Sat 4 Oct 2008
I've written quite a bit about blues field recordings and play them often on my radio program so it's an understatement to say that I was excited to hear that the Living Country Blues USA series was being issued on CD in its entirety (unfortunately there are no additional tracks). These remarkable recordings were issued across 12 LP's (one double set) on the German L+R label between 1980 and 1981. Considering the title it's ironic that these recordings weren't issued domestically until 1999 when the Evidence Records distilled the project down to a 3-CD "greatest hits" package, simply titled Living Country Blues – An Anthology. At the time of this release I have to admit I was only vaguely aware of the original series – in my defense I was only 12 at the time the L+R albums came out, a precocious 12 year old but certainly not listening to country blues! – but what I heard on the Evidence set floored me. In classic collector mentality I set out to track down the original L+R records which wasn't that easy and turned out to be an expensive proposition. I never did get all the albums but thankfully now that they have been reissued on CD I was finally able to complete the set. On November 9th I'll be devoting the entire show to these recordings with a sequel undoubtedly in the future.
In 1980 two young German blues enthusiasts, Axel Küstner and Siegfried Christmann, came to America with the idea to document the remaining country blues tradition. With their station wagon and portable recording equipment they hit the dusty road spending a couple of months documenting blues, gospel, field hollers and work songs throughout the South. As the notes proclaim: "Traveling 10,000 miles by car in 2 1/2 months, they used 180,000 feet of tape and took hundreds of photographs to document various aspects of Country Blues, as well as work songs, fife and drum band music, field hollers and rural Gospel music, performed by 35 artists, some of whom appear on record for the first time." The prep work for the project was done in 1978 when Küstner came over alone for a six month survey of the blues scene and made some final arrangements in June 1980 before hooking up with Christmann three months later. If this project reminds you of the recording trips of John and Alan Lomax, that's exactly what the duo had in mind. Where the Lomax's had the Library of Congress to back them, Küstner and Christmann had the backing of Horst Lippman who had just started the L+R label with Fritz Rau (the same duo who were responsible for the American Folk Blues Festivals). The project was called Living Country Blues as Alligator had just issued their acclaimed Living Chicago Blues series. As for the sound quality, don't let the field recording aspect scare you, the sound is exceptional, recorded with a ten-channel mixer and reel-to reel tape.
If you think about it, it was a bold undertaking to embark on a trip like this in 1980 when one would imagine the country blues had largely died out as a vibrant part of rural black communities. After all George Mitchell and Pete Lowry, two of the most active field recorders, had called it quits by 1980, while others like David Evans, Kip Lornell, Gianni Marcucci and Enzo Castello, Bengt Olsson and Bruce Bastin had largely stopped going in the field after the 1970's. To be sure there were plenty of fine unheralded country blues players who were still active. Among the great finds of the late 1960's and 70's, and subsequently recorded, were men like Mance Lipscomb, Robert Pete Williams, Fred McDowell, Roosevelt Holts, Jack Owens, R.L. Burnside, James "Son" Thomas, Lum Guffin, Frank Hovington, Cecil Barfield, Marvin and Turner Foddrell, Peg Leg Sam, Henry Johnson, not to mention those still active who had recorded in the 1920's and 30's like Sam Chatmon, Buddy Moss, Joe Callicott, Furry Lewis, Bukka White, Hammie Nixon and others. George Mitchell wrote that "As late as 1969 a country bluesman who at least occasionally played could be located in most small towns of Georgia. In 1976, there are very few active blues musicians left in the state! In the short span of seven years, one of the worlds most vital and influential forms of music as it was originally performed has all but died out in Georgia, and probably in the rest of the South as well. Most bluesmen have either died or fallen into ill health accompanying old age, and the younger generation of rural blacks long ago turned their backs on the blues." It was also, he noted, the Church who claimed many bluesmen as well as the lack of financial incentive to play the blues that was the musics' death knell. Still Mitchell, Lowry and Lornell were recording many talented artists through the end of the 1970's and into the early 1980's. Seen from an historical perspective, Küstner and Christman's trip was one of the last great large-scale recording trips to survey southern blues and gospel, and the sad fact is that most of these performers have since passed on. Recordings of this type have been spotty and uneven since the 1980's; some mostly lackluster recordings issued on the the three volume Wolf series Giants of Country Blues (spanning 1967 through 1991), some good records on Fat Possum by R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Robert Belfour, Asie Payton and Cedell Davis in the 1990's, the surprisingly prolific, if uneven, Music Maker label and most recently some strong records on the Broke and Hungry label. As for another large-scale survey of southern blues, I'm afraid those days have long passed which makes Living Country Blues all the more valuable.
From October 1st through November 30th the duo rolled through Washington, DC, Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Virginia, New Orleans and of course Mississippi. While they recorded some extraordinary music in Mississippi a good chunk of the performances spotlight the rich East Coast tradition or Piedmont style, explored in-depth in the 70's by Lowry, Bastin and Lornell. Among the most striking in this vein are Guitar Frank (Frank Hovington), Guitar Slim (James Stephens) and Archie Edwards. Bastin called Guitar Frank "one of the finest singers to have been recorded during the 1970's…steeped in a tradition which is as much part of him as is the countryside about him." Bastin and Dick Spotswood recorded Frank in 1975, issuing the album Lonesome Road Blues on the Flyright label (reissued in 2000 as Gone With The Wind with several additional tracks). Frank was still in fine form when he reluctantly agreed to perform (he was afraid of losing his social security checks), putting his stamp on traditional material like "Railroad Bill", "Key To The Highway", fine instrumentals like the gently rolling "90 Goin' North", "Chimney Hill Breakdown" and a magnificent version of "Lonesome Road Blues" feature a gorgeous vocal. Guitar Slim hailed from Greensboro, North Carolina but his music falls stylistically between the East Coast style and and the more intense Mississippi approach. He recorded Greensboro Rounder for Flyright in the 1970's but good luck finding a copy. He was accomplished on six and twelve string and a fine piano player to boot. His loose barrelhouse piano is heard to fine effect on "Lovin' Blues" and "Lula's Back In Town" while his lovely singing is heard best on introspective numbers like "Won't You Spread Some Flowers On My Grave" and an achingly seductive cover of Robert Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen." Sadly he never recorded again. More strongly rooted in the East Coast tradition is Archie Edwards who made his debut with these recordings. Volume six in the series, The Road Is Rough and Rocky, is entirely devoted to this this talented guitarist with a wide repertoire. "Bear Cat Mama Blues", one of his best numbers, is on the 2-CD introduction, a cover of Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Balky Mule Blues." His original, the raggy, fast paced "The Road Is Rough And Rocky", is in classic Piedmont style as is the beautiful "Do Lord Remember Me", apparently the last song Edwards listened to before he passed in 1998.
Edwards was based in Washington, D.C. which boasted a number of exceptional players including John Cephas, Phil Wiggins and Flora Molton. The first volume of the series is devoted to the music of Cephas and Wiggins and were the first commercial recordings of the duo (Cephas had appeared on records by Henry Johnson and Big Chief Ellis and both men were recorded extensively by Pete Lowry but those recordings were never issued). The duo has made dozens of records and currently signed to Alligator records but they rarely sounded better then they do here rolling through classic East Coast material like "Goin Down The Road Feelin Bad", "Chicken Don't Roost Too High For Me" and "Richmond Blues." The seamlessly meshed playing of Cephas' complex, ragtime guitar and Wiggins' harp are strongly in the tradition of Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. Flora Molton has played her "Spiritual and Truth Music", as she called it, on the streets of Washington since the 1940's eventually benefiting from the blues revival with a steady stream of festival and coffeehouse gigs. Molton gave up the blues after she got sanctified but there's strong blues component to her music which follows in the tradition of guitar evangelists such as Edward Clayborn, Blind Willie Johnson and Blind Gary Davis. Molton plays serviceable slide as she delivers her declamatory vocals backed by a variety of musicians called The Truth Band. Volume three focuses entirely on her talents with two numbers on the introductory set including the magnificent "The Titanic", variations of which have long been a gospel staple as a testimony to man's hubris. The music is utterly captivating as Molten sings with with the unflagging devotion of a true believer. Outside of a self-produced 45 these are her first recordings.