Give My Poor Heart Ease

Give My Poor Heart Ease is a brief and uneven film, a 1975 account of the blues experience through the recollections and performances of B.B. King, James “Son” Thomas, Shelby “Poppa Jazz” Brown, James “Blood” Shelby, Cleveland “Broom Man” Jones, and inmates from Parchman prison. The film opens with a statement on the universality of the blues, the opening image is of a DJ invoking B. B. King in his lead in, recalling that “when you hurt, you gotta tell somebody, someone must understand how you feel, the only way to do it, say it loud and clear so everyone can hear.” (Stream Now)

As the last notes of Thrill is Gone rang in my ears, I came away from the film with with the realization that there is more nuance to blues than I realized, that this film captures a lost moment and culture that can never truly exist again and that this film is a unique opportunity to revisit that time and era.

Here we have the opportunity to see the young B. B. King in an arguably more nuanced rendering of his famous The Thrill is Gone, six years after the release of the 1969 single recording, than I am familiar with.

The brief glimpses of B. B. King in this film are an opportunity to experience the deft touch and rich, layered articulation present in his playing, something easily overlooked in the overall appeal of the song. There is a softness, a restraint of touch apparent in the opening scene playing solo before an audience in a small auditorium. I’ve overlooked this quality in other performances I’ve seen on television. Listen closely to his accompaniment to the “free free free” vocal in The Thrill is Gone calling to life feeling with each little touch of the strings into action, each little touch in service of emotion. Listen to how the layers of emphasis within the notes and muted chords catch the feeling of the song.

Those familiar with pop interpretations of the blues may find this deftness of touch and expressive articulation surprising. Listening to him play I can’t help but think some of the popular blues based music is melodramatic compared to the articulate or deadpan renditions of the blues we see in the film.

I wonder if B. B. King changes his style to suit more public performances and for recording sessions. Perhaps it is performing with others, leaving musical “space” for the other musicians that makes the difference. Here, he may be filling in that space with his own articulations.

The song with the line “Rock me Baby” (I’m not sure of the song or performer) shows us a softer and less melodramatic performance. The low key and laconic vocal on “Sixty One Highway Blues”. Perhaps it is the “Delta Blues” character of the other musicians that gives the performances a kind of authenticity and lack of hyperbole that makes them resonant and believable.

The film records an impromptu jam session in the black barbershop, a gathering place for the black community, which the viewer may be familiar with from recent Hollywood depictions. Here we see the real thing in action and are reminded there are still barbershops like these tenaciously hanging on.

I came away recognizing that Highway Sixty One Blues is a metaphor for life. It bears a relationship to the struggles of every day life. What could more appropriately describe life but a journey up the longest highway until your knees give out? It bears a philosophical relationship to the journey of humanity out of Africa, as science has revealed, along the coast of India to Australia and north to Europe, to all the corners of the earth, walking all the way. Their journey can be compared to walking the longest road, settling here and there only when their knees gave out. With respect to this metaphorical relationship, the journey to the blues is rich in irony given the history of how the blues came to be. It bears a direct relationship to the struggles of the people who created the blues. It connects us to our ancestral heritage as creatures born to walk. Walking is something that in the last century we nearly abandoned, building cities around our means of transportation, the railroad, the automobile, dreamed of flying cars and made real the ultimate deconstruction of walking, the Segway. It reminds me how these blues men were masters of generalizing from the particulars of their lives, even if they were unaware of it. Any time you write down what you see people doing or describe what it feels like to be alive in troubled times, you necessarily speak generally to all people.

I came away with the impression that there is more to blues than a beat and pained expressions, but there exists a level of nuance and sophistication evident in the various performances and in King’s that tie the best of the blues with its roots in the community and its origins in works songs, chain gang chants and the gospel sounds of the black church. This sophistication exists smack in the middle of a very down to earth and basic form of expression.

I could not help being reminded that the richness and depth of the blues idiom is rooted in the black experience, which is constantly changing and therefore evolving into new forms of music that have left the blues as a kind of time capsule of world we can’t quite reach. The blues is a window on a world of gandy dancers and chain gangs, juke joints and Jim Crow, black churches and hard times that no longer exist in the same guise. As one of the interviewees says, “you learn the blues from the fields and you learn the blues by the women.” Hard work and relationship troubles have not changed, but the expressions have.

The blues may continue as long as people have the blues, but the world that created the blues is gone. This film captures a time that will never come in exactly the same way again. Hard times may come and go, but the forms of expression have already changed to funk (for example, the “Mothership” reference to a mother Africa in a kind of folk storytelling), to hip-hop and rap and will evolve to other forms we are not even aware of yet.

Even the universal hard times experienced by the black community may vanish as the black middle class rises, and those who grow up in new circumstances will create new forms more attuned to their unique experience, just as rock music came out of frustrated suburban white teenagers. The blues will likely not survive as a viable form of expression for contemporary and future people, but it will not disappear any more than other forms of music have. But one has to ask the question, how many people have “walked sixty-one highway” in recent years?

To my mind, as the opening lines say, telling everyone who can hear how you feel so that they will understand your feelings is what music and song and story are all about and may be the driving force behind all artistic expression. That is what these performances represent.

The film is over too soon, leaving the viewer wanting more, but that’s what good performers are supposed to do, leave the audience wanting more. The soundtrack is good enough to sit back and listen to without even watching the film. It contains standout performances such as Highway Sixty One Blues by (I think, not having a transcript in hand) James “Son” Thomas, different from the one recorded by Fred McDowell. It ends with a refined and nuanced performance of The Thrill is Gone. This arc shows how the blues rose from the fields and prisons to place it has in American mainstream culture today.

I wish that I had an opportunity to see this film in the late 1970s when blues and blues based rock was all my guitar playing friends and myself were into. You should think yourself fortunate to see it now.

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