Music Reviews


[TABLE=108]

Show Notes:

Bo Carter

Well I was planning to do a themed show today but I've fallen hopelessly behind so I've slapped together a mix show instead. Anyway, a wide ranging mix for today's program spanning the 1920's through the 1950's.

We kick things off with a trio of tracks revolving around the Mississippi Sheiks. The Mississippi Sheiks were one of the most popular string bands of the late '20s and early '30s with a repertoire that drew upon all facets of black and white rural music: blues, pop music, hokum, white country and traditional songs. Their rendition of "Sitting on Top of the World" has become an enduring standard. The group consisted of guitarist Walter Vinson and fiddler Lonnie Chatmon, with frequent appearances by guitarists Bo Carter and Sam Chatmon, who were also busy with their own solo careers. Bo Carter was one of the most popular bluesmen of the '30's, cutting over a hundred sides between 1928 and 1940. Vinson rarely worked as a solo act, seemingly much more at home in duets and trios; towards that end, during the 1920s he worked with Charlie McCoy, Rubin Lacy and Son Spand before forming the Mississippi Sheiks. While an active club performer during the early 1940s, by the middle of the decade he had begun a lengthy hiatus from music, which continued through 1960, at which point he returned to both recording and festival appearances. Hardening of the arteries forced Vinson into retirement during the early '70s; he died in Chicago in 1975.

Our opening track by Walter Vinson features harmonica by Robert Lee McCoy better known as Robert Nighthawk. Nighthawk's first instrument was harmonica and he played a good deal of it backing other artists on record during the 30s and 40s. As he noted: "When I left home I got right into it and I started blowing harmonica. I learnt that back in 24'. …boy named Johnny Jones, he's from Louisiana, …say he learn me so I did." Moving up to 1952 we hear Nighthawk on"You Missed A Good Man" a song Nighthawk likely picked up from Tampa Red who recorded the song in 1935. The basis of the song actually goes back much further being copyrighted by Clarence Williams in 1915 as "You Missed A Good Woman When You Picked All Over Me." The song was first recorded by Trixie Smith in 1922 and again in 1923 by Eva Taylor the wife of Clarence Williams. Tampa reworked the lyrics but the the tune and chorus are identical.

There's plenty of blues from the same era today including John Henry Barbee's "You'll Work Down to me Someday" from 1938 which is a reworking of a 1934 Mississippi Sheiks song of the same title. Barbee worked for a short time with John Lee Williamson (Sonny Boy Williamson I)  then began playing with Sunnyland Slim. They made appearances across the Mississippi Delta. Barbee later moved to Chicago, where he recorded for Vocalion in 1938. He played with Moody Jones' group on Maxwell Street in the '40s, but then left the music business for several years. Barbee recorded for Spivey and Storyville in the mid-'60s, and toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival. Back in the US Barbee was involved in an auto accident in 1964, and suffered a heart attack while in jail waiting for the case to come to court. It was a sad end to a fine artist who who still a superb performer as evidenced on the excellent Blues Masters Vol. 3 recorded in 1964 for Storyville.

Lucille Bogan
Lucille Bogan

Form the same period we spotlight four fine blues ladies: Laura Smith, Lottie Kimbrough, Kansas City Kitty and Lucille Bogan. A fine forgotten blues singer of the 20's, Laura Smith made her debut in 1924 and recorded through 1927. She died in 1932. Our selection "The Mississippi Blues" was the flip of  "Lonesome Refugee", both songs written about the tragic 1927 flood, one of the greatest natural disasters in US history. Numerous blues and gospel songs were written about the flood. Lottie Kimbrough also made her debut in 1924 but as Tony Russell notes "If her half-dozen 1924 sides on Paramount had been all Lottie Kimbrough recorded, she would probably be considered a singer of the second or third rank…" Lucky for her she met promoter Winston Holmes who got her a contract with Gennett Records. In the past of I've played "Rolling Log Blues" and "Goin' Away Blues", performances of "haunting beauty" Russell writes. Our track, "Blue World Blues" is from that session, a powerful number featuring an excellent but unknown cornet player. Kansas City Kitty was a pseudonym for Mozelle Alderson who confused researchers for years by recording under other names such as Hannah Mae and Jane Lucas. "How Can You Have The Blues?" is a fine, playful duet with Georgia Tom. Lucille Bogan made her debut in 1923 with some less than memorable sides before coming into her own with her next sessions in 1927. Bogan was simply one of the toughest, roughest woman to record in the 20's and 30's and her "Whiskey Sellin' Woman" is a good example as she opens the song  with the now familar "Ah, I'm gettin' sloppy drunk today."

From the 1946 we spotlight thee veteran artists of the 1930's who were still at it, cutting some up-to-date material: Jimmie Gordon, Lee Brown and Johnnie Temple. These sides are from a rare 1946 session for King that were never released at the time and only issued decades later. Pianist Lee Brown cut 29 sides for Decca between 1937-40.  Jimmie Gordon made his first record in 1934 for Bluebird before moving to Decca where he cut 60 sides through 1941. Originally from Mississippi, Johnnie Temple moved to Jackson, MS where he worked parties and juke joints with Skip James and Charlie McCoy. He moved to Chicago in 1932, making his debut in 1935 for Vocalion and cut 70 sides through 1941. Although he never achieved stardom, Temple's records, sold consistently throughout the late '30s and '40s and his records exerted an influence on numerous other artists. All these sides appear on the Proper Records collection Broke, Black & Blues.

We also spin a batch of great records from the 1950's including a cut by blues shouter Tommy Brown. A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to see the 78 year old Brown in action and sounding great at the Pocono Blues Festival. "Remember Me" comes from a four song 1954 session where he was backed by Walter Horton. From 1952 we hear "Hoodoo Man" from Albert Williams on the Sun label (his only record) going under the name Memphis Al: "My name is Memphis Al and they call me the hoodoo man." The song is particularly notable for some terrific guitar by the great Joe Willie Wilkins. From the same year we hear the guitarist Calvin Frazier rip it up on T.J. Fowler's rocking "Back Biter." Speaking of guitar it's hard to beat T-Bone Walker who lays down some vicious licks on Roy Hawkins' "Doin' All Right" also from 1952.

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Jim Brewer LP

I'll Fly Away (MP3)

Libert Bill (MP3)

She Wants To Boogie (MP3)

Good Morning Blues (MP3)

Rocky Mountain (MP3)

St. Louis Blues (MP3)

Corrina (MP3)

Don't You Lie To Me (MP3)

Black, Brown And White (MP3)

It Hurts Me Too (MP3)

Shak-a-You-Boogie (MP3)

Crawlin' King Snake (MP3)

Key To The Highway (MP3)

Jim Brewer died twenty years, on June 3rd 1988, and unless you were a blues collector in the 1960's and 70's it's a safe bet that you may never have heard of this superb bluesman who was under recorded during his lifetime, and these days has just a handful of songs currently scattered on a few CD anthologies. Although he moved from Mississippi to Chicago in 1940, where he resided until his death, his guitar playing was still rooted in the Mississippi style he picked up as a youth. His repertoire as well was formed by the singers he heard, mostly on record or radio, in the 1940's and 50's; singers like Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Big Maceo and Peetie Wheatstraw who Brewer ran with in St. Louis for a spell. As he told Paul Oliver: "I went down to St. Louis, spent four or five years down there, woofin' and beefin' aroun' and blowin' my top as usually. An' I met a feller there down on Market and Main and places in East St. Louis, name of Peetie Wheatstraw. …I use to run aroun' with him quite a bit." Gospel music played a large part in Brewer's music and like many musicians of his generation he was torn for awhile between playing blues and playing gospel. Sometime in the late 1950's through the early 1960's he devoted himself almost entirely to gospel. It was in this context that Oliver first encountered him: "We first heard Blind James Brewer playing with a Gospel group which was holding service under the guidance of a fiercely exhorting 'jack-leg' preacher on the broken sidewalk of South Sangamon Street, Chicago, a short step from Brewer's home." Like many bluesman his allegiance to gospel wasn't steadfast as Oliver makes clear: "On another day we heard him with Blind Gray and recorded him playing I'm So Glad Good Whiskey's Back (Heritage HLP 1004)." Brewer was anything if not pragmatic: ""Well lots of people say, 'What profit you in the world if you gain the world and lose your soul?'-Well I realize that's true too. But you got to live down here just like you got to make preparations to go up there. …You got to live this life, and you got to obey God. And God give me this talent and he knew before I came into this world what I was goin' to make out of this talent." While playing on the streets of his hometown of Brookhaven, MS in the 1930’s he learned most of the religious songs that he continued to perform throughout his life. His father told him he could make more money playing blues and as he grew older he started performing at parties having learned his repertoire from records.

Jim Brewer
James Brewer, Photo by Paul Chen

By the mid-1950’s, after roaming around for a bit, he was back in Chicago where he married his wife Fannie. Brewer’s new mother-in-law bought him an electric guitar and amplifier. Returning to Maxwell Street, where he began performing in the early 1940's,  he devoted himself exclusively to religious music. In 1962, however, he was offered an opportunity to play blues at a concert at Northwestern University and also began a regular gig at the No Exit Cafe which lasted for two decades. He went on to play major festivals and clubs in the United States, Canada and Europe. He was recorded by Swedish Radio in 1964, cut sides for the Heritage label, was recoded by Pete Welding who issued the sides on his Testament label was well as Milestone and Storyville, plus cut the full-length albums Jim Brewer (Philo, 1974) and Tough Luck (Earwig, 1983). Brewer was also captured on film performing with his wife on Maxwell Street in 1964 for the documentary And This Is Free.

Jim Brewer - Tough Luck

Kansas City Blues (MP3)

Come Back Baby (MP3)

Rock Me Mama (MP3)

Goin' Away Baby (MP3)

Big Road (MP3)

Long Ways From Home (MP3)

Goin' Down The Road Feelin' Bad (MP3)

Hair Like A Horse's Mane (MP3)

Poor Kelly (MP3)

Mean Old 'Frisco (MP3)

Tough Luck Blues (MP3)

Oak Top Boogie (MP3)

Pea Vine Whistle (MP3)

Recorded less than a decade apart, Brewer's two full-length albums are marvelous examples of his artistry showcasing him playing solo acoustic on a program of mostly standards. Jim Brewer was recorded live at Kirkland College to an appreciative audience and Brewer seems at his best when working a crowd. Four cuts on Tough Luck were recorded live at the 9th annual Gambier Folk Festival in 1980 while the other numbers were cut in the studio in 1978 and 1982. I think the first album is the stronger of the two and really benefits from the fact that it captures a complete live performance complete with plenty of charming asides to the audience who seem captivated by Brewer's lively singing and guitar playing. Clas Ahlstrand summed up Brewer's guitar style succinctly in a 1967 Blues Unlimited article: "As a blues guitarist Jim Brewer must be considered one of the best in Chicago. His style is complex and filled with an easy, fluent rhythm. It is is definitely not 'Chicago styled, but softer and more 'Country.'" Indeed like his repertoire, which seems frozen in the 1940's and in the traditional songs he heard as a youngster, his guitar playing too seems firmly rooted in a Mississippi country style he learned as a youth. But as Ahlstrand points out, its appeal lies in Brewer's deep sense of rhythm which effortlessly rolls from his fingertips belying the complexity of his playing. This driving complexity is heard to fine effect in the good time numbers "She Wants To Boogie" and "Shak-a-You-Boogie" as well as a gorgeous version of the chestnut "St. Louis Blues" delivered with a seductive drive and sense of humor that invests this well worn tune with brand new sheen. The same can be said on a warmly sung version of "Corrina" and a powerful cover of "Crawlin' King Snake." Brewer plays only one gospel number on these albums, opening up his self titled album with a rousing, sanctified version of "I'll Fly Away" that lasts just over a minute before segueing into "Liberty Bill" which he announces by saying "Now I'm going to play some, some old, you know them way back down home blues." In addition to his guitar skills, Brewer possesses a  powerful yet easygoing voice, often drawing out his lines for dramatic effect.

Brewer's four live cuts from Tough Luck, are every bit as good as the previous album; Brewer is in commanding form on the stark, powerfully sung "Goin' Away Baby", a driving version of Tommy Johnson's timeless "Big Road" and employs a gentle voice and deft fingerpicking to "Goin' Down The Road Feelin' Bad." There's a reason certain songs have become standards and even though you may have heard "kansas City Blues" umpteen times, artists like Brewer are able to find the very essence of what makes this song so timeless, giving this classic a vivacious reading a feat he also performs on Arthur Crudup's "Mean Old 'Frisco." Brewer is a fine interpreter as he shows on terrific versions of Big Maceo's "Poor Kelley" and "Tough Luck Blues" and Walter Davis' "Come Back Baby", ably translated from piano to guitar. "Oak Top Boogie", a mostly instrumental with spoken asides, is a fine guitar boogie while "Hair Like A Horse's Mane" is a beautiful version of this standard and a song he clearly had an affection for, cutting it originally back in 1964.

Unfortunately Brewer's two LP's are long out of print and only a few of his songs appear on CD; a pair of songs on a couple of Earwig anthologies, his songs for Swedish Radio can be found on the CD I Blueskvarter Chicago 1964, Volume One and a few gospel numbers appear on And This Is Maxwell Street. Brewer remained an in demand musician until the end, and as long time supporter Andy Cohen wrote: "He died with gigs on his calendar."

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How Long Has That Train Been Gone

While there are no shortage of Leroy Carr collections on the market now, that wasn't always the case. It was at the Jazz Record Center in Manhattan when I got my hands on the out-of-print Blues Before Sunrise LP which I grudgingly forked over 25 dollars for – a good chunk of money in my teenage years. A couple of weeks later I made my weekly trip down to my favorite record store, Finyl Vinyl on Second Ave. only to be confronted with a an exact reissue of the album for a third of the price. It didn't help my ego when I related the story to the guy behind the counter who promptly snickered to his partner – "Hey this kid just paid 25 bucks for this record!" I'll try not to let that experience cloud my judgment of JSP's Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell Volume 1: 1928 – 1934.

JSP's hefty low-priced  sets are hard to resist although it begs the question do we really need another Leroy Carr collection? My answer is a resounding maybe. Those who need all 120 sides probably already own Document's six volume series which was issued in 1992 (several test pressing appear on another collection) with rather indifferent sound. For non-completists there have been several 2-CD collections including the unfortunately out-of-print Sloppy Drunk on Catfish sporting 44 of his best numbers well remastered, The Essential Leroy Carr on Document with much superior sound and the surprising 2004 major label release of Whiskey Is My Habit, Women Is All I Crave with 40 superbly remastered cuts. In fact the Columbia boasts the best sound, outside of a couple of murky transfers, and is the standard others should be judged. So how does the JSP stack up? First I should say that I've been a bit ambivalent about JSP's remastering; they generally do a decent job removing surface noise which usually result in a significant upgrade to Document although in fairness to Document, JSP probably has better masters to work with. That being said JSP's remastering at times is a bit heavy handed, removing noise but not showing all that much sensitivity to the music itself in contrast to say a label like Yazoo. JSP has done quite a good job with the Carr material, in most cases significantly improving on Document but also besting the Catfish. JSP has submerged the noise quit a bit although some transfers are a bit muddy. At times the JSP comes close to the Columbia in overall sound and in many cases their transfers offer less noise but less noise doesn't necessarily mean better. Columbia, like Yazoo, doesn't seem as worried about surface noise as saying extracting the best, clearest sound from the grooves which is preference I share. Hence overlapping songs such as "Straight Alky Blues Part 1", "Corn Licker Blues", "Gambler's Blues" and "Prison Bound Blues", to name a few examples, have less noise on the JSP but Columbia's transfers sound brighter and more lively.

Leroy Carr Insert

Now as for the artistry of Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell there can be no denying the remarkably high level of quality they achieved over the course of their eight year recording partnership. The duo would inspire many imitators but as Paul Oliver noted their music seemed merely an "echo" of Carr's "fatalism." Indeed Carr was a singer of rare poignancy, delivering his heart-worn tales of loneliness, no good women, drinking, jails and trains with a conversational tone that spoke directly to the listener. There's an almost palpable ambiance of sadness and longing on numbers that show a poet's touch; songs such as "Alabama Women Blues", "Midnight Hour Blues", "Gone Mother Blues", "Hurry Down Blues" and "Blues Before Sunrise" to name but a few. Tony Russell eloquently writes that these songs "distill the raw liqueur of grief into a spirit of complex and lingering flavor." Carr had the good fortune to record with Scrapper Blackwell who's ever tasteful ringing single string work was a perfect foil to Carr's sedate piano work and melancholy vocals. It might even be said that Carr's records would be much more conventional if not for Scrapper's ever lively playing. While the bulk of the duo's output was slow to medium tempo they were more than capable on buoyant material like "There Ain't Nobody Got It Like She Got It", "Court Room Blues" and "Baby Don't You Leave Me No More." One of the pleasures of listening to these recordings in their entirety are the surprising variety of songs tucked in with the mostly conventional twelve bar blues such as the bouncy hokum of "Papa's on the House Top", "Carried Water for the Elephant" and "Papa Wants To Knock A Jug", pop oriented material like "Hold Them Puppies" and "How About Me" which anticipates 1940's crooners like Cecil Gant and certainly Nat King Cole, to the stop-time scat chorus of "Naptown Blues" to some wonderful uptempo duets such as "Gettin' All Wet" and the marvelous "Memphis Town."

As the Volume 1 in the title suggests this is not Carr's complete output with the remaining thirty or so sides set for the second volume. There's much to be looked forward to including gems like "I Believe I'll Make A Change", "Barrelhouse Woman No.2", "Big Four Blues", Shinin' Pistol", "Bread Baker" and "When the Sun Goes Down." I presume that in addition to the remaining Carr sides the next volume will include the some two-dozen sides Scrapper cut under his own name, possibly some of the session work he did with other artists and perhaps some of his fine post-war work. Max Haymes provides the set's notes and while he's certainly done his research they come off as rather dry and academic, the same problems that plagued his notes to the Ma Rainey JSP set. Oh and if you couldn't tell he has an obsession with railroads (yes he wrote a book on the subject), an obsession that seems to overshadow Carr and Blackwell's narrative.

Leroy Carr Insert

Very few artists can hold up artistically or for that matter for sheer listenability when their records are compiled chronologically and in their entirety. The records of Leroy Carr and his contemporaries were meant to be savored one 78 at a time and while I don't have the stamina to listen to Carr's oeuvre at length, listening at long stretches is a rewarding experience and only deepens my respect for his artistry. More urbane, popular blues singers like Carr, Lonnie Johnson and Tampa Red often get pushed aside in favor of the obscure, rougher voice artists of Mississippi as though their unpolished sound and obscurity equates to more authenticity. Nonsense of course but a view that still persists; there was obviously something artists like Carr had that made a deep connection with the thousands who bought their records and their opinion shouldn't be discounted. In that light it's worth quoting the following lines from the May 4th edition of the Indianapolis Recorder just days after Carr's untimely death: "Thousands of persons thronged the Patton Funeral Home Thursday afternoon for one last look at the man whose bizarre combination of bluish notes struck a deep sympathetic response in the souls of thousands of colored people throughout the country." Amen.

Baby Dont'You Leave Me No More (MP3)

Gettin' All Wet (MP3)

Gambler's Blues (MP3)

Memphis Town (MP3)

Alabama Women Blues (MP3)

Gone Mother Blues (MP3)

Midnight Hour Blues (MP3)

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Mississippi Moan

In part one we discussed the some of the superb East Coast musicians Axel Küstner and Siegfried Christmann recorded while this time out we travel with the duo down to Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi. It was Mississippi that occupied most of their time and form a good chunk of the recordings. Mississippi, particularly the Delta has been subjected to immense scrutiny among researchers and with good reason; in the 1920's and 30's men like Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Skip James and Son House recorded some of the greatest blues records ever made and it was the breeding ground for those who became famous up North like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James and countless others. Yet some have said that the region has attracted too much attention among researchers, leaving other areas like the East Coast too sparsely documented. While this is certainly true there's no denying that Mississippi was an immensely fertile region for the blues and remained so when Küstner and Christmann set up shop in 1980 over the course of eleven days.

Son Thomas
Son Thomas

Among the finest bluesman they came across in Mississippi was James "Son" Thomas "discovered" in 1968 by William Ferris who wrote about him in his influential book Blues From The Delta. By 1980 Thomas was a regular on the festival circuit but had recorded little, just a handful of sides scattered on obscure anthologies. After 1980 he toured Europe, recorded prolifically, including several very strong albums but never did he sound better then the recordings he made for Küstner and Christmann. Thomas plays brooding, darkly hued delta blues with a tightly wound, controlled intensity. Thomas' fourteen tracks, scattered over several volumes, are all traditional but he gives them a thoroughly invigorating, individual reading; thus he shakes the dust off material like "Bull Cow Blues", "Rock Me Mama", "Big Fat Mama", "61 Highway Blues" laying these numbers down with a throbbing intensity, underpinned by his steady guitar rhythm and dramatic vocal delivery that often dips into a riveting falsetto. By far his most memorable performance is the six minute plus "Catfish Blues", a hypnotic and downright dirty version of this delta standard. Also fascinating are several numbers Thomas performs with his running buddy Cleveland "Brooman" Jones who would pull a few handfuls of dirt out of his pocket, flip over the broom handle and scrape the floor to produce a bass sound that somehow perfectly meshed with Thomas' music.

A true anomaly was 25 year old Lonnie Pitchford, the youngest musician recorded who played the most ancient of instruments, the one string diddley bow which he amplified and picked like a guitar. These were Pitchford's first recordings and he truly sounds like no one else; the music is mesmerizing and hypnotic as he transforms chestnuts like "Boogie Chillen", "My Babe" and a slashing "Shake Your Money Maker." Pitchford was still evolving as an artist when AIDS claimed him at the age of 43. Thankfully due to the exposure from this series he was recorded extensively on anthologies and issued a lone album, the terrific All Around Man, for Rooster in 1994.

Lonnie Pitchford
Lonnie Pitchford

The fact is that the bulk of these artists were older, the remaining holdouts of a fading tradition and the music often sounds like it was trapped in amber, virtually unchanged from the blues of fifty years ago. Certainly that's the case with musicians such as Walter Brown, Joe Savage and Boyd Rivers. Brown and Savage bring alive the era of the field and levee camp hollers that could once be heard ringing all over the south and in later years primarily survived in prisons as documented by the Lomax's, Harry Oster and Bruce Jackson. Both Brown and Savage lived hard lives and both men spent time in the notorious Parchman Farm. In fact John Lomax interviewed and recorded Joe Savage in Parchman in the 1940's and said of him "he was by far the youngest and most damaged." Jumping to 1980 we hear Savage recount his prison experience and sing on the harrowing "Joe’s Prison Camp Holler." Küstner noted that "recording Walter Brown was one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had. …I had the feeling he was just waiting for somebody to come around so that he could express himself and let his music come out." His "Mississippi Moan" is a bone chilling account of what it's like to be black in Mississippi where "The place, the town where time done come to civilization and they still call you a nigger." His "Levee Camp Holler", sung from experience, is equally arresting as is Savage's unique spin on "Mean Ol' Frisco." The blues is so often romanticized but there's nothing romantic about the lives of men like Brown, Savage and many of the others on this collection who have led unbearably tough lives under crushing poverty and persistent racism. "I actually thought he was the best and gave the most powerful performances of any that were recorded" Küstner said of Boyd Rivers. A one time bluesman, Rivers plays with unbridled passion, singing in a powerful, raspy voice coupled with hard edged Mississippi guitar attack. His nine selections are startling in there intensity which were his first and unfortunately only recordings.

Among the other notable musicians recorded in Mississippi the most famous was Sam Chatmon who was 81 at the time of these recordings and still in fine form. There are several fine performers one wishes had been recorded more including the excellent Stonewall Mays who's two song are his sole legacy and Joe Cooper who was Son Thomas' Uncle and very fine performer in his own right.

Sam
Sam "Stretch" Shields

The recordings made in Tennessee and Arkansas are less consistent although there are some very rewarding performances, chiefly from CeDell Davis and Sam "Stretch" Shields. "CeDell "Big G" Davis",  Küstner wrote, "is probably the most amazing musician I have ever met. At the age of 10 he contracted polio and the disease left him without the full use of his hands. His fingers are crippled, but however, he manages to strum the guitar with his left hand, and chords and slides across the strings with an ordinary table knife that he put in his right hand. The resulting sound, coupled with his roaring voice, makes him a highly individual Blues artist." Davis' rough juke joint blues is perfectly encapsulated on numbers like "I Don't Know Why" and a cover of Tampa Red's "Let Me Play With Your Poodle." Sam "Stretch" Shields' harmonica style harks back to the pre-amplified era when harmonica soloists played now forgotten pieces like train imitations and set pieces like Lost John, Fox Chase, Mama Blues and other call-and-response pieces. Küstner recalled "With Sam, it was like going back in time. When you went into his living room, he had pictures of Franklin D Roosevelt up there. It was like the 1930s." His unaccompanied renditions of "Bluebird Blues", "Mellow Peaches" and the "The Hounds" are enthralling. Of the other performers from the region it sounds like Hammie Nixon has seen better days, pianist Memphis Piano Red is in good form although his piano is badly out of tune while Lottie Murrell delivers some powerful slashing slide guitar but is fairly well inebriated.  I would have liked to hear more from the superb Charlie Sangster who's two numbers reveal a bluesman of very high order, very much in the classic Brownsville, Tennessee tradition of Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon.

Fans and collectors of early country and traditional blues will find hours of rewarding listening within the fourteen volumes that comprise Living Country Blues USA. Through the 1970's country blues was still going strong in rural southern communities even if interest was low commercially. Thankfully a handful intrepid researchers stepped into the breach to record a music and culture that was virtually vanishing before their eyes.  As for complaints, well I do wish that some unreleased material was included which seems to me like a real missed opportunity. In addition while the original liner notes are included it would be nice to have some follow-up information regarding what became of these the artists after these recordings.

Son Thomas – Catfish Blues (MP3)

Boyd Rivers – You Got To Move (MP3)

Lonnie Pitchford – My Babe (MP3)

Walter Brown – Levee Camp Holler (MP3)

Joe Savage – Mean Ol' Frisco (MP3)

Stonewall Mays – Jazz Boogie Woogie (MP3)

CeDell Davis – I Don't Know Why (MP3)

Lottie Murrell – Spoonful (MP3)

Joe Cooper – She Run Me Out On The Road (MP3)

Charlie Sangster & Hammie Nixon – Moanin The Blues (MP3)

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Living Country Blues Introduction

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.

Itinerary

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.

Guitar Slim
Guitar Slim

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.

Archie Edwards
Archie Edwards

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.

Guitar Frank – Lonesome Road Blues (MP3)

Guitar Frank – Railroad Bill (MP3)

Guitar Slim – Come On In My Kitchen (MP3)

Guitar Slim – Lulu's Back In Town (MP3)

Archie Edwards – Bear Cat Mama Blues (MP3)

Archie Edwards – My Road Is Rough And Rocky (MP3)

Cephas & Wiggins – I Ain't Got No Lovin Baby Now (MP3)

Cephas & Wiggins – Goin' Down The Road Feelin' Bad (MP3)

Flora Molton – The Titanic (MP3)

Flora Molton – Vacation In Heaven (MP3)

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