the back roads of Mississippi. James and House had each made a handful of recordings in the ’30s and ’40s, and then faded into obscurity until the folk revival of the early ’60s piqued the interest of students and coffeehouse guitar pickers in the college towns of the North.

One car, captained by the guitarist John Fahey, set out from Berkeley, Calif., in search of Skip James. Another left Cambridge, Mass., following a wisp of a clue about where Son House might be. At the same time, other, larger groups of students were preparing to travel to Mississippi for reasons having little to do with music. They were part of Freedom Summer, a campaign organized mainly by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, to register black voters in the state. On June 21, three of those activists — James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman — disappeared near Philadelphia, Miss. They were killed by the Ku Klux Klan.

With deep historical knowledge and nimble storytelling techniques, Mr. Pollard explores how idealism, horrific brutality and artistic genius converged in a single historical moment. Interviews with survivors, eyewitnesses, scholars and musicians are complemented with archival material, animation (which is fast becoming a staple of modern documentary filmmaking) and the retrospective thoughts of critics, journalists and musicians. Some of these are a little distracting. It’s nice to hear Lucinda Williams, Gary Clark Jr. and others testify to (and demonstrate) the enduring influence of James and House, but it’s infinitely more valuable to hear the men themselves.

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Meet Rhiannon Giddens, Newly Minted MacArthur ‘Genius’

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As a solo artist — and, before that, as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops — singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens has made a career out of revitalizing and invigorating decades’ worth of music reflecting the African-American experience. That’s meant singing songs written from slave narratives and for civil rights leaders, and even occasionally offering up twists on contemporary hits.

Today, Giddens joins the impressive list of artists and thinkers who’ve received so-called “Genius Grants” from the MacArthur Foundation. The recipients — others this year include Tyshawn Sorey and Yuval Sharon — each receive $625,000 with no strings attached, in the hope that they can pursue their work without financial limitations.

If Giddens’ recognition has piqued your interest, below you’ll find a nice introduction — a cross-section of performances from and interviews with Giddens, captured by NPR Music and our partner stations in the last few years.

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scratchy old blues music

Pulled out an old blues record this snowy morning with nothing else to do at 5 a.m.  I’d forgotten about it and how much pleasure i’ve gotten from listening to it over the years.  You can find it on Amazon from .32 cents to $27.99.  Give it a try if you like old Robert Johnson style blues.  Can’t go wrong for .32 cents … and then I moved onto a Son House collection..

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Robert Johnson continues to become more notorious. Columbia Records recently announced (1990) that it would release a tribute album and documentary video in honor of the late blues legend, heralded as the King of the Delta Blues.

“Roots of Rhythm and Blues: A Tribute to the Robert Johnson Era“

features performances by Robert Jr. Lockwood (Johnson`s stepson), Honeyboy Edwards (who allegedly was with Johnson the night he was poisoned in Mississippi), Henry Townsend, Lonnie Lee Pitchford (a protege of Lockwood`s) and the last official recordings of Johnny Shines (the singer died April 20). The album isn`t so much a tribute to Johnson as it is to the blues` 1930s infancy. It features traditional spirituals, folk songs, work songs and folk blues. Also included are interpretations of Johnson favorites such as “Sweet Home Chicago,“ “Walking Blues“ and “Come On in My Kitchen.“

 

The album will coincide with the release of “The Search for Robert Johnson,“ a British “documentary-style“ video narrated by well known delta style blues musician John Hammond Jr.,  son of the late Columbia Records talent scout John Hammond.

In the video, Hammond traverses the delta by automobile and freight car, visiting the sites of Johnson`s two recording sessions in 1936 and 1937, and talks with Shines, Edwards and other Johnson contemporaries. Keith Richards and Eric Clapton offer fervent testimonials.

‘I’m blessed with a certain amnesia’

After his comeback to performing and Hallelujah’s unlikely chart domination, Leonard Cohen has had a remarkable year. He talks to Jian Ghomeshi about love, death and taking risks

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Interview extracts referred to one of Leonard Cohen’s songs as Dancing to the End of Love. That should be Dance Me to the End of Love.

What have you learned from being back on stage?

Leonard Cohen: I learned that it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. I’ve been grateful that it’s going well. You can’t ever guarantee that it’s going to continue doing well, because there’s a component that you really don’t command.

 

In 2001, you said to the Observer that you were at a stage of your life you refer to as the third act. You quoted Tennessee Williams saying: “Life is a fairly well-written play except for the third act.” You were 67 when you said that, you’re 74 now – does that ring more or less true for you still?

LC: Well, it’s well written, the beginning of the third act seems to be very well written. But the end of the third act, of course, is when the hero dies. My friend Irving Layton said about death: it’s not death that he’s worried about, it’s the preliminaries.

LC: Sure, every person ought to be.

Let me come back to the beginning of the first act. This was a brand new career for you that started in your 30s. How fearful were you of starting a second career?

LC: I’ve been generally fearful about everything, so this just fits in with the general sense of anxiety that I always experienced in my early life. When you say I had a career as a writer or a poet, that hardly begins to describe the modesty of the enterprise in Canada at that time – an edition of 200 was considered a bestseller in poems. At a certain point I realised that I’m going to have to buckle down and make a living. I’d written a couple of novels, and they’d been well received, but they’d sold about 3,000 copies. So I really had to do something, and the other thing I knew how to do was play guitar. So I was on my way down to Nashville – I thought maybe I could get a job. I love country music, maybe I’d get a job playing guitar. When I hit New York, I bumped into what later was called the folk-song renaissance. There were people like Dylan and Judy Collins and Joan Baez. And I hadn’t heard their work. So that touched me very much. I’d always been writing little songs myself, too, but I never thought there was any marketplace for them.

Some people would think it’s ironic to go into music to make money, given that it’s not necessarily the most lucrative of professions for most artists.

LC: Yeah, I know. In hindsight it seems to be the height of folly. You had to resolve your economic crisis by becoming a folk singer. And I had not much of a voice. I didn’t play that great guitar either. I don’t know how these things happen in life – luck has so much to do with success and failure.

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20 Years On, That Buena Vista Social Club Magic Endures

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The iconic cover photo for the 1997 album Buena Vista Social Club.

World Circuit/Nonesuch

 

Twenty years ago this month, Americans were introduced to the romantic sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club. It was an unlikely group of stars: mostly elderly musicians from Cuba playing very old-fashioned music. But when the group’s debut album was released in 1997, it wound up selling millions of records around the world.

Buena Vista Social Club started out as a very different album from the one you know. The previous year, British record producer Nick Gold and American guitarist Ry Cooder had the idea to show the connections between Cuban and West African music. They arranged for a group of musicians from Mali to record in Havana with musicians from the island. But Gold says that, as often happens, bureaucracy got in the way.

“The Africans couldn’t make the trip because [their] passports were sent to Burkina Faso to get visas — and they didn’t come back,” he recalls. “So the Africans couldn’t come.” (Gold did eventually manage to realize that Cuba-Mali project; AfroCubismwas released in 2010.)

Studio time had been booked at Cuba’s national recording label, EGREM, whose main studio was built by RCA Victor in the 1940s. Before the revolution in 1959, everyone — from Cuban stars to Nat King Cole — recorded there. Gold raves, “The actual room has got the nicest sound I’ve ever heard in any studio. It has this beautiful natural reverb.”

“I mean, I don’t know if we knew that it would be financially or commercially successful, but we knew something amazing was going down,” Gold says. Some of these older musicians had once been famous in Cuba, and some had not. But Gold believed they were all ready for their moment in the spotlight: “They knew they had nothing to prove. They knew why they were there.”

A few of the musicians hadn’t performed in years. In a 1999 interview with Fresh Air, Ry Cooder recalled asking Juan de Marcos González if anyone still sang the old-fashioned ballads called boleros.

“We asked, ‘Does anybody still sing this way? This beautiful high tenor lyric voice?'” Cooder explained. “He says, ‘There’s only one guy left … and this is Ibrahim Ferrer. And he’s hard to find. He’s on the street somewhere.’ He went out and he came back two hours later with this really strange-looking fellow — he’s just very skinny, moves like an old cat.”

Ferrer was 69 years old at the time, and shining shoes to earn a bit of money.

“He says, ‘So, what do you want me for? I don’t sing anymore,'” Cooder continued. “I’m thinking, ‘This is somebody, you know, this guy’s heavy. Put him up in front of a microphone and see what he’s going to do here.'”

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The Hidden Language in Mexican Ranchera Music

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Collage by Jenna Mason; record images courtesy of the Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings at the University of California-Los Angeles/Southern Foodways Alliance

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MOTHER JONES

Mexico has its own version of the blues, music that is “heavy on the pathos and irresistible beats,” writes Gustavo Arellano, OC Weekly editor and the author of the ¡Ask a Mexican!column. These corridos and rancheras are popular with the immigrant farmworkers in the United States, and they often illuminate favorite foods or life in the fields, Arellano tells us on this week’s episode of Bite podcast. “Kind of like gangster rap,” Arellano explains, “corridos would tell you the stories of repressed communities.”

Now, read Gustavo’s great piece on the rancheras and corridos inspired by Mexican farm work in the United States. The story was originally published as “Song of El Sur” by Southern Foodways Alliance and Gravy

Southerners have long celebrated Mexican foodways in song. You know the hot tamale hits: the Dixieland standard “Here Comes the Hot Tamale Man,” Robert Johnson’s “They’re Red Hot,” and “Molly Man” by Moses Mason. These classics, recorded long before Mexicans settled in the region en masse, are barn-stompers—their lyrics and beats each testaments to the good times that norteamericanos tend to associate with Mexican anything.

Historically, the feeling hasn’t gone both ways. For the past 80 years, corridos (ballads), rancheras (songs extolling the rural life), and other Mexican folk-music genres have offered bitter tales of backbreaking labor and racism in a South that’s not home—the antithesis of those tamale tunes. The following songs are the Mexican blues, heavy on the pathos and irresistible beats. They’re listened to on the radio and records but best live, the better for their target audience—Mexican immigrants far from home—to dance and drink the pain away.

The oldest known Mexican song set in the South is “Enganche del Mississippi,” (roughly, “The Mississippi Job”) recorded in the 1930s by Dúo San Antonio and on file at the Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings at UCLA. It’s a simple effort—just two high-pitched singers and two guitars. But “Enganche del Mississipi” stands as an extraordinary account of Mexicans in a place and era barely documented by academics, let alone depicted in popular culture.

True to the corrido form, the song tells a short story. A group of Texans of Mexican heritage flee the cotton harvest of South Texas for better, unnamed opportunities in Louisiana. After changing trains in Houston, the friends ask an enganchista (labor contractor) whether they’re still going to Louisiana. Much to their disappointment, the enghanchista replies that they’re passing right through the Bayou State and “straight to Mississippi.”

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Walter Becker, Steely Dan Co-Founder, Dead at 67

 

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Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted bassist-guitarist’s partnership with Donald Fagen yielded classic LPs like ‘Aja,’ ‘Katy Lied’ and ‘Pretzel Logic’

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Walter Becker, guitarist, bassist and co-founder of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted band Steely Dan, died Sunday at the age of 67.

Becker’s official site announced the death; no cause of death or other details were provided.

“Walter Becker was my friend, my writing partner and my bandmate since we met as students at Bard College in 1967,” Donald Fagen wrote in a tribute to Becker. “He was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter. He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny.”

Becker missed Steely Dan’s Classic East and West concerts in July as he recovered from an unspecified ailment. “Walter’s recovering from a procedure and hopefully he’ll be fine very soon,” Fagen told Billboard at the time. Becker’s doctor advised the guitarist not to leave his Maui home for the performances.

Becker and Fagen first became collaborators when they were both students at New York’s Bard College. After working as songwriters (Barbra Streisand’s “I Mean to Shine”) and members of Jay and the Americans’ backing band, the duo moved to California in the early Seventies to form Steely Dan – named after a sex toy in William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch – alongside guitarists Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias, drummer Jim Hodder and singer David Palmer.

Following the release of their debut 1972 LP Can’t Buy a Thrill, the lineup would change again with Palmer’s exit; while Steely Dan would routinely rotate musicians, Becker and Fagen remained the group’s core members. Despite the ever-changing lineup, Steely Dan made their stamp on music with a string of pristine, sophisticated albums with “calculated and literary lyrics” that blurred the lines of jazz, pop, rock and soul.

“I’m not interested in a rock/jazz fusion,” Becker told Rolling Stone in 1974. “That kind of marriage has so far only come up with ponderous results. We play rock & roll, but we swing when we play. We want that ongoing flow, that lightness, that forward rush of jazz.”

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The Washington Post

Walter Becker was the cynical one hiding behind the guitar

 

Steely Dan’s Walter Becker wasn’t a flashy guitarist or great singer. His genius came in his partnership with Donald Fagen, which began at Bard College in the late 1960s, stretched over seven albums from 1972 to 1980 and a pair of surprisingly strong late-period records after he and Fagen regrouped in 1993.

And with Becker’s death on Sunday, at 67, we also mourn the end of that partnership, what he and Fagen called a concept more than a rock group: Steely Dan.

Over an eight-year stretch, Steely Dan produced a catalogue like no other. They were as subversive as they were popular, and with songs such as “Peg,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Hey Nineteen,” they were very popular.

Like most partnerships, it’s hard to pin down the division of labor. Becker, in an excellent 2008 interview, danced around the question. “So whatever needs to be done, sometimes I’ve got something to start with, sometimes Donald’s got something to start with,” he said. “Sometimes we really work very closely, collaboratively on every little silly millimeter on the writing of the song and certainly of the records, and sometimes less so.”

The body of work doesn’t lie. Fagen, the group’s keyboardist and singer, and Becker, the bassist at first and later rhythm guitarist, were capable and always interesting as solo artists. But together they were special, with a gift for misdirection and an impeccable taste in music. Who else would cover a 1920s Duke Ellington tune, “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” at a time when Chicago, John Denver and Bad Company ruled the charts?

They started Steely Dan as a regular rock group, recording and touring throughout the early 1970s. Then Fagen and Becker decided they wanted off the road and, after a show in the summer of 1974, stopped touring. In the studio, they crafted their records by recruiting some of the best players of the day, including guitarist Larry Carlton, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and vibraphonist Victor Feldman. Steely Dan’s eventual demise, after 1980s “Gaucho,” came after conflicts with their record company and also with the mother of Becker’s ex-girlfriend. She died of an overdose, and Becker, addicted to drugs at the time, was sued for wrongful death, a case he eventually won. He eventually stopped using.

What made Steely Dan special — and it’s not an overused word in this case — came from the great paradox of making music often as smooth as the Doobie Brothers but as dark, twisted and unreliable as the work of their literary hero, Vladi­mir Nabokov. Speaking of the Doobies, for a time singer Michael McDonald bounced between both bands.

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Postscript: Walter Becker, of Steely Dan

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The New Yorker

Walter Becker, a guitarist, bassist, and co-founder of Steely Dan, passed away on Sunday morning. He was sixty-seven, and living in Maui. No official cause of death has been offered publicly, though earlier this year, after Becker skipped shows in New York and Los Angeles, Donald Fagen, his longtime partner in Steely Dan, told Billboard that Becker had been “recovering from a procedure.”

Becker was born in Queens, and he graduated from Stuyvesant, one of New York’s most selective public high schools, in 1968. He and Fagen met at Bard, a liberal-arts college in Annandale-on-Hudson, and started playing together as undergraduates. (At one point, they formed a group called the Leather Canary, which also featured the comedian Chevy Chase, on drums). Steely Dan coalesced in 1971, after Becker dropped out of Bard, and he and Fagen moved west, to California.

The band’s début LP, “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” was released in 1972, producing two charting singles, “Do It Again,” and “Reelin’ in the Years.” Becker was just twenty-two at the time, but—and I say this lovingly, admiringly—the band’s early hits are suffused with midlife yearning. It’s as if they instinctively took to a kind of premature, pansophical adulthood. “Reelin’ in the Years,” especially, is a wise and wistful accounting of how time goes by: “Your everlasting summer / You can see it fading fast / So you grab a piece of something / That you think is gonna last,” Fagen chastises. That these songs were written and sung convincingly by very young men on the loose in Los Angeles is extraordinary.

When Steely Dan first appeared on “American Bandstand,” in 1973, Dick Clark adopted a solemn, nearly professorial keen before describing the band as “thinking person’s music.” The implication was: if you want to party, keep moving along. Fagen and Becker had a reputation for being cerebral, meticulous, and high-minded. Their songs are terrifically complex, structurally—mapping one harmonically could take days. The transitions between phases are so expert as to feel invisible, yet the cumulative effect is nonetheless transporting: when a person reappears on the other side of a Steely Dan song, she feels as if she’s been floated somewhere different. It’s disorienting in the way that waking up to a new season is disorienting. It’s not uncommon to look back and think, Wait, what day is it?

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Rickie Lee Jones’ Poignant Tribute to Steely Dan’s Walter Becker

RollingStone

Singer Rickie Lee Jones is a longtime Steely Dan fan who collaborated with the late Walter Becker on her 1989 album Flying Cowboys. In recent years, Jones was asked to serve as opener during Steely Dan’s Carnegie Hall residencies in New York, where she joined the band onstage during their set. Following Becker’s death September 3rd, Jones penned a tribute to her friend and producer, which you can read below:

I first heard Steely Dan back in Kansas City, Missouri, where I ended up living with my dad after running away from home a second summer in a row. It was 1970 and I was just 15 years old. “Do It Again” was playing on the radio that summer night. I had just dropped some acid and I was on my way to see Led Zeppelin for their KC concert on their first USA tour. My date was a fat guy I had just met – him driving by and said, “Hey you wanna go to a concert?” He had high hopes I guess, and I just wanted to get out of the house. What I remember more than Led Zeppelin though is “Do It Again” drumming through the twilight heat, and the joy of all that Victor Feldman percussion.

Sexy. Contained. Because what “the Dan” accomplished was this: They introduced a new idea into the musical conversation of the time. It was the idea that intelligent music was cool. In a year where drum solos lasted minutes, quarter hours even, and singers screamed – a lot. Steely Dan made it cool to be educated. It is safe to say that they are the beginning of college rock.

There, right there, that’s where that idea begins. Two homely guys who write with a fortitude that no one else processed. None of this emotional crap. They were all business. Which led to sophistication. Which is how they are categorized by punk rockers today. Which is kind of funny, because they loved the simplicity of the blues and 12 bar rock & roll. Yes, they were, more or less, responsible for the drum machine (built by their engineer Roger Nichols). But I like to think that was some kind of punishment for being so exacting from every player they worked with.

By the time I started college, 1973, “Reelin’ in the Years” had become a college anthem. And now with the release of Countdown to Ecstasy, kids were bringing the record just to stare at the cover. It was holy ground; it was biblical. It was also cynical and kind of… well… women-hating. They seemed to really be obsessed with women they did not really like. I would come to understand some of how that came about, personal information I am not prepared to share, even though Walter has died. Those heartaches go with him to his grave.

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‘Sidemen: Long Road to Glory’ Review: They Brought the Blues to Life

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Hubert Sumlin and Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith in 2008 PHOTO: JEROME BRUNET/ZUMA PRESS

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Pinetop Perkins, Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith and Hubert Sumlin played with the greats, and this documentary hopes to give them the recognition they deserve.

 

The Wall Street Journal

A kind of blues song in its own right, “Sidemen: Long Road to Glory” is an affectionate attempt to showcase three major figures in the development of Chicago blues, musicians who spent their entire lives eclipsed by the oversized stars they played with—namely, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Yes, pianist Pinetop Perkins and drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith finally won a competitive Grammy in 2011, at the ages of 97 and 75, respectively. Hubert Sumlin, whose guitar-playing influenced every rocker including Jimi Hendrix, never got one at all. Their movie took about 10 years to make and release, at which point several principal characters—including the three subjects of the film—had passed away. If the term “sideman” implies being shortchanged on the long road to glory, this documentary certainly makes its point.

But director Scott D. Rosenbaum also revisits, somewhat incidentally, one of the more remarkable stories of 20th-century America, or of cultural revolutions anywhere: the midcentury mass migration of African-Americans from the rural South to factory cities in the northern Midwest, and the translation of their music—rustic delta blues developed out of plantations, refined from field hollers and arhoolies—into a popular hybrid so insistent and influential that it altered all things musical that followed. Today’s pop-cultural world is unimaginable without the sound these men made on Chess Records (no Beatles, no Rolling Stones, no Jack White, no punk, no grunge, etc.), and it was the work of people who came out of nowhere and nothing. And fulfilled their own brand of American dream.

Mr. Rosenbaum is far less concerned with social history than with his instrumentalists’ influence on the young, or in many cases not so young: Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, the guitarists Warren Haynes and Joe Bonamassa, the late Johnny Winter, the late Gregg Allman, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi. The three principals, too, appear on camera, but by the time Mr. Rosenbaum got to them they were either talked out or tired out—the best stories come from elsewhere, sometimes told with the help of animation.

Narrated by Marc Maron without any of his customary wryness, “Sidemen” tells some colorful stories: How Mr. Perkins started out playing “juke joints, fish fries and brothels”; how Mr. Sumlin literally fell into the lap of blues legend Wolf—who would become his surrogate father and lifelong musical partner— as a curious kid peeking in the window of a Mississippi roadhouse. It’s with Wolf (a.k.a Chester Burnett ) that Mr. Sumlin will forever be associated; the other two men, while more itinerant, are best known for their work with Waters (McKinley Morganfield). It’s a little sad that Waters and Wolf, the twin pillars of the Chicago blues, manage to dominate “Sidemen,” just as they did their music and their musicians. When the two died in the mid-’80s, their sidemen had nowhere to go. How these three pulled out of their respective tailspins often feels like good material for a song, if not always quite enough for a movie.