Q&A with Emmy & Oscar-award winning filmmaker Ted Reed - the spirit and the soul in the birthplace of the blues

"In all cases our societal preconceptions can be challenged and through that a new understanding can emerge, regardless of the viewer’s racial, political, etc. beliefs or orientation."

Ted Reed: The Blues Trail Revisited

Emmy-and Oscar-award winning filmmaker Ted Reed has been producing, directing, writing, and shooting films and television since the 1970s. Creating documentaries, commercials, animated features, and broadcast and streaming series, he was one of the founding producers of television’s first nightly magazine program. His storytelling expertise has led to award-winning shows about gender equality, the future of communications technology, immigration, national parks, West Indian music, space tourism, assisted suicide, Jewish innovators, and handgun violence. During his career he partnered with the MIT team who pioneered internet streaming video technology, produced New England’s first local all-digital TV broadcast and pioneered the use of interactive video for large business meetings. Ted has taught and lectured at Harvard University, Tufts University, Boston University, Endicott College and the Boston Film and Video Foundation. He has brought filmmaking courses to elementary schools, community groups and retirement homes, and continues to run film, photography and music workshops at his office in Gloucester, MA.

Ted's new documentary "The Blues Trail Revisited" documentary is a personal memoir that encompasses the evolution of American music, the upheavals of the civil rights movement, the power of memory, and a reflection on the treasures of personal experience, both lost and found. In the spring of 1970, 20 year old Museum of Fine Arts film students Ted Reed and his friend Tim Treadway drove through the south to find and record some of the last living blues legends. Their goal was to discover the very roots of American popular music, and the sources of the rock music they had grown up with—music that had made the trip from the US to England in the 1950s and then back to the US in the 1960s through groups like the Rolling Stones, Led Zepplin, and Cream. That film, the 27-minute 16mm black and white “Thinking Out Loud” was seen at a handful of festivals, and then sat in a storage facility. 50 years later, Reed, by now a multiple award winning documentary filmmaker, discovered his old film while in the process of moving his office. He realized he was sitting on a treasure trove; archival footage of a bygone time that no one else had ever used. His curiosity moved him to drive the identical route he had taken years before and see firsthand what had changed in the birthplace of the blues. Like on his original trip, Reed was looking for the source of the spirit of the blues in the flatland cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, the lonely highways that crisscrossed the region, and a sense of the spirits of the departed blues artists he had originally sought out. The resulting film is a personal memoir that encompasses the evolution of American music, the upheavals of the civil rights movement, the power of memory, and a reflection on the treasures of personal experience, both lost and found.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the music (and counterculture of) influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken? How does affect your inspiration?

The Blues has been a part of my life ever since I was 13 years old and recognized the difference between the music the Rolling Stones were putting out versus almost everyone else on pop radio. I wanted to know more about why their stuff felt more raw and dangerous; that started me on the search that I’m still on today.

When I discovered where this raw, soulful music came from, and the legendary artists that had been overlooked in American music history, I was determined to find out where these musicians and their music came from. That’s why in 1971 I traveled through Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana with a tape recorder and a 16mm movie camera looking for the last living legends of the blues. I rediscovered that film again two years ago and decided to take the same road trip down south to see what was there now, and find out if the same spirits that haunted the Delta and the rest of the region back then were still performing their mojo now. I took my cameraman back there four times and I’m just finishing the film that incorporates the footage from my almost 50-year-old film and the new material we filmed on those recent trips.

What were the reasons that you started the Ted Reed Productions? How do you describe your projects, philosophy and mission?

I had founded a production company with my late wife in the 1980s, Counterproductions, Inc. We produced documentaries and entertainment specials for CBS Television for many years and won awards for many of them. When my wife passed away almost 3 years ago, I wanted to start a new company and create a new beginning for myself. I’m still primarily interested in documentary projects, but I would say the main difference is I’m looking for projects I can produce myself, rather than work-for-hire for a television or streaming network. I’m enjoying the freedom of going after subject material that catches my imagination and curiosity first, much like what motivated me when I first started as an independent filmmaker. It may not be a great business model, but it’s incredibly satisfying in so many other ways.

"The Blues has been a part of my life ever since I was 13 years old and recognized the difference between the music the Rolling Stones were putting out versus almost everyone else on pop radio. I wanted to know more about why their stuff felt more raw and dangerous; that started me on the search that I’m still on today." (Photo: Ted Reed, The Blues Trail - From Mississippi to Memphis, 2019)

What touched (emotionally) you from the Blues? Are there any memories on the road of The Blues Trail which you’d like to share with us?

When I got the idea to revisit the same places, I had gone looking for the roots of the Blues 50 years ago, I was going through a storm of powerful emotions. I had the support of my very good friends, but the intense feelings of loss, grief and sadness put me right in the center of the lessons so many of the great blues songs teach us about life. It seems natural to me now that I would want to return to the source of so many of those expressions that provide a special bond among all human beings—the feelings we share, the feelings we have to cope with on our own, and the bittersweet realization that life goes on, whether we’re ready for it or not.

There were so many powerful, touching, and surprising events on both Blues Trail trips. The first was when we visited Son House in 1971 at his home in Rochester, NY a few months before we traveled south. He didn’t want to be in the movie so I just went there with a still camera. He talked about some of the places he had played and the musicians he had played with, from Robert Johnson in the 1930s to Skip James in the 1960s. He didn’t have his guitar any more, but he picked up his metal bottleneck slide and slid it onto his finger and waved it in my face. As I grabbed a photo of this he proclaimed, “This is what I played around the world! This is what people came to hear! I know that nobody else could do that, and it’s going to leave this world when I go!” He then sank back down into his living room sofa and seemed to withdraw silently into himself. After several minutes of silence, we said goodbye as his wife showed us out. I was trembling the whole way back to Boston

Sort of bookending that was the day last year when we met Christone “Kingfish” Ingram in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He was about to turn 20 years old, but already had earned the reputation of being a world-class blues musician. His singing and playing seemed to come from a soul many decades older than he was, but he was still looking at where his career was rocketing off to like a kid with a new baseball glove. He had just finished recording his debut album, he had worked on it with no less a blues legend than Buddy Guy and was about to start touring internationally. I asked him what gave him the strength to deal with all the new changes his young life was going through, and he smiled and said’ “My mom. I can’t tell you how much she’s helped me get this far.” I met Princess earlier that day—she was still working as his manager and she was all business—she was looking out for her son with the same intensity that a mother tiger looks after her cub. She asked really specific questions when it came to discussing what we needed to pay to film Kingfish’s interview and playing an acoustic version of one of the songs from the upcoming album. But after the negotiating was over and everything was settled, she smiled, shook my hand and said, “Thank you for taking time to listen to my boy.” When I heard just last month that she had passed away, I remembered how she had been the protective mother that launched a star among us.

"Actually, the blues of the past is still with us, just as artists are finding new ways to interpret the blues. Musicians like Keb’ Mo, Guy Davis, and Corey Harris draw from the deep roots of country and Delta blues, while Robert Randolph, Kingfish Ingram, Samantha Fish, and GA-20 are reinventing the blues in new and exciting ways." (Photo: Ted Redd & Christone Ingram at Ground Zero Blues Club,  Clarksdale Mississippi)

What was the hardest part of making this documentary? Why is this subject matter important today? How do you want it to affect people?

I’d say the hardest part of making this film was deciding what NOT to include. Apart from the original 1971 film, we had shot over 30 interviews and 40+ musical performances, and they all had to have some element that drove the story forward and related to my inspiration to do the original film 50 years ago. What made it not so hard was the access that the internet provides now—you can reach out to almost anyone you want to interview and get an answer relatively quickly. It was an option we didn’t have and had to roll into towns and start asking in general stores and post offices where we could find people.

The subject matter is important today because it’s vital to understand where America’s music came from and the stories behind the people who gave birth to it. Audiences are generally aware that African-Americans were the true inventors of a majority of the music the world listens to, but as it was in the south 50 years ago, that cultural information exists in a very isolated area of our collective consciousness. My inspiration was to let people share the motivation I felt to find out as much as I could about the roots of the music I loved since childhood.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of the past? Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre or it’s a state of mind?

Actually, the blues of the past is still with us, just as artists are finding new ways to interpret the blues. Musicians like Keb’ Mo, Guy Davis, and Corey Harris draw from the deep roots of country and Delta blues, while Robert Randolph, Kingfish Ingram, Samantha Fish, and GA-20 are reinventing the blues in new and exciting ways.

The question arose during this project: is The Blues a singular noun or plural? Many rock (singular) songs are so slightly removed from the blues that they qualify as both. When someone says they have the blues, that sounds like it’s more than one. I think the blues is both a singular genre of music that has procreated so many subsequent strains as well as being a feeling and the antidote to that feeling. The deeper you dig the more you discover that it is all these things.

The blues will always be with us because it will always cause people to relate to the deep feelings that are universal to the human condition. It can mutate from hundreds of years old field worker songs to electronic interpretations that sound like they came from another planet. It’s (they are?) all the blues.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths and the people on the Blues Trail?                                    Photo: Ted Reed

Today, as it was during my initial trip, people are drawn to the historic places that inspired the early blues geniuses to lay the foundations of what we now realize are national and international treasures.  People from all over the world want to see where Muddy Waters was born, where Robert Johnson is buried, where BB King drove a tractor. The Mississippi Blues Trail is an incredible route to explore; it puts you right where these giants stood, and you can’t help but feel some of the spirit of their lives touching yours. Because today’s Blues Tourists are so deeply affected by the music they love, the emotional connection that’s there is powerful and has to be experienced in order to understand its force. Both the fans and the musicians—often they are both things—know what that force is.

What is the impact of music and films/documentaries to the racial, political, spiritual, and socio-cultural implications?

Documentaries in my mind can present focused explorations of specific topics in terms of how various elements related to those topics intersect. Some docs are stream-of-consciousness flows of freely associated subjects which in the process of their telling create a richly detailed picture. Others are carefully laid-out investigations presented in an orderly and logical way which lead the audience in a step-by-step path of discovery. Both methods serve to enlighten the viewing audience and bring them into a world they either misunderstood or were totally unaware of. In all cases our societal preconceptions can be challenged and through that a new understanding can emerge, regardless of the viewer’s racial, political, etc. beliefs or orientation.

Some filmmakers want to focus on these issues overtly, others choose to lead the audience in more subtle ways. I personally like using a little of both techniques; I prefer not to hit people over the head with a specific agenda but also to help bring people to realization through their own intellectual resources.

Where would you really want to go with a time machine? What memorabilia (books, records, films) would you put in a "time capsule"?

My time trip destination would be back to the Mississippi Delta to see Robert Johnson perform at the peak of his talents, whether he got them from a deal with the devil or not.

My time capsule from today would be the plethora of documentary films about the great musicians of today and the past who have been captured on film and video, the letters from visitors around the world left at the Blue Front Café in Bentonia, MS, and a cotton blossom from the Delta to remind people in the future what real natural materials felt like before the domination of agriculture by laboratory-created materials.

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