The early days of television, on flickering black and white screens, produced some memorable weekly fare, from game shows to sitcoms derived from radio programs. One of its most enduring formats was the venerable western, a kind of modernized morality play where the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black (just so the audiences did not get confused). When television became popular in the late 1940s and 1950s, TV westerns quickly became an audience favorite, with 30 such shows airing during prime-time in 1959. Such shows were originally aimed at children but quickly matured and attracted the attention of older generations due to the portrayals of rugged, individualistic cowboys and other loners overcoming impossible odds to protect justice in the wild west.
One of the top western shows was “Gunsmoke,” starring James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon of Dodge City, Kansas. After running for nine years on the radio, it appeared for over 600 episodes on CBS television between 1955 and 1975, gathering an approval rating of 88%. It was the most-watched TV show between 1957 and 1961. A little less-known fact was that several of the show’s crew members loved blues music.
One weekend in November 1971, blues freak Link Wyler, and his buddies from the Gunsmoke TV crew gave into temptation. On production hiatus, they bolted Hollywood to go and film blues superstars Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton, Big Joe Turner, and George “Harmonica” Smith, who were then barnstorming the Pacific Northwest with their bands. The resulting two-hour documentary film called “Gunsmoke Blues” captured some of the best performances of those living legends ever put on celluloid. Recorded at the University of Oregon in Eugene, the songs included: 1) “Early in the morning”; “Ball and chain” by Willie Mae Thornton (Big Mama Thornton) 2) “Juke” by Walter Jacobs; “Leaving Chicago” 3) “Hide and seek” by Ethel Byrd, Paul Winley; “Shake, rattle and roll” by Charles Calhoun. 4) “Mannish boy” by McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters), Mel London, Ellis McDaniel; “Hoochie coochie man” by Willie Dixon; “Long distance call”, and “Got my mojo working” by Muddy Waters.
“The results, released here for the first time, is some of the best shot footage ever seen of these performers working their own element. Oh, 35mm cameras might’ve yielded better quality images, but in terms of where these guys placed themselves, on-stage or in the tour van, and how close they got to their subjects, and how they set up the audio feeds, this is as good a piece of work as was ever seen on Monterey Pop, and better than most other concert material of its era,” wrote Bruce Eder in the All Music Website.
In 2004, this material was compiled by producer Toby Byron (who made the wonderful “Masters of American Music” series for PBS) and it was released by Universal on DVD. This DVD re-release is also sold by Germany’s Bear Records, which specializes in selling hard-to-find recordings such as early blues records. Many American music lovers may be surprised to find out that some 70% of all blues recordings are currently sold in the European market.
Why would European listeners find solace in American blues music? “The blues are Black survival music. While many songs deal with the everyday issues, others from blues’ earliest beginnings up to contemporary times are blatantly political. It’s important to note that the act of this singing was more than entertainment for plantation overseers or solely expressions of sadness. In its purest form, the slave’s singing was an act of protest. Its beauty and expression transcends the pervasive hell that was the environment that allowed them to be enslaved,” wrote William C. Anderson on the Pitchfork Website.
Concerning arresting an abused starving sodbuster’s wife Marshal Matt Dillon once said: “Blaming her would be like blaming the night for being dark.” One of the blues-loving staff of Gunsmoke must have written that line.
The full documentary can be viewed here: