I'm really kicking myself because I've missed most of the series of documentary films organised by Martin Scorsese called The Blues. Each feature-length film is directed by a different person, and the one I saw last night — The Soul of a Man — was by Wim Wenders. He focused on three blues artists: Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James and J. B. Lenoir. It was fascinating learning about their lives, and a real treat to hear the old recordings made in the 1920s and 30s of Blind Willie Johnson and Skip James, and see the amateur film taken of J. B. Lenoir in the 1960s.
As with many blues artists, none of them really managed to break out of poverty, despite cutting commercially successful records. Skip James was offered a choice between a cash settlement and a percentage for his work, and went away with only $40 in his pocket, despite the fact that his work was — and still is — very successful. Those early blues artists got really exploited. It's so tragic that neither they nor their families ever benefited from their talent. I think my favourite artist of the three is Skip James. I love his high, sweet, voice — slurring, blurring and smoothing the words into his soft and dreamy guitar playing, and concealing the harsh themes of the songs. They featured him singing 'Hard Time Killing Floor Blues', which is one of my favourite blues songs. It's like running your fingers over the flat of a razor blade; it's cool and smooth, but if you move your hand a little, it will draw blood.
It's a fascinating series (which is available on DVD already it seems), with archival footage alongside modern interpretations of some of the songs by famous artists like Lou Reed, Beck and Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds.
At the other — 'totally obstructing you at every turn' — end of the spectrum, I tried out the new version of Microsoft Office 2004 today. I approached it with a little hope, but no expectation that my hopes might be fulfilled. In the immortal words of Bernard Black, "It was all I expected and less". Things didn't get off to a great start when the download link on Microsoft's page turned out to be broken. I went to MacUpdate's listing instead and had more success. The only really positive thing I can say is that the track changes and commenting systems have been improved a lot. I've used the latest version of Word on XP, and was envious of the 'bubble' presentation of revisions and comments, and the drop-down menu that lets you flick between different modes of display of the revisions. I work on a lot of collaborative documents, and the old system made me grind my teeth. Unfortunately, nothing else seems significantly better. The new Notebook view is a total rip-off of NoteBook and NoteTaker, and I would much prefer to use either of those than Microsoft's poor attempt. There is also a new Project Center to organise your work, but if you don't use Entourage for your email, contacts and calendar, it is needless bloat. Word still insists on consuming about 20% of my CPU even when in the background and inactive, which just isn't acceptable. The suite is huge, overbearing and the way it looms over me in a monolithic, lumpen way depresses the heck out of me.