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This 'Blues' sticks to the facts

All the attention paid to the Martin Scorsese-produced series of films that make up PBS's "The Blues" may have left old fans and new somewhat puzzled. Those artistic interpretations are compelling, but where are the straight facts, the historical perspective on the evocative music?

The answer is to be found on radio, as the aural medium presents its version of the WGBH presentation, a 13-part series that takes listeners on a more straightforward musical journey. This series actually begins airing locally on WUMB-FM (91.9) Saturday at 11 a.m. (with repeats each succeeding Tuesday at 7 p.m.). It will also air on the presenting station, WGBH-FM (89.7), starting Oct. 11 at 10 p.m. On both stations, the one-hour episodes (distributed by Public Radio International) will air weekly, as they will on about 300 stations nationwide.

"The film teams knew that once the films aired there would be an outcry because they're not traditional documentary," says Ben Manilla, executive producer of "The Blues" radio project. "There was a feeling that there was a need for that kind of content. So the folks who put the project together" -- Scorsese and the Seattle-based Experience Music Project -- "settled into a 13-part documentary that would be a true chronological documentary on what is the blues."

Dealing with a century-old musical style, one that has now spread to at least three continents, was a challenge.

"It's 100 years of history," says Manilla, who also produces the nationally syndicated House of Blues radio show. "How do you condense that into 13 hours? The answer is not very easily. There were all sorts of things that we had to give short shrift to or ignore entirely.

"Blues is a big tent," he says. "At the center of the tent, the fire burns very brightly. There you've got Muddy Waters, Son House, B.B. King. But the tent is a big tent. It has rap artists, it has folk artists, it has zydeco artists. All these kinds of music that are touched by the blues -- all we're doing is showing people the tent. You can go as close to the fires as you want to."

For beginners, the radio programs serve as a useful primer with a listenable mix of narration, interview, and a healthy sampling of tunes.

In the first episode, the personable host, blues artist Keb' Mo', even demonstrates the I-IV-V chord changes that make up the backbone of the style. But the guests and interviews provide fodder for dedicated fans, too, as when the great Taj Mahal follows the distinctive blues sound back to various points in Africa.

The show proceeds through time, as succeeding episodes trace the primarily African-American music's spread from the Mississippi Delta north to Memphis and Chicago and abroad to England. There are omissions, and every fan will have a pet peeve. But Manilla says that most listeners will learn something. Indeed, though he produced his first blues radio show 30 years ago while in college, he found this project enlightening.

"Going into this, I thought I knew a lot about the blues," he says. "But I did not appreciate the artistry of Skip James. I knew very little about Son House. I didn't appreciate how much Long John Baldry had to do with British blues, or Chris Barber or Cyril Davis. I am truly humbled by the history of this genre."

Spinning the dial

"From the Top" has announced its Boston tapings schedule. The kids' classical music show, which is produced in association with WGBH and distributed nationally by Public Radio International, will record at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall at 2 p.m. Oct. 5, Jan. 18, and March 20, and at 3:30 p.m. May 9. Other programs will be recorded at venues around the country, including Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Louisville, Ky., and Lubbock, Texas. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students and seniors; WGBH members receive two tickets for the price of one. For tickets and information about the live tapings call 617-585-1260; or go to the Jordan Hall box office (30 Gainsborough St., at the corner of Huntington Avenue); or visit the website at For groups of 10 or more, call 978-430-9889. . . . WBOS-FM (92.9) has extended its Sunday-morning program "Sunday Morning Over Easy." The show, hosted by George Knight, now runs 8 a.m. to noon.

Globe on NECN

Here's what's happening on "Around the Globe" today on NECN:

* 12:30 p.m.: "Globe at Home" -- Movie critics Ty Burr and Wesley Morris tell you what to check out at the box office this weekend.

* 4 p.m.: "Around the Globe"

* 6:30 p.m.: "New England Business Day"

* 8 p.m.: "NewsNight" Schedule is subject to change.

Talk of the dial

5 p.m. WBNW-AM (1120) -- "PM Magazine." Guests: Ron Zooleck, president and CEO, South Shore Chamber of Commerce, discusses the Greenbush commuter rail line and commerce; Karl Jennings, Ron Nash, Nash & Co.; Les Krantz, author, "The Job Finder's Guide" and "Jobs Rated Almanac."

Other radio highlights

7:30 a.m. WCRB-FM (102.5) -- Nielsen's Bohemian-Danish melody; Chaminade's Three Romances; Mozart's Clarinet Concerto.

Noon WGBH-FM (89.7) -- "Classical Performances." Grieg's Violin Sonata in C; Telemann's Overture in D; Spech's String Quartet in G; Nielsen's Little Suite in A minor for strings.

4 p.m. WCRB-FM (102.5) -- Frederick the Great's Flute Concerto No. 3; Dukas's Sorcerer's Apprentice; St. Georges' Violin Concerto No. 2.

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