Singin' the Blues

New documentary films, book and radio series

The legendary Delta bluesman Son House liked to say that the blues is about one thing—"what's between a man and a woman." But in 2003, the Congressionally designated "Year of the Blues," the music that has its roots in a dark, sex-and-booze-drenched spinoff of gospel has achieved near-universal respectability. This season that sound will be everywhere, thanks to The Blues, seven 90-minute documentary films produced by Martin Scorsese for PBS (starting September 28), and a companion book, CD, DVD, and 13-part radio series.

With the success three years ago of O Brother, Where Art Thou?—the film grossed more than $45 million, and the soundtrack sold an astounding seven million copies—"authenticity" was suddenly marketable, and Scorsese, who had long sought funding for this project, found himself assembling directors as diverse as Wim Wenders and Clint Eastwood for an unprecedented celebration of down-and-dirty Americana.

The films are a blend of archival footage, contemporary documentary, outright fiction, and personal fantasy—and, for one filmmaker, a reconciliation with his Mississippi childhood. "When I was growing up, my very religious grandmother told me the blues was 'the devil's music,' " says Charles Burnett. "Now I understand: You listen to some of these characters, you have to say, 'Well, it is X-rated, if that's what you mean by the devil."