An excellent collection of Country Blues – that you’ve probably not heard?
It’s not so long ago, during a run of features by AUK writers on their ten best americana albums, that there was some interesting debate about the place of the blues and the absence of black artists in the lists that were produced. Not everyone here was persuaded by the arguments but I had to say I had some sympathy – though it was always supposed to be a personal choice and I would have hated the results to be subject to some kind of quota arrangement. I believe that anyone with an interest in americana would hopefully acknowledge and have an interest in this particular aspect of traditional American music. All of which could be skating around the fact that Mr. Whitfield seems to have sent me another ‘see what you make of this one’ offering. I ‘thought of you when I saw it’. Indeed!
First thought is the quality of the recordings, which if they have been cleaned up is good and if they are originals then it is something miraculous. The performances range from the late 1920s to the early ’40s and while, not unexpectedly, they lack any real aural sparkle they are infinitely clearer than comparators such as the Robert Johnson recordings.
The concept of the ‘Rough Guide’ type collections, a variety of artists under a generic banner, indeed a rough guide to the best country blues you’ve never heard, may not appeal to all. The label covers blues in a variety of guises from gospel, country, hill-billy, bottleneck, barrelhouse, hokum, delta, east coast, blues divas, holy blues, spiritual blues, jug-band blues, ragtime blues, blues songsters, blues women, and plain old, ‘the blues’ – I mean who would have thought? So there is plenty to choose from and it seems worthwhile making sure that rarities are sought out and preserved. Personally, I applaud the effort in bringing these collections together – it seems a particularly worthwhile exercise – and clearly, we aren’t talking K-Tel here. I am no expert on the blues – I’m passing familiar with most of the cornerstones – but I have to admit every name here is new to me and none let the side down. What may be more familiar are some of the tracks, for example, ‘When You’re Down and Out’, and, ‘Original Stack O’Lee Blues’.
There are 26 tracks and no space is left unoccupied on the disc but with no thought that there is any filler involved. Highlights include the aforementioned, ‘Stack O’Lee‘, – an up-tempo and quite unusual version by the splendidly named Long ‘Cleve’ Reed and Little Harvey Hull. Virgil Childers manages to score with his, Travelin’ Man’, if only because the lyric mentions the Titanic, the fateful iceberg, and the port of Liverpool. You’ve got to love a blues that spreads its wings that far. The Blue Boys, ‘Easy Winner’, includes some very sprightly mandolin playing and the essence of Scott Joplin is there for all to enjoy; the tune is in fact credited to Joplin. Otis Harris pays homage to the legendary jelly roll in his stark and sexual, ‘You’ll Like My Loving’. Let’s hope he lived up to his own publicity? A final recommendation would be, ‘G. Burns is Going to Rise Again’, by TC Johnson, Blue Coat Tom Nelson, and Porkchop – firstly because they seem to be having so much fun but in addition, because they win, hands down, the weirdest name competition (though Skoodle Dum Do and Sheffield come close). And sorry, I’ve not been able to work out who G. Burns was.
Accompanying the disc are concisely helpful sleeve notes that focus on some instrumental highlights. These include harmonica player Eddie Mapp on, ‘Careless Love’, the banjo and banjo/mandolin (I’d like to see what one of those might look like) playing of such as Yank Rachell who seems considered to be something of a master player. The Reverend Gary Davies can be heard on Bull City Red’s, ‘Now I’m Talking About You’, and most strikingly and unusually clarinet features with accompanying guitar on Will Days, ‘Sunrise Blues’. Throughout the guitar supplies the foundations, but there’s clearly enough variety involved to keep up interest in the whole collection.
The first volume in the series seems to have garnered praise from those who see themselves as country blues aficionados and I doubt that the second edition will differ. My only caveat would be that good as the sleeve notes are they tend to brevity and it might be hoped that in a nice package like this that there might be more information provided on the artists and the material. I’d love to know who G Burns was for instance? One thing we don’t tend to mention as reviewers is cost, and usually it is not that relevant. This package seems to come in at around a fiver so on that basis I couldn’t say it is a steal – but it ain’t much. Those who like this kind of music are not likely to be disappointed those who aren’t sure, give it a go. Those who don’t like it – well Rough Guides are also available to Japanese avant-garde music, merengue and bachata, and psychedelic Cambodia. The world’s your lobster!