Mon 31 Mar 2008
This is our second installment of my rummage thought the amazing trove of field recordings George Mitchell recorded over a twenty year period. For more background make sure to read part one. As I mentioned in the first installment a good chunk of these recordings have been collected in the 7-CD George Mitchell Collection box set from Fat Possum. In the first part I covered the first three volumes and now take a look at the remaining ones.
Disc 4 is dominated by two giants, Fred McDowell and R.L. Burnside, recorded two days apart in the summer of 1967. McDowell had recorded prolifically by this point ever since Alan Lomax found him in 1959. Burnside, however, was unknown outside of his community. As Mitchell recalled: "We heard about R.L. from Othar Turner. See, Fred McDowell hadn't mentioned R.L. – competition. Big-time competition. …The very first song he did was "Goin' Down South." You can imagine…I was completely taken aback. …'Goddamn this motherfucker's good. I have found somebody.'" Four of those songs are included here which have all been reissued by Fat Possum as First Recordings and they remain among Burnside's finest. What makes the McDowell session so special is his reunion with harmonica player Johnny Woods who McDowell hadn't seen in eight years. The resulting off-the-cuff jam session is a spellbinding, intense affair as the duo pour it on with jaw dropping intensity on McDowell's trademark "Shake Em' On Down" and "Mama Says I'm Crazy." All of these sides have been collected on Fat Possum's Mama Says I'm Crazy. Three additional tracks with Woods taking the vocal appear on disc 3.
"Too many people went to Mississippi", lamented Mitchell. Unlike many, Mitchell, didn't confine his activities to that state, instead recording extensively in Georgia and Alabama. Mitchell uncovered the details of a rural sound in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley which encompasses the Chattahoochee River as it runs the southern border between Georgia and Alabama to the state line of Florida. Those who play in the style include: Cliff Scott, J.W. Warren, Jimmy Lee Harris, Precious Bryant, Albert Macon and Eddie Harris. Fat Possum's Lower Chattahoochee Valley collects fifteen sides by various exponents of the style. The standout is Cliff Scott a wonderful bottleneck player who had a gently rolling style and a mellow, expressive vocal exemplified on songs like "Long Wavy Hair." "Woke Up This Morning" has a strong delta feel, close to the style of Muddy's plantation recordings. Jimmy Lee Harris, who worked with his brother Eddie Harris, played uncanny harmonica without a harmonica, a skill he learned in jail and was an expressive vocalist with a rhythmic style. Both men were recorded in the early 1980's in Alabama. Eddie's two numbers reveal a a fine electric guitarist with a down-home Jimmy Reed style. Mitchell also recorded the duo Albert Macon & Robert Thomas around the same time. The two had been playing together for some twenty years and their empathy is on display on the rollicking "Flat Foot Boogie" ("Play the strings out of it! Beat the blood out of it, now!") as the two interweave their percussive guitars with remarkable skill and vitality. Precious Bryant has achieved a measure of success in recent years with a pair of national releases but the Mitchell recordings from 1969 were her first, cut when she was just twenty-seven. Her three numbers are utterly charming propelled by her propulsive, gently rolling guitar and husky, quite vocals. J.W. Warren was the last artist Mitchell recorded in the field and certainly a major talent. Warren had a gently driving guitar style, occasionally employing slide, and was a wonderful interpretor of traditional material as well as laying down intriguing originals like "Hoboing Into Hollywood." A dozen of Warren's sides have been issued on Fat Possum's Life Ain't Worth Livin'.
There's several name artists on these volumes including Robert Nighthawk, Maxwell Street Jimmy, Jesse Mae Hemphill, John Henry Barbee, Furry Lewis, Will Shade and Charlie Burse. Nighthawk, of course, needs no introduction and Mitchell's recordings capture him just months before he passed away. Although the booklet doesn't say so, "Down By The Woodshed" is a previously unissued instrumental and two more unissued sides are available as digital download: "Down By The Wayside" and "Travelin' Man Blues." Mitchell was involved in a concert series at Chicago's Fickle Pickle club where excellent recordings were made by under recorded figures like John Henry Barbee and Maxwell Street Jimmy. Not available on the box set but available as digital download, possibly from the Fickle Pickle series, are a half-a-dozen sides by James Brewer who's long been a favorite. As far as I can tell these have not been issued before. As for the Memphis contingent, Furry Lewis is in exceptional form stretching out at length on "Good Morning Judge" and "Furry Lewis' Careless Love." Fat Possum's Good Morning Judge contains ten tracks Mitchell recorded in 1962 and 1967. Will Shade's sides are a bit rough around the edges although quite entertaining, especially his filthy version of "Dirty Dozens" where, as Mitchell notes, "he says it all" and the lively "K.C. Blues" with Burse on vocals. Like Precious Bryant, Jesse Mae Hemphill made her first side with Mitchell. She was only twenty-two when delivered a pair of absolutely captivating gospel numbers with minimal guitar backing.
Another notable female artist was Rosa Lee Hill who lived near Jesse Mae and was the daughter of Sid Hemphill. Mitchell devoted a chapter to Hill in his 1971 book Blow My Blues Away. Hill played compelling, hypnotic blues in the North Mississippi style and is captivating on stark numbers like "Bullying Well" and "Pork & Beans" ("Mama's in the kitchen cookin' pork and beans/Daddy's on the ocean runnin' submarines"). Two other artists featured in Mitchell's book were Robert Diggs and Robert Johnson. Diggs was a marvelously expressive harp player delivering a lovely version of "Someday Baby"and a virtuoso harmonica workout on the instrumental "Racehorse Charleston." Robert Johnson had given up the blues in 1927 for the church. Johnson's powerful, bluesy moaning vocal is heard on four riveting numbers accompanied by his daughters. There's some marvelous gospel on the final disc, a bonus CD by artists Fat Possum didn’t know enough about to include in the original 7" set, by the Pettis Sisters who lay down a pair of rousing numbers making one wish they had been more extensively recorded. There's no shortage of talent on this disc including fine sides by Willie Rockomo, Bruce Upshaw and George Hollis all of whom had some sides issued on the Revival label back in the 1970's.
The days when you could go down south with a portable recorder and capture some unheralded blues genius is gone. These recordings are a rich, vibrant look at a vanished era. Historically and musically this is and incredible cache of recordings and I'm glad Fat Possum made these available. However, as I said in part one, I wish they had presented these in a more consistent, less scattershot manner. These recordings deserve better. You only have to look at how Dust-to-Digital handled the Art Rosenbaum field recordings to see how it should have been done.