In the mid-1980s, I completed a course in Observational Documentary Filmmaking offered by The Rice University Media Center. The course was intended to train community members to make films about issues in their communities or social concerns. The filmmaker James Blue championed the use of Super 8 film for these projects because it was substantially cheaper than traditional 16mm filmmaking.
Shot over a year and a half on Super 8mm film, “The Man with No Sign” was a response to the hyperbole in the mid-1980s that described country music stars Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings as outlaws because they refused to record in Nashville.
Our subject, James Lott (aka Jesse James), was a real outlaw who played guitar and sang honky tonk songs on the streets, in private homes, and at open-mike events sponsored by local bars. From a distance, James looked like Willie Nelson. But, James was a career criminal who spent half his life incarcerated. His rap sheet was nearly 3 feet long. It recorded his arrests for pimping, burglary, assault, armed robbery, theft, gun and drug running, and firearm and drug possession. He had been a heroin addict but switched to alcohol when a doctor suggested to him that if he had to be addicted to something, alcohol was legal and would cut down his periods of incarceration.
A friend of mine (Dave), who had a degree in filmmaking, read a story about James in a Sunday news pullout in a local newspaper. The article described James, and his lifestyle, in a way that caught our attention. Thirty-six years later, I don’t recall the exact content of the article. I think one of the factors that caught our attention was his broad base of support in various communities- including black, Hispanic, middle class, and blue-collar whites and artists.
Dave thought James would make an interesting subject for an observational documentary. None of Dave’s filmmaking peers were interested in the project because it would take up a lot of time, and the project was risky. After all, James associated with active criminals who might steal equipment or do worse.
Dave approached me, and I thought it was a great idea. We formed a two-person crew and shared camera work and sound recording. I did some lighting, and Dave edited the film clandestinely at work after hours. I believe that some funding was from NEA and SWAMP and the project took over a year to film.
When we met James, he was drinking himself to death, sang honky tonk songs on street corners, recited what he called convict poems, and sang songs on open mike nights at various bars and private gatherings like picnics. James was respected by redneck, black, and Hispanic criminal communities. We filmed safely in and around these communities due to this respect.
Essentially homeless, James would stay with a redneck, black, Hispanic, or middle-class/blue collar white family until his welcome wore out. Then he would move on to another family or stay with his estranged father (aka Preacher), who was a hoarder. During our filming, Jesse had his father’s house condemned. Preacher came home while the house he had built was being demolished and wept. I later asked Jesse how it felt to see his father weeping as his home was being demolished. Jesse said, “It felt really good.” He had a big smile on his face.
In 1977, Joe Campos Torres was badly beaten by members of the Houston Police Department. He was eventually thrown into Buffalo Bayou and died. Torres was a Vietnam veteran. At the time, he was thought to have been handcuffed.
James claimed to have written a protest song about the incident. It is more likely he sang a song written by Gil Scot Heron because most, if not all, of the songs he claimed to have written turned out to have been written by other singer/songwriters.
When passing HPD officers heard James singing the song, they beat him so badly they shattered his pelvis. James could not walk without a cane or another person’s support from that time on. He had to throw his right leg in front of him to make a right side step. He refused to sing the song ever again.
James lived long enough to see the edited film and he was pleased. James wanted to leave a legacy other than his criminal record. He repeatedly said that he had reached a point in life in which he tried to bring pleasure to people as an entertainer. He especially wanted this to be part of his legacy.
If I recall correctly, he died within the year the film of shown on PBS. His throat hemorrhaged while he was performing on stage for friends in Monroe, Louisiana. Docs told us that this was a common way for alcoholics who sang for a living to die.
The PBS show was a disaster for us personally. If I recall correctly, the NEA and SWAMP had contributed funds to the film. SWAMP, or Southwestern Alternate Media Project which is still functioning, was supposed to bleep out the curse words before sending the film for presentation. The person responsible for this task admitted he had forgotten. Early in the film James says MotherFucker several times. The film was peppered with additional obscenities. All of which went on air. Because of this, PBS banned us for life. I don’t know if that is still in force.