I recently chanced upon The Blues Brothers movie playing on some channel late one night. This movie is almost 30 years old, and to the younger generation it must seem like something from the olden days.
This movie arose out of a Saturday Night Live sketch, which spawned a best selling album (A Briefcase Full of Blues) by two white guys, who single-handedly brought the genre into the mainstream. Never mind that the two guys couldn’t sing all that well, and that they were WHITE middle-class comedians who could hardly have paid the dues that were owed to these songs, plus they had their own half spastic, half gymnastic, and completely idiosyncratic delivery style.
At the time they were accused of using the original material for their own commercial ends. There’s no doubt that the duo behind The Blues Brothers certainly had immediate profits from their act. Of course, it’s all show BUSINESS, and who would begrudge an entertainer their fee? Life is tough and uncertain in show BUSINESS, even for those seemingly at the top. (Just ask Ed McMahon or MC Hammer about this. And besides, none of all the money could save one member of the Blues Brothers duo from death by an overdose. Indeed, one could almost say that perhaps his dues bill was overdue, and Karma came to collect it in spades.)
Only the passing of time can show if the act was merely a crass rip-off, or if the culture at large was enriched by it. By that measure Dan Akroyd and John Belushi shined a bright spotlight on a unique American musical heritage, which remained obscure even after the mid-century rise of its close cousin, Rock-n-Roll. With one stroke, the Blues as a genre was brought into the mainstream.
Although such popular acts as The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and The Grateful Dead, not to mention scores of minor acts (the J. Geils Band, Canned Heat, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Ten Years After, The Animals) all rose to fame at least in part by doing covers of old blues numbers, the original artists still languished in obscurity. Until Akroyd’s and Belushi’s affectionate parody of two old school bluesmen, Jake and Elwood Blues, most people in America had little idea of Muddy Waters, or John Lee Hooker, and all anyone knew of Howlin’ Wolf was that he had somehow influenced Keith Richards.
Such was the power of the pre-cable television medium and radio (before the suits with their rigid format playlists sucked the life out of it) that The Blues Brothers could send the entire Boomer generation on a treasure hunt for obscure blues artists. The music industry found that there were profits to be made in repackaging a heretofore obscure acts in their stable. Even suburban and small town record stores began to feature a “Blues” section among their stacks, a section that previously had never been there. In my midwestern hometown area, one of the local public radio stations switched to an all blues format — a very incongruous sound wafting out among the cornfields.
However, for many of us, it was the Blues Brothers movie that showed us the deep vein of power within those performers. The movie itself was marketed as and taken in as a light-hearted comedy, which had an added appeal of featuring some original artists singing their original material. I don’t think I was the only one in America who was blown away by James Brown, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, John Lee Hooker, or Aretha Franklin. Some of these artists I had heard of, some I hadn’t, but I had never seen any of them perform before. Although we could vaguely recognize the Blues Brothers act on Saturday Night Live as a parody of an American archetype, we really didn’t understand what was behind it until we saw the original musicians in front of our eyes. Furthermore, we saw these musicians from within their own community — in their churches, and their storefronts, and not in a pristine, “whitebread” settings. The makers of this movie knew the communities of Chicago’s south side.
28 years later, it’s evident that The Blues Brothers movie is not so much a comedy, but a sneaky and subversive musical. We had all gone to see it thinking we would be seeing a rollicking and hip comedy with some thrilling car chases, and it certainly had all that in spades. But whether or not the film-makers intended it, we also were given a walloping dose of our musical heritage with a side order of race/class commentary — all of it delivered joyously and without a lick of preaching.
And for some added fun, take a look at the blurb from the original album cover of A Briefcase Full of Blues.