It’s always dangerous, of course, to stereotype. But if one were to draw up a caricature of the quintessential “Bluesman,” chances are the resulting illustration would be of an aging, gravely voiced, hard-living black man with about five good teeth from the Deep South. In other words, the drawing would bear a strong resemblance to any of the four subjects in “You See Me Laughin’.” You see, if there’s any type of music out there that has to be lived before it can be properly performed, it’s the blues. And believe me, these four have lived the blues.
Cedell Davis was stricken with typhoid fever as a child, followed by polio, then injured in a melee which has kept him wheelchair bound ever since. T-Model Ford first picked up a guitar at the age of 58 just to impress a woman. R.L. Burnside lost five family members within an eight month period of time. Junior Kimbough has 28 kids…
See what I mean?
Director Mandy Stein tells the story of these men in a way that’s as affectionate as it is dignified. From their roots playing seedy dives in the swamps of Mississippi to their marginally more successful existence today, “You See Me Laughin'” exposes these men and their raw and powerful stripped down form of blues to an audience that probably considers Eric Clapton’s unplugged version of “Layla” to be the blues.
True, the film gives a wink and a nod to such anti-social behaviors as murder, drinking, gambling and womanizing, but that was the world in which these cats lived and immortalized in song. The film also shows us that it’s a world that would have sunk into the swamps had it not been for a fateful chance encounter with a precocious young white blues enthusiast named Matthew Johnson. It was an encounter that led to the formation of Fat Possum Records, the shoestring budgeted record label for these and other back woods bluesmen.
Featuring appearances by Bono, a hysterical Iggy Pop, and Jon Spencer, Stein’s fascinating, toe-thumping documentary “You See Me Laughin'” is the “Buena Vista Social Club” of ol’ Dixie bluesmen.