The Birth of the Blues

“My mama used to say, ‘If you never look back where you came from, you never know how far you’ve come.”  So opens the seventh film in Pure Nonfiction at IFC’s Winter 2019 season, That Rhythm, Those Blues. Newly restored for its 30th anniversary, the film focuses on the evolution of rhythm and blues music from the mid-1940s through the late-1950s.

Vibrant characters Ruth Brown and Charles Brown, two legendary blues performers, reflect on their journey with undeniable candor and incredible humility.  Ruth knew the effect her music had on audiences, explaining it was “something to ease the pain for the moment. That was what the music was about.” Admittedly she learned a great deal about that pain while on the road.  “I was not aware of the magnitude of segregation until I traveled in the deep south.” She and Charles would often play what they called “one-nighters,” where a rope would separate white fans from black fans. She remarked fondly, “I’m overjoyed that many times that rope came down.”  She concludes the film by saying “When they called it rock and roll, it was rhythm and blues. And it still is.”

In the Q&A following the screening, Director George Nierenberg said he realized how truly special Ruth was when he interviewed her for the film, explaining “She really was down and out at that point, but she had such a tremendous spirit.”  He also truly enjoyed getting to know both her and Charles while making the film. “They had a story to tell, and they were eager to tell it, and it’s wonderful for me when I can feel like I’m the voice for them.”  He decided it wouldn't be enough to just hear them speak about the evolution of the genre. He had to have them perform.  “Just telling a story without hearing them perform today would be very thin, and I feel that history is best told when you have something happening currently, and everything hangs from that.”

While That Rhythm, Those Blues originally aired on PBS on the American Experience strand back in 1988, now it is once again seeking distribution.  More information on both the film and director George Nierenberg can be found at