Sidelining The Sideman

by David Yearsley, October 4, 2017

The one thing you can say about the all-too-familiar genre of posthumous documentary in which dozens of admirers bear dutiful witness to the deceased’s unrecognized artistic achievements, is that at least the departed are spared the fate of having to suffer through all the praise.

Inevitably, the onscreen parade of eulogists begins to feel like an interminable open-mike funeral. Silent prayers are lofted by the assembled that the reverent testimonials will so irk the memorialized dead that they will have no recourse but to burst from their coffins and take to the pulpit to sing and play for themselves.

The Englishman Charles Burney summed up the problem in the very last sentence of his seminal four-volume history of music finished in 1789, the first such book ever published in English: “The artist who is suffered to linger in want and obscurity, is made but small amends by posthumous honours and commemorations.” Burney’s conclusion was a disclaimer meant to excuse writing thousands of pages on the forgotten musicians of the past—the sidemen of history.

The bewigged Londoner’s words haunt the documentary Sidemen: Long Road to Glory, directed by Scott Rosenbaum and released last month. The itinerary of this worthy, but unimaginative and ultimately disappointing film recently brought it to Ithaca, New York; I dutifully attended its ceremonies of remembrance last night. What keyboardist would shirk the duty of paying respects to a man called Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins, one of the original Sun Records musicians and, beginning in the late sixties, the pianist in Muddy Waters’ band for a resounding decade? Along with Perkins, the film honors two of his younger, though by no means young, blues colleagues—drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, also a crucial Waters sideman, and the guitarist Hubert Sumlin, longtime collaborator with, and musical son to, another of the founding fathers of the electric blues, Howlin’ Wolf.

At the age of 91 Perkins won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, thus receiving at a least thin slice of earthly glory, if not riches. He and Smith received a Grammy in 2011 for their Joined at the Hip. Towards its end, the film includes touching footage of the pair’s reunion in Los Angeles and their acceptance speeches. Elegant and poised in old age, they are decked out in their finery and nearly overcome with emotion.

Sumlin, too, gets but snatches of acknowledgment. We see him putting his graceful, still-supple fingers into the casts made of them in a stone in his honor on the Guitar Center Rock ‘n Roll Walk of Fame in Los Angeles. The sparklingly upbeat Sumlin, a musician credited with many of the most enduring blues riffs in history and a stylist of tremendous energy perfectly moderated by artistic restraint, basks in the attention. But even as tickled as he is by the tribute, he looks forward to the time when he’ll be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. But that honor never came, the omission adduced as one of the chief crimes perpetrated against the unsung bluesman. It’s a snub that symbolizes the lack of recognition accorded all three sidemen. Within months of the 2011 Grammy all three legendary figures were dead: Perkins at 97, Sumlin at 80, and Smith at 75.

This message of unfair neglect is delivered in snippets of interviews with a legion of aging white rockers and producers—from Aerosmith dinosaurs, to Johnny Winter, to an Allman brother and a collection of younger epigones. Their message of respectful admiration is drummed away at with little of the verve of “Big Eyes” Smith at the trap set: without the blues there would be no rock and roll, and without these sidemen the blues would not have taken the shape that they did. These testimonials come from those influenced by the bluesmen’s recordings as well as those lucky enough to have made music with their idols. However heartfelt, these homilies are repetitive to the point of tedium.

This monotony is only worsened by the fact that the cast is overwhelmingly white and even more overwhelmingly male: family members add a touch of diversity; Bonnie Raitt is summoned several times as a corrective to the gender gap.

One suspects that filmmaker Rosenbaum might be oblivious to his documentary’s many testosterone-driven ironies, including, but not limited to, his observation that Sumlin achieved his widest audience—though again without acknowledgement of his artistic contribution— in a series of Viagra television ads that used Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lighting as a soundtrack. Sumlin’s guitar work evokes simmering male desire, as a white cowboy hitches up horses to his pickup to pull him from boggy spot or a lone yachtsman hooks up a spare pulley to hoist up a droopy sail. Earlier in the documentary the ancient Pinetop is lauded as a one-time lady’s man. He smiles wryly and points below his belt, admitting that he “can’t do it no more. It’s as soft as cotton.”

In this respect Sidemen doesn’t heed its own advice. The movie has the means to redress the flaccid effect of all the deflating moralizing. With so much musical material at Rosenbaum’s disposal, it’s a shame to have to listen to so much redundant talk. Archival footage is offered only intermittently as an antidote, though we never hear a classic performance in its entirety. Instead, we revert time and time again to the talking heads: some hold guitars, but even they never use them.

Rosenbaum had originally intended the film to center on a concert performance, but he opted instead for a numbing didacticism. Expository biographical material about sharecropping origins and the Great Migration from the Mississippi Delta north to Chicago occasion ghastly skeins of cartoon animation. Occasionally seen in close-up, the fascinating topography of Perkins’ weathered face seems to map the entire history of the blues, and his moving portrait is a thousand times more interesting than Rosenbaum’s distracting, clumsily “educational” interludes.

“Where words fail, music speaks”—thus the Hallmark cliché become internet evergreen. The saying paraphrases a line from an 1840 story by Hans Christian Andersen,” What the Moon Saw” — in this case a melody etched into the wall of cell by a prisoner condemned to death. Transposed from Scandinavian woods to Louisiana’s Angola Prison, that scenario sounds worthy of a blues. But I’d rather hear Perkins, Smith, and Sumlin’s musical take on that story, than a discourse from the sentimental Dane, however much he might have been taken in by the blues had he too found himself on Chicago’s Southside in the 1960s. It is another irony that Sidemen trudges through its succinct running time of seventy-seven minutes, yet would have felt much shorter had it been extended by hearing more from the musicians it honors. In the end, this well-intentioned documentary fails because it only grudgingly lets its own treasured music speak.


(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgyearsley@gmail.com.)

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