After seeing Martin Scorsese's grand seven-film series The Blues, you feel as if you've attended a symposium on an all but vanished music. Scorsese and the six other directors who made the films may have set out with the idea of celebrating a vivid and eternal form, but what they came back with was a tattered requiem enacted by old, old men.
In Marc Levin's Godfathers and Sons, centred around Marshall Chess and his idea to reconvene the band that made Muddy Waters's Electric Mud album in 1969, the participants look as if they belong to another age. Their attempt at mixing electric blues with a rap and hip-hop feel, via the rapper Common and Public Enemy's Chuck D, is a sorry embarrassment. In Richard Pearce's The Road to Memphis, which follows a reunion concert of sorts in the town that kick-started the careers of B B King and others, there is a palpable feeling of a wake. King, now pushing 80, is an old gent dozing on his luxurious bus. Bobby Rush, still playing the "chitlin circuit" of black clubs and dreaming of crossing over to King's middle-class white audience, drives his own band bus at the age of 66. Rosco Gordon walks in bewilderment down Beale Street, once "a heaven for the black man", now long since redeveloped and denuded of its clubs and blues bars. The knowledge that Rosco died six weeks after filming adds to the sense of a departed form.
There is some attempt to bring on a new generation. Corey Harris is the chorus in Scorsese's own offering, Feel Like Going Home, a young man with a passion for his musical forebears. He tours Mississippi, and eventually West Africa, in search of original roots. What he finds are stragglers who live on their memories of better times for the music. In all seven films, there are countless reminiscences of how great this or that player was: there is almost no talk of anything contemporary, or any progression. But the blues couldn't progress: it could only change into something else, which it did when rock'n'roll came along.
The only significant development within blues was its move from country roots to metropolitan clothes - crystallised, perhaps, in the journey of Muddy Waters from his sharecropper's shack in Clarksdale to the big-city music of Chicago. Eventually, blues became rhythm and blues, and rolled on into the global Esperanto that is today's popular music. In its elemental form, though, it endures as a musical chorus structure of 12 bars, continuously repeated, a stanza with two lines the same, the third a variation. If it's not that, well, it isn't the blues. So suggests the Mississippi singer Son House: "They come on with these little jump things and call it blues, but that's not the blues. Ain't but one kinda blues, and that consists of between male and female that's in love."
What the film-makers seem to be searching for is that little homily, as if the blues were a mystical truth. Charles Burnett (the only black director of the seven) offers a wistful memoir in his entry, Warming by the Devil's Fire. He recalls time spent, as a boy in the 1950s, with a ne'er-do-well uncle who played blues records, day and night. It is a rite of passage cast in warm autumnal colours, with little sense of any rural squalor, which might have been a little more accurate: even a reeking outside toilet is beautifully photographed. Burnett sees a ghost at a crossroads, the place where Robert Johnson might have sold his soul to the Devil, and he returns to his old life a changed person.
Some of the films are much more prosaic. Clint Eastwood's feeble effort, Piano Blues, is little more than the director (who is in shot more than anyone else) joshing around with the likes of Ray Charles and Dave Brubeck, and is really more about jazz piano than anything to do with the blues. Mike Figgis contributes the plain and enjoyable Red, White & Blues, which is a straightforward account of the British blues boom of the 1960s, as remembered by rockers in their late middle age. Performances by Van Morrison, Lulu and Tom Jones are meant as in-the-spirit recreations, although Jones had nothing to do with it and is about as bluesy as Benny Hill. As for Wim Wenders's The Soul of a Man, it is a strange blend of the director's enigmatic manners and a bone-dry documentary style. A large chunk of the film is taken up with two Swedish Americans who once filmed the bluesman J B Lenoir in the early 1960s. What saves it is performance footage of, in particular, Skip James, the singer who made some spellbinding records in 1931 and disappeared for 33 years before his rediscovery in a remote hospital.
Scorsese's great problem must have been the lack of archive material. While jazz has been relatively well caught on cameras since the beginning, blues was hidden, almost secreted away from American histories. Most of the great country bluesmen were barely even photographed, let alone filmed. Only gramophone records saved their playing, and many of these are harsh: Charley Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson are a tough listen for modern ears. The same footage crops up more than once across the different films, and the recreative passages make the original images seem even more ancient and unreal.
Curiously, there is little in any of the films of a notably political bent: brief glimpses of Klansmen and anecdotes about hard times are about it. John Jeremy's little 1970 film Blues Like Showers of Rain gets under the skin better than any of these expensive movies. In Feel Like Going Home, one of the African musicians who talk to Harris says that "there are no black Americans, only blacks in America", and suggests that the blues is a direct African survival. But blues is what it is: a specific, American idiom. Patton's "High Water Everywhere", driven and furious, born of the terrible Delta floods of 1927, speaks of nothing but a native experience that only American blacks understood in this way.
All seven films are being shown as part of a brief season at the Barbican, "World Got the Blues", which programmes them alongside performances of what is alleged to be "World Blues". The musicians include Cesaria Evora; the "father of Greek Rembetika" Stelio Vamvakaris; and the Touareg desert "bluesmen" Tinariwen. A nice opportunity to hear some interesting music . . . but blues?
No - just another multikulti assemblage on a convenient peg. What makes such music compelling is not testing their likenesses - straining to hear a blues note plucked on a bouzouki - but appreciating their differences, the way they make their own idiom. Scorsese uses a quotation from the eminent archivist Alan Lomax, who recorded so many great bluesmen: "When the whole world is bored with automated, mass-distributed video music, our descendants will despise us for having thrown away the best of our culture." It's unfair to call such programming a symptom of the same malaise, even though, if Son House were still here, he would look at the line-up in disbelief. Perhaps, though, like Son House himself, the blues done been here and gone.
"World Got the Blues" is at the Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7550) from 29 May until 5 June. Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues has been released on DVD by the VDC Group
Richard Cook is the co-author of The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, the seventh edition of which will be published in October