Buddy Guy Documentary Explores the Roots of an American Master by Jerry Barrow
By Jerry L. Barrow
If you could tell the story of America through the lens of one man’s life, George “Buddy” Guy would be a worthy avatar. The Blues guitarist and singer is a bedrock of modern music who has influenced both the giants of his era and those who followed. While it would seem daunting to compress his 84 years on this planet into as many minutes, the documentary “Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase The Blues Away”, which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival this past weekend, is an exhaustive yet seamless tribute to the musical legacy and influence of a master of his craft.
Directors Devin Chanda, Devin Amar, Charles Todd, and Matt Mitchener stitch together interviews with Guy conducted over multiple decades along with archival film, photographs and original recordings to take viewers on an odyssey of sound and culture that lays bare the truth about the music business and America’s exploitative yet symbiotic relationship with Black talent.
Born in Lettsworth, Louisiana in 1936 to sharecropping parents, Buddy Guy was gifted a two-string guitar by his father that set him on the path to musical greatness. After toiling in the fields picking cotton for little more than $2 per day, Guy left for Chicago in 1957 with the hope of just watching his inspirations like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker performing live. Arriving on a September night, Guy was welcomed by the hum of a city teeming with people and music. But it would be months before he would make a worthwhile connection.
Almost a half year into his relocation, Guy didn’t have two pennies to rub together and the rumbles of his stomach almost drowned out his guitar. He contemplated going back home to Louisiana in defeat when a stranger took him to the 708 Club to perform. As he strummed along he told his audience that he was hungry, but they couldn’t believe someone with his obvious talent could be destitute. Little did he know that eight blocks away, his hero Muddy Waters was getting out of bed to come hear him play. After strumming his way through B.B. King’s “Sweet Little Angel” Muddy Waters made Buddy the best salami sandwich he’d ever had and told him that his future was here in Chicago, not back in Louisiana.
While his belly was now full, Buddy was not yet satisfied and the narrative pivots to take the viewer on his path to innovation. Having been raised in the church, Guy incorporated his Baptist upbringing into his performance, literally taking a stand for his art. “They didn’t know what standing up was, so I stood up like Guitar Slim,” he reveals, referencing guitarist Eddie Jones, one of his earlier influences. Taking to his feet allowed Buddy to emote and infuse his playing with a pentacostal spirit that became his calling card. He pushed the limits of his Stratocaster guitar and Fender bass amplifier in ways his peers and listeners had not experienced before, creating “a messed up sound” filled with feedback and just a little out of tune. But his innovations would inspire generations of musicians to follow.
Buddy eventually found work with famed Chicago label Chess Records, home to the aforementioned Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and more Rock and Blues legends. But finally getting the attention he sought was a mixed blessing. Starting out as a house guitarist, Buddy Guy received a quick and ugly education on the record business, specifically as it pertained to songwriting and royalties. As the documentary illustrates, The Blues was fueled by extemporaneous creation, channeling a moment of woe into a soulful salve. But in a recording studio it was about ownership and those waters were often made murky by the ink of multiple pens.
Not seeing a financial return on his music, Buddy Guy drove a tow truck by day to finance his dreams, but kept his guitar in his truck in case the opportunity to play presented itself. But what was harder than not making money was being told to suppress his style. The executives at Chess told him that he needed to reign in his “wild thing.” However, it would take that sound making its way overseas before they saw the light.
Legendary guitarist Eric Clapton first saw Buddy Guy perform in 1965 when he was 18 years old and described the performance at the Marquis Club in London as “earth shattering” during Guy’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2005. As Guy recalls in the documentary, it was this recognition from the Brits that did more for his career than some of his actual recordings. The very style that the suits at Chess Records told him to contain is what drew audiences and fellow musicians to him. And in a pattern that has rippled across many genres of music, it took white people in Europe to appreciate his innovations before American audiences and check writers would validate it.
Drawing these connections is where the documentary goes from being merely informative to being necessary. Testimonials from guitar heroes like Carlos Santana, John Mayer, Kingfish and Gary Clarke, Jr. underscore just how important Buddy Guy is to modern music and how vital it is to lift his name up while he is still here to tell his story. In a “cosign” culture it is imperative that voices in the zeitgeist do the work to fill the holes in the narrative. Films like this help to level up the awareness for those who may only know Buddy Guy as the father of their favorite rapper from Chicago, Shawnna, or first heard his music during a pivotal scene in a movie like Love Jones.
Just as important as these supporting testimonials are the first-person recollections of Buddy Guy himself. Panning back and forth between black and white interviews from the 1990s–his hair dripping with curls–to present day footage with his sharp suits and balding head, the southern twang in his voice persists across time establishing him as a living vessel of history.
However, the greatest achievement of this film may be in using The Blues to define The Blues, which itself is something more readily felt than described. Buddy Guy’s journey from a wooden house in Louisiana to performing for The President in The White House is a song in itself. It’s the hope and tenacity of one man and his love for music that helps him overcome the obstacles born of that love. It’s a mobius strip of destiny revealing both our origins and our purpose on the same path. “Funny thing about the blues, you play ‘em because you got ‘em,” Guy says in summation. “But when you play ‘em, you lose ‘em…the Blues chase the Blues away.”
Thankfully, The Blues didn’t chase Buddy Guy away, and American music is better for it.
Jerry Barrow is a Brooklyn, NY native who has been writing professionally since the late 1990’s. He currently contributes to various outlets including Vibe, Complex and LEVEL and hosts a podcast “Fathers Who Bother” where he interviews actors and musicians about their experience as parents. Follow his work on Twitter @JLBarrow. Check out some of his work for soulhead.