Producer, director Joanne Fish talks about her projects, Wanda Jackson, W.C Handy and Frank Zappa

"W.C Handy story is the American Dream - not always a bed of roses, but one that’s worth fighting for. And he leaves us such a terrific songbook, as well as a legacy of self determination and dignity."

Joanne Fish: American Blues n' Roll Dreams

Joanne Fish is a producer, director and owner of FishNet Films. In 2007 Joanne completed her award winning documentary on the “Queen of Rockabilly” Wanda Jackson. The film, entitled “THE SWEET LADY WITH THE NASTY VOICE”, won “Best in Show” at the Oklahoma City Film Festival, a Cine Golden Eagle Award, and was an official entry at over 20 other film festivals. The documentary was acquired by Smithsonian Network as part of its premiere launch. Joanne has produced, written and directed more than 250 programs for network television, including A&E Biography, Modern Marvels, Lifetime’s Intimate Portrait, Rescue 911, and the History Channel Special about George Washington Carver for Black History Month.

She won an Emmy award for "Class Acts" a documentary about Los Angeles’ first public High School of the Arts, and received seven Emmy nominations for her work. Joanne is the lead producer and director on “Mr. Handy’s Blues: A Musical Documentary” the story of 'The Father of the Blues'. Handy is credited with transforming African-American folk music that was handed down only through oral tradition into a  purely American genre of music. Against all odds Handy forged a successful career in the post Civil War south, becoming a reknown bandleader, composer, and entrepreneur. He was the first African American to publish his own music, and in 1914 he wrote St. Louis Blues, which was the most recorded song in the first half of the 20th century. He began his career as a minstrel, and ended it as a revered visionary who brought the Blues into mainstream society and commercial viability. Handy's life is full of family drama, racial conflict, and redemption. It moves from Florence, Alabama to the Mississippi Delta to Beale Street in Memphis, TN. He moved to New York City and opened the first black-owned entertainment business on Broadway; and provided songs for myriad popular artists of the day, and musical theater. Joanne Fish is heading up the project. She plan to interview luminaries in the music business (Wynton Marsalis, Quincy Jones, Taj Mahal, Eric Clapton, and more) and present insight into Handy's life and times through the eyes of historians and musicologists.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How started the thought of FishNet Films?

I’ve been a producer/director/writer for television shows for more than 25 years. In between ’paying gigs’ for History Channel, A&E Biography, Lifetime, ABC, CBS, NBC, and many other major networks, I would work on my own projects, calling them "labors of love".  In 2005 I decided to go into business for myself, and my first project was the Wanda Jackson documentary "The Sweet Lady With The Nasty Voice".

How do you describe Fish’s progress, what characterize your philosophy?

My first love is filmmaking. My second love is music, and in particular roots music. I’ve lived in Nashville, Tennessee where I was lucky enough to meet a lot of the Grand Ole Opry performers, and their stories about the early days of country music, from the Carter Family, to Hank Williams, Sr., and all of the various influences and characters that were involved in the evolution of the hillbilly sound fascinated me. I had firsthand experience working with some of the great artists like June Carter Cash, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette, George Jones and many many others who pioneered the genre.  

How important was music in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

Growing up I loved the Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Who, and all the big artists of the time. I really didn’t think much about where it all started until I began working in the television industry. Music in the background of a film or television show can completely change the feeling of an interview, and I realized the power of music in evoking strong emotions when paired with compelling visuals.

What has been the relationship between Rock n’ Roll and Blues in your life and progress?

Discovering the real 'raw' blues and rockabilly artists was a revelation to me. I was fortunate to become friends with some musicians when I was in college and I was exposed to some incredible talent in small clubs and honkytonks all across the country. I visited a friend in Chicago one year for Thanksgiving and he took me to hear Buddy Guy in a tiny club on the Southside of the city. I was hooked. Something about the Blues just resonated with me, even though I wasn’t really familiar with the history or evolution of the genre at all. I didn’t really explore that until I came to California to work in the television industry. There were so many clubs and so much great music happening, I had great exposure to famous acts as well as the up and coming artists that nobody ever heard of.

"I love all the music, the big bands, the clothes, and the optimism. You also have the Harlem Renaissance happening, and exciting innovations in art, literature, and communications."

(Photo: Joanna Fish and Taj Mahal - Video Mr. Handy's Blues by Taj Mahal)

Why did you think that the Rock n’ Roll and Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

The undeniable authenticity and truth. You know it and feel it when you hear it. George Thorogood comes to mind for me. The first time I heard him play was at a concert that also featured punk music. When he played the first few notes, I knew there was something very ’real’ about him. He was completely unknown at the time, at least to me.  

What made you get involved with Wanda Jackson and William Christopher Handy’s story and life?

When I lived in Nashville, Tennessee in the 1990’s, I had the pleasure of producing a live talk/music show hosted by the great Ralph Emery. We had a live band and Ralph would invite various performers to come on and do a couple of songs then sit on the couch and chat with him. I learned so much about some of the older artists, particularly from the country world, but also from Rockabilly. Wanda Jackson came on the show, and I was blown away by her both as a person and a performer. Ten years after that, I was living back in L.A. and I saw that she was performing on Valentine’s Day. I grabbed a friend and went to hear her and again, she was so fabulous, I just wanted to get to know her, and learn her story. So I contacted her, and she and her husband agreed that we could make a documentary about Wanda, and we just went from there. Another producer from New York named Vinnie Kralyevich also approached them around the same time, and he and I decided to team up and make a documentary about Wanda, and her influence on early Rock and Roll. Our mission was to get her inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and two years later, we accomplished that goal with our film. 

"Having spent so much time with Wanda Jackson and her husband, and the great country music artists that I mentioned, I think I ’miss’ the old school charm of the music business."

Are there any memories from the progress of documentaries which you’d like to share with us?

Following Wanda and her husband, Wendell Goodman around the U.S. and over to Sweden and Finland was the best experience I’ve ever had professionally and personally. She is such an amazing force, and her voice is as strong and robust as ever. They both have such a kind spirit, and work tirelessly to bring the fans a fantastic show, no matter where, or the size of the venue. I met incredible people and the whole experience was more than I ever could have dreamed of in terms of the rewards. I didn’t want the journey to end, but we had a lot of fun going to film festivals, and meeting a whole new generation of kids who were being turned on to Wanda and her inimitable style. She really is the Queen of Rockabilly, and the story is that she was the first woman to actually record a Rock and Roll song. Plus, she palled around with Elvis, as everyone knows, and toured with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and that group, so she’s got some stories. 

What's the legacy of W. C. Handy and Wanda Jackson? What are the lines that connect Rock n’ Roll and Blues?

I’m not a musicologist or scholar, but when you hear Wanda’s recent album with Jack White you can see the lines that connect Rockabilly with the current music scene. There’s a lot of rock and roll in there, a lot of soul, and underlying it all is the blues. That’s what drew me to go further back and explore the roots of all of that, which led me to Mr. Handy. His legacy will be preserved in my current production, which is shooting now. 

They are a non-profit organization that acts as a fiscal sponsor for our film, which is being funded through private tax deductible donations. 

I also have a Facebook page for the film where I post a lot of updates, and new clips as we edit them.  I’ve already shot once in Memphis, and New York City, and I’ve visited Handy’s home town of Florence, Alabama several times. There is such a rich history to this film, it’s important to show his geographical journey as well as his musical evolution. 

"Music in the background of a film or television show can completely change the feeling of an interview, and I realized the power of music in evoking strong emotions when paired with compelling visuals." (Photo: Joanna and blues artist Eric Hughes)

What have you learned about yourself from Rock n’ Roll and Blues people and culture?

While I’m not a musician myself, I think I’m drawn to artists who pursue the blues with abandon because that is what their hearts tell them they must do. It’s such a pure vocation, and those who have the talent really can’t do anything else. It’s admirable, and I’m a great appreciator of the people who provide this treasure to us everyday.  Making documentaries about America’s musical roots has made me a better filmmaker, and has given me more joy than anything else. I want to celebrate our heritage, and show how new artists are keeping the flames burning brightly for the rest of the world.

You have come to know great personalities. Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

In my regular job as a freelance producer I have met many many intriguing people, not all in music and not all famous. Frank Zappa was one of the most amazing characters I have ever met, and probably ever will. I interviewed him about the 1984 Olympics which were happening in Los Angeles. I worked for ABC at the time, and Frank let loose with some very pointed opinions about the Games, and their commerciality. It was funny, but there was a real strong message underneath it all. I still have that interview as a wonderful souvenir. I also enjoyed the times I spent with Loretta Lynn. We had a lot of fun and memorable experiences that I cherish. I’m grateful to have been able to do what I love and meet so many of the great artists in the process.

"I think Handy had a fantastic sense of humour. I believe that even though he faced a lot of hardship in his life, he overcame it with a creative attitude a hopeful soul, and a twinkle in his eye."

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

Right now is the most interesting period of my life. Working on my film "Mr. Handy’s Blues: A Musical Documentary". I am enthralled with his story, and with the period in our history that he lived. His life began during the post-Civil War period and ended at the beginning of the Space Age. He was born a free man, and was well-educated but he still faced some egregious treatment, all the while staying positive and moving steadily toward his goals.  He changed the course of music, and I really want to bring his harrowing journey to life. I don’t dwell on the worst moments; they all served a purpose, and led me to where I am today. So again, I’m grateful.  

What do you miss most nowadays from the old days of music? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Having spent so much time with Wanda Jackson and her husband, and the great country music artists that I mentioned, I think I ’miss’ the old school charm of the music business. Both Wanda and Loretta used to go around to radio stations peddling their albums. Now you have to have a publicist, and a social media empire to get your music out there. Radio doesn’t play enough variety. I am happy to see so many groups, and web based stations cropping up. But as I’m sure everyone knows, it’s getting harder and harder to be heard. I’m an optimist, though, and I love the community of like-minded music lovers that I am meeting through my projects. I like the hands on approach, and I’m always encouraged by the kindness of people in the music business, and their generosity of spirit.

"One of the more emotionally charged moments was when we were at Wanda Jackson’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was something that she really wanted, and in her acceptance speech, she cited the film that Vinnie Kralyevich and I made and thanked us for helping her achieve this dream."

Which incident of music history you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting with you?

Without a doubt it would be a painting of a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi, where Handy claims to have first heard the blues. The title would be "Where the Southern Cross the Dog". I could be a passenger on that train!

Where would you really wanna go via a time machine and what books, records, DVDs etc. would you put in?

I would have loved to live in the Jazz Age. I love all the music, the big bands, the clothes, and the optimism. You also have the Harlem Renaissance happening, and exciting innovations in art, literature, and communications. My mother lived through that as a young teenager and she was such a free spirit throughout her whole life.  I think that’s where it came from.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?

One of the more emotionally charged moments was when we were at Wanda Jackson’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was something that she really wanted, and in her acceptance speech, she cited the film that Vinnie Kralyevich and I made and thanked us for helping her achieve this dream. A similar moment was more recently in New York City when Michael Packer, the President of the New York Blues Hall of Fame inducted W.C. Handy as a "Legend" and presented the plaque to Handy’s great grandson, Doal Hanson, Jr. We were rolling our cameras for that one, and it was a real goose bump moment for all of us.

"There’s a lot of rock and roll in there, a lot of soul, and underlying it all is the blues. That’s what drew me to go further back and explore the roots of all of that, which led me to Mr. Handy. His legacy will be preserved in my current production, which is shooting now." (Photo: W.C. Handy was inducted into the NY Blues Hall of Fame on 11/14/14. Joanna with W.C. Handy's grandson, Doal Hanson and Elliott Hurwitt, Handy historian.)

What would you like to ask W. C. Handy? If was speaking to us, what do you think he would tell us?

Believe it or not, a lot of people ask me that question. I think Handy had a fantastic sense of humour. I believe that even though he faced a lot of hardship in his life, he overcame it with a creative attitude a hopeful soul, and a twinkle in his eye. I think he would want us to know that he worked hard to bring the Blues vernacular to the world, and that he didn’t want all the credit for that, but he did want to be a part of something greater than himself. He knew he was destined for this greatness, and he seized the opportunities. He didn’t let things like Jim Crow laws or racial violence stop him. His motto was "Fight it Out" but I think he did it with the spirit of a lover, not a fighter.  His story is the American Dream - not always a bed of roses, but one that’s worth fighting for. And he leaves us such a terrific songbook, as well as a legacy of self determination and dignity. I would ask him what kept him going, because I know that the answer would be a brilliant and meaningful message for everyone to hear.

  

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