On a mission to promote blues music and culture
By Randall Haley
I n 1997, St. Louis native Jeff Konkel walked into a Mississippi juke joint and never wanted to go home.
“Of course, I did have to go home,” Konkel says. “But, I’ve spent a lot of resources to keep coming back over the last 19 years.”
Roger Stolle, who refers to himself as a former St. Louis ad man, shared a similar experience to Konkel when he moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 2002.
“When I first discovered Blues as a kid in Dayton, Ohio, I loved it, but it didn’t make total sense to me,” Stolle says. “Once you come to Mississippi and see the same Delta landscape that Charley Patton and John Lee Hooker saw, once you spend a night at a moonshine-fueled juke joint in the Mississippi Hill Country, you start to get it.”
When Stolle’s feet hit the Delta soil, his mission was to organize and promote Blues music and culture from within.
Upon meeting one another in 2005, Stolle and Konkel held Blues recording sessions, hung out at juke joints and house parties throughout the Mississippi Delta and hill country regions. They found that an article, a single-artist CD or some photos just didn’t quite capture what they loved.
“We kept saying to each other, ‘If we could capture this and deliver it to music fans, they would absolutely have to visit Mississippi in search of the real deal,’” Stolle says.
Whenever something “musically amazing” or “culturally crazy” happened, they would say, “That’s the project!”
In 2008, “the project” became the code name for their first major documentary film titled “M for Mississippi: A Road Trip through the Birthplace of the Blues.”
Following the success of “M for Mississippi,” Stolle and Konkel made another film called “We Juke Up in Here: Mississippi’s Juke Joint Culture at the Crossroads.”
Stolle says his definition of success in this context has nothing to do with sales or profits.
“What it means is that it has shown a positive spotlight on Mississippi,” Stolle says. “It has attracted media interest in the music that was born here, and it has attracted tourists and music fans to visit the land of Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson.”
Konkel says the first two documentaries were considered road-trip narratives exploring Mississippi’s Blues culture. Although Konkel and Stolle’s newest endeavor was an extension of that philosophy, this time they would bring in more of a Delta culture to this project.
“This project brings in a whole host of other aspects of Mississippi life,” Konkel says. “Everything from folk art to food, and farming and moonshining, and all of the unique traditions that still live and breathe in Mississippi.”
After months of visiting with Blues musicians, moonshiners and mojo bag makers, voila. The “co-conspirators” produced a web series titled “Moonshine & Mojo Hands.”
“We feel like ‘Moonshine & Mojo Hands’ is our best attempt yet at capturing the culture, the characters and the music we love in Mississippi,” Stolle says.
The series is a road-trip narrative with Konkel and Stolle as the on-screen hosts. Although the two began working on the concept in late 2012, they feel they’ve been creating it since their “M for Mississippi” days.
The 10-episode series was filmed over a six-month period in 2013. Surprisingly, each episode was filmed in only one day.
Stolle says, “If we couldn’t fit something in on a particular day of shooting, then it didn’t go in.”
Their goal with this series was to make the general public feel like they themselves could make these same Blues road-trips through Mississippi. Using the series as a recruitment tool, Stolle and Konkel planned to preserve history and culture for future generations; but more importantly, they wanted the documentary to affect people “now,” causing them to book a flight or pack the car to see what “Library of Congress legend Alan Lomax once called ‘The Land Where Blues Began.’”
“A day does not go by that someone doesn’t Facebook, Tweet, email, call or drop by my Cat Head store about it,” Stolle says. “We’ve also held a couple public screenings at Cleveland’s GRAMMY Museum Mississippi and St. Louis’ National Blues Museum. We had fantastic, enthusiastic Q and A’s afterwards. We love that everyone is so excited about the series.”
As much as Stolle hates to admit it, he said Blues is dying: not the music itself, but the culture, the very thing Konkel revisits Mississippi time and time again for.
“I, like a lot of Blues fans, came first through recording,” Konkel says. “But it wasn’t until I took my first trip down to the Delta that a light bulb went off, and all these songs and stories that I had read just made a lot more sense. I came for the music, but I stayed for the people and culture.”
Although Konkel and Stolle both know the musical genre of “the Blues” will never die because of its integrations into other musical genres around the world, they had a burning desire to capture the Blues, meaning the culture that is still tied directly to the land, history and culture of the Mississippi Delta.
“If a Blues fan wants to hear the history firsthand from an old Mississippi bluesman, then he or she needs to do it now,” Stolle says. “Those generations have nearly reached their end. That’s why we’re always rushing to complete these projects. Just since we filmed ‘Moonshine & Mojo Hands,’ five people in it have died.”
As the bluesmen themselves are passing on, Konkel says so, too, are the people who celebrate that music, go out to the juke joints and buy the recordings.
“Our demographic audience tends to skew a little bit older, and we’d really like to attract a new generation of listeners and fans because that’s really what’s going to keep the music alive,” Konkel says. “What we’ve found in working with so many older musicians, when there’s not an audience to put it to, very often they set the guitar down or they set the harmonica down, and they stop working those muscles. And there’s skill atrophy.”
The first two of Konkel and Stolle’s documentaries were available on DVD, and they held public screenings, but both Konkel and Stolle didn’t believe that was the way to invite new fans to the Blues culture.
“By making this a free web series, we think that that opens up an opportunity,” Konkel says. “We’re just always looking for ways to, without changing what we’re promoting – you know, we’re still promoting these traditional Blues styles – we’re trying to do it in a way that’s fun and entertaining.”
As much as Stolle and Konkel love serious documentaries, they decided that wasn’t the most inviting platform to bring in new listeners.
“We try to make sure there’s a little bit of humor in each episode, that there’s always something exciting happening on the screen,” Konkel says. “Whether you’re a hardcore Blues fan, or someone who’s just a little curious about it, we want to make sure we’re entertaining viewers while we educate them.”
Stolle says the best way to describe their project is to remember that it’s not about filmmaking, or even recording.
“It is about capturing reality and disseminating it to the world in a compelling way,” Stolle says.
Stolle says he and Konkel would have never completed the series without the production assistance of Damien Blaylock, the main editor; Lou Bopp and Tangent Mind, the camera crew; Anne Willis, “the web mistress,” and Joey Grisham, the graphic designer.
“I would say that we’ve been really pleased by, not just the viewership that we’ve had from people outside of Mississippi, we have a lot of fans around the world, Blues fans who are interested in the project, but it’s been really gratifying to see so many of our friends who are from and live in Mississippi to really embrace the project,” Konkel says. “Even among those friends who aren’t necessarily Blues fans, I think they feel like we’re doing a good job of capturing some of the real Delta culture. That’s been really, really rewarding.”
Stolle agrees with the project being rewarding, and hopes the Delta, Blues culture will reap the harvest of their new web series.
“If there is one thing I know from running my Cat Head Blues store in Clarksdale, it’s that if we can get a music fan to spend the night and see some live Blues and talk with some locals, then we’ve got them,” Stolle says. “We’ve created a new Blues fan, a new Mississippi fan.”
Konkel and Stolle’s “Moonshine & Mojo Hands” can be viewed for free by visiting the website, www.moonshineandmojohands.com.