Take Me to the River, a documentary about Memphis blues — debuts at MIFF, Maine

By Ramona du Houx. First published in Maine Insights

Take Me to the River, a documentary that traces the roots and rhythms of the Blues out of Memphis, Tennessee, made its Northeast coast debut at the Maine International Film Festival (MIFF) last summer. Soul sounds filled the movie theater with blues rhythms as well as compilations of some of the most talented living blues legends singing with hip-hop and rap performers. The documentary brought together generations who are bound together because of the music’s roots. As rapper Snoop Dogg said, “The music they were making in their time is exactly what we make. We all came from the ghetto … it’s the same connection. The power that we have is the power they gave us.”

Take Me to the River follows the artists through the creative process of recording a historic new album, which is now for sale. Frayser Boy, William Bell, and William “Boo” Mitchell were at MIFF for the screening and talked with an exuberant audience after the showing of the movie.

The movie showed how inspirational, community-based blues music can heal with the power of love.

“Music alters your daily life. You can be in one mood and listen to a good record, and it would completely alter your conciseness and mood. It has a greater effect on people than they give it credit for,” said Mitchell. “The universe is the rhythm. The world spins at a tempo, we revolve at a tempo, our hearts beat in a rhythm — there is music in everything.”

In the movie, director and record producer Martin Shore gave the session musicians and some stars the liberty to tell their own stories, which turned out to be a perfect way to “pass on musical magic.” When Mavis Staples tells her story, she bursts into a song that rocks the soul.

Shore wanted to ensure he produced a documentary of classic blues musicians and their part in American history. The music is, as a session musician said, “real and genuine and straight from the heart.”

The blues out of Memphis is uniquely part of America’s heritage. These are songs that inspired generations and helped mold America’s future. Many of these classics became the silken tread that united souls during the Civil Rights days in the 60s and 70s.

“A lot of the music was created during turbulent times, like Respect Yourself. The songs came out of that. Stax was real grassroots, down-to-earth, common people singing from pure emotions, a lot coming from church,” said William Bell.

Bell got his start singing at church. He’s been making music since the age of seven. He dropped out of college after two years to sing professionally and was drafted into service for the country. When he returned home, he returned to his music. “Music is my whole life. I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said.
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Stax Records recorded songs about Civil Rights, relationships, and hardships. Their performers were directly involved through their music in progressing the rights of blacks. The documentary also records how Stax was forced to shut down, which was another injustice. Part of the purpose of the movie is to preserve this history.

“I’m hoping that libraries, colleges, will pick it up,” said Bell.

The title, Take Me to the River, derives from the Al Greene classic of the same name, as the river runs through the cotton fields, where slaves sang to each other to communicate, and church singers poured their souls into song. Blues was the heart and soul of it all. The music and the moves of Elvis and the Rolling Stones came from these roots, and with these and so many white men singing blues rhythms, suddenly the Memphis sound was channeled into millions of living rooms to people who had never heard it before. And during the Civil Rights era, the injustices black communities underwent with discrimination and segregation finally were shown to white audiences.

Sadly, many of the great blues artists never received fame and fortune like many white men and women who popularized the music. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones is all too aware of this injustice and in the movie he notably helps out.

Terrence Howard introduces the documentary, narrates and sings in the film. When Memphis-born preteen prodigy Lil’ P-Nut jammed with blues legend Otis Clay, the audience was lifted up with hope. Since the movie’s release, Lil’ P-Nut has been signed to do other projects.

Some of the best takes are from musicians like William Bell, Mavis Staples, Charlie Musselwhite, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Yo Gotti, Bobby Rush, Frayser Boy, and The North Mississippi All-Stars.

Most of the sales of the Take Me to the River album will go towards Soulsville Foundation to help keep the music alive and inspire future generations of musicians.

In the movie, students from the Soulsville Foundation are brought into the studio and not only perform alongside blues legends but are instructed by them. It was an experience that they’d never get anywhere else — an experience that brought tears to some of the audience.

The Soulsville Foundation was created in Memphis in the late 1990s to ensure that the rich legacy of this music would not be lost to history. The Soulsville Foundation funds and operates three subsidiary organizations on its campus at the original site of Stax Records: The Soulsville Charter School, a tuition-free public charter school whose mission is to prepare students for success in college and life; the Stax Museum of American Soul Music; and the Stax Music Academy, a learning center that inspires young people and enhances their academic, cognitive, performance and leadership skills by utilizing music.

Since 2000, the academy has been serving primarily at-risk youth from throughout the Memphis community with mentoring experiences, music education programs, and performance opportunities.

Part of the proceeds of the movie as well as the album will go to the Soulsville Foundation.

Although the audience at MIFF was almost entirely white, reflecting the current population of Central Maine, they all loved the movie and gave a standing ovation to Bell, Frayser Boy, and Mitchell. One man openly said, “This music brings people together … it’s the power of love.”

As Frayser Boy expressed it, “Music controls your emotions. It can make you happy, sad or cry. It’s therapeutic, it cleans my soul. Music is the soundtrack of my life.”

To contribute to the Soulsville Foundation, please contact them at 926 E. McLemore Avenue, Memphis, TN 38106. Phone: 901-946-2535 Fax: 901-948-8560.

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