Sat 22 Mar 2008
For the last few weeks I've been captivated by the recordings of George Mitchell who made some remarkable field recordings throughout the South over a twenty year period beginning in the early 1960's. Many of these recordings have appeared on specialist labels like Southland, Revival, Flyright, Arhoolie and Rounder but are long out of print now. Several years ago the Fat Possum label acquired the Mitchell archive and has been reissuing the recordings through a variety of formats including CD, 7-inch record and digital download. While I admire Fat Possum for issuing these recordings, which will be of interest to a very narrow audience, their reissue of the material has been frustrating. They started the reissue program with single CD's of artists like Fred McDowell, J.W. Warren, Joe Callicott but eventually settled on putting the records out as series of 7" records (45 volumes in total) which seems a sure fire way of limiting their impact. Furthermore they have issued some more single artists CD's of folks like Cecil Barfield, Leon Pinson and Buddy Moss but these now seem impossible to locate. It seems a good chunk of the Mitchell collection (including many sides not on the box set) is available through eMusic and Amazon as digital downloads. I finally decided to pick up the The George Mitchell Collection box set which contains all 150 songs on each of the 45 7-inches spread out over six CD's plus a 24-track bonus CD by artists Fat Possum didn't know enough about to include in the original set. Also included is a well written booklet. I have to admit I've been a bit obsessed with these remarkable recordings and also picked up a couple of the individual CD's plus downloaded a number of songs that don't appear on the box set. Here, then, is the first of a two part trawl through these recordings as we look through the first three CD's.
Mitchell wasn't the only one roaming the south in the 1960's in search of blues; there was folklorists and researchers such as David Evans, Sam Charters, Gayle Dean Wardlow, Art Rosenbaum and others. Some were hunting for the famous names who made records in the 1920's and 1930's, others were seeking to fill in biographical blanks regarding some of the older musicians coveted by collectors and then there were those, like Mitchell, who were seeking to record whoever they could find. Mitchell did record some of the famous artists of the past like Buddy Moss, Furry Lewis, Will Shade, Sleepy Johns Estes and was the first to record artists who would achieve later fame such as R.L. Burnside, Jesse Mae Hemphill, Othar Turner and Precious Bryant. While the blues revival was picking up steam with newly discovered artists like Son House, Bukka White and Mississippi John Hurt hitting the circuit, Mitchell's recordings were a sort of a parallel undercurrent to the more famous artists. What Mitchell recorded in the rural communities of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi in the 1960's was a still thriving, if largely undocumented, blues culture. Mitchell had the passion and drive to seek out these folks, and unlike some folklorists didn't use the music to reinforce his own theories, he simply let the musicians speak for themselves and judging by the recordings they clearly responded to Mitchell's sincerity (being a southerner probably didn't hurt as well). Mitchell came along at the right time as he relates in the notes to the LP South Georgia Blues by William Robertson aka Cecil Barfield: "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 world's 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 music's death knell.
The most striking musician on the first disc is Cecil Barfield, and I agree with Mitchell's assessment that he was some kind of genius. Mitchell called him "probably the greatest previously unrecorded bluesman I have had the pleasure of recording during my 15 years of field research." Using the name William Robertson, in fear of endangering his welfare checks, he cut the LP South Georgia Blues for Southland in the mid-70's with several other tracks appearing on Flyright's Georgia Blues Today (reissued by Fat Possum with the same title and liner notes). I imagine Barfield is an acquired taste but to me he is simply mesmerizing; his music, with his droning, lightly distorted electric guitar coupled with his powerful mushed mouth, nasal singing, is hypnotic. Barfield has some originals but his genius is in the way he transforms well known songs by Frankie Lee Sims ("Lucy Mae Blues"), Lightnin' Hopkins ("Mojo Hand"), J.B. Lenoir ("Talk To Your Daughter") and others into something startlingly original. Only four songs by Barfield are on the box set although I was so taken with his music I downloaded all his songs on Amazon (George Mitchell Collection Vol. 2, Disc 3 & 4), 43 songs in all!
The sheer depth of singular talent is consistently surprising. Take John Lee Zielgler recorded in Georgia in 1978 and Lonzie Thomas recorded in Alabama in the early 1980's. Zielgler achieves a a gorgeous, fluid slide technique from his unorthodox style (he was a left-handed guitarist who played a right-handed guitar upside-down). His three numbers not only feature his slide work but also his beautiful high pitched voice backed by the wonderful spoon player Rufus Jones. In true field recording tradition you can hear little children playing in the background. More of his sides can be found on George Mitchell Collection Vol. 5. Thomas plays some fine finger picking reminiscent of John Hurt but not as refined, and possesses a deep, rich voice as he delivers old time numbers like "Rabbit On A Log", "Raise A Ruckus Tonight" and showcases some slide on the fine "My Three Woman."
Teddy Williams and William "Do Boy" Diamond were both recorded in Canton, Mississippi in 1967 on subsequent days. Diamond was a basic guitar player but possessed a great, relaxed voice. "Hard Time Blues" is a magnificent number, sharing the same haunting quality of some of Skip James' numbers. More of his sides can be found on George Mitchell Collection Vol. 5. It's suggested the older Williams may have taught Diamond, and he too is a powerful singer in a similar style. Mitchell's trip to Mississippi in 1967 was an extremely fruitful one and in addition to the above artists he recorded stunning sides by Houston Stackhouse (in a trio with Robert Nighthawk and Peck Curtis plus Carey "Ditty" Mason on some sides). It was a fortuitous recordings as Nighthawk died a few months later followed by Mason in 1969 and Curtis in 1970. These highly regarded sides have been issued before on Arhoolie and Testament. In addition there is some unissued material by Nighthawk and Stackhouse that should be of major interest to collectors. Also recorded during this trip were some powerhouse sides by Fred McDowell and harpist Johnny Woods and the wonderful Joe Callicott who's long been a favorite of mine. Only three songs apiece are included by each artist but each has full length CD's available on Fat Possum, both of which come highly recommended.
Other older, established players Mitchell recorded were Buddy Moss in 1963 and Dewey Corley in 1967. Mitchell found Moss through Peg Leg Howell (who he also recorded although his sides have not been reissued). Moss was part of the the great Atlanta blue scene of the 1930's working with Barbecue Bob, Curley Weaver, Blind Willie McTell as well as recording prolifically between 1933 and 1941. He was a forgotten man when Mitchell recorded him but the six sides included here find him in superb form. A moody and difficult character (a 1976 interview with Robert Springer was titled So I Said 'The Hell with It: A Difficult Interview with Eugene 'Buddy' Moss) his comeback never took off like it should, although Atlanta Blues Legend recorded in 1966 and issued on Biograph is quite good. Jug band veteran Dewey Corley is also in good form playing vigorous kazoo and one-stringed bass backed by Walter Miller on guitar on three loose, fun numbers.
Disc three features a trio of fine players from Georgia recorded in 1969: Bud White, Jim Bunkley and George Henry Bussey. Like many of the artists Mitchell found, none were professional musicians but all are quite good. White was a percussive guitar player with a high, rich voice, Bussey had a light, gently propulsive style and good voice while Mitchell describes Bunkley's style as a"frolicking" sound in contrast to the harder Mississippi style. Both Bussey and Bunkley were paired on the 1971 album George Henry Bussey and Jim Bunkley issued on Revival.
Mitchell also recorded a fair number of religious material including gospel singers and marvelous slide players, Leon Pinson and Green Paschal, both who play stirring gospel inflected blues. Pinson worked with the great singer/harmonica player Elder Roma Wilson early in his career and reunited with him when Wilson was rediscovered in the 80's, with the duo having a fair bit of success on the festival circuit. Pinson is a major artist with fine understated baritone and a ringing slide style. The stunner is "What God Can Do" sung in a beautiful crooning style, dipping occasionally into falsetto. It only lasts a minute-and-a-half but the depth of feeling resonates long after the song concludes. Paschal was a rough expressive singer and exciting, percussive slide player who comes across as a less intense version of Son House.