Thu 10 Jan 2008
In my ongoing attempt to to clear some space in my house I've been systematically working my way through several piles of unlistened to records including several JSP box sets. For the uninitiated JSP specializes in issuing budget priced roots box sets of public domain material. On the blues front they've issued single artists sets such as the complete recordings of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Charlie Patton, Ma Rainey as well as several themed sets like Atlanta Blues, Memphis Masters, East Coast Blues among many others. This time out we look at two four CD sets; The Road To Robert Johnson & Beyond and When The Levee Breaks collectively encompassing just over two hundred tracks of prime country blues with the Johnson set spending half of it's time in the post-war era.
Like many country blues fans it was Robert Johnson who was the first pre-war blues artist I seriously listened to (King of the Delta Blues Singers LP) and of course I was enthralled with the music. It was the music but also of course the mythology surrounding this mysterious figure that grabbed my imagination. Unfortunately by the time the "Complete Recordings" was issued in 1990 (going gold and selling over a million copies by 1994) the "mythology had consumed reality," as Barry Lee Pearson wrote, and Johnson's musical accomplishments were clouded in a haze of mythology and romanticism. Unfortunately this obsession on every minutiae of Johnson's life has taken away the focus on his very real talents and perhaps more importantly this lopsided focus on Johnson has obscured the fact that he was very much part of a tradition; his music firmly built on the artists who came before like Lonnie Johnson and Tampa Red who don't get a shred of the acclaim that Johnson does. The Road To Robert Johnson & Beyond attempts to place Johnson in historical context; disc one traces the roots of Robert Johnson, those artists who came before Johnson and who directly or indirectly shaped his style, disc two contains Johnson's own records while the remaining discs contain music from those influenced by Johnson. If this sounds like deja vu, well it's been done before in more streamlined fashion by Yazoo Records who in 2004 released Back to the Crossroads: The Roots of Robert Johnson which was an expanded and revised version of their The Roots of Robert Johnson which came out in 1990.
It's strange then that the blurb on the box set indulges in the usual hyperbole that surrounds Johnson, first equating him to Shakespeare and someone "who took the raw, deep blues of an older generation and created a new style and a body of recorded work of the deepest genius which would be the template for blues (and much of rock music) for the next 60 years or so. He forged one of the four pillars upon which twentieth century music stands (Louis Armstrong's Hot Five, Elvis Presley and the Beatles being the other three)." Geez!
Johnson's brilliance was in how he borrowed, adapted, synthesized and added his own flourish to the music of those who came before and this is well illustrated in the first disc, the so called "raw materials." Much of the same songs are compiled as in the Yazoo, in quite good sound, but if you haven't heard them it's certainly interesting to see where Johnson may have gotten his inspiration. The 25 tracks are a who's who of country blues greats including extraordinary slide guitarist Kokomo Arnold an inspiration for Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago" and "I'll Believe I'll Dust My Broom", Leroy Carr whose urbane "When The Sun Goes Down" was the source of "Love In Vain", the popular Peetie Wheatstraw whose "Police Station Blues" was reworked by Johnson into "Terraplane Blues" and "Hellhound On My Trail" and Lonnie Johnson, one of the era's most influential guitarists, whose "Life Saver Blues" guitar arrangement was lifted nearly note for note in Johnson's "Malted Milk" and "Drunken Hearted Man." Other artists include Son House who Johnson learned directly from, Skip James, Charlie Patton, the Mississippi sheiks and others.
The second disc contains all of Johnson's records sans the alternate takes and really there's nothing I can say that hasn't been said – several forests have been felled producing the paper that's been written about these sides. The final two discs contain those artists who have been influenced by Johnson either directly like Johnny Shines, Robert Lockwood, Calvin Frazier, Honeyboy Edwards or indirectly like Muddy Waters and Elmore James. Thematically this is where the box strains at the seams; Muddy for instance was more influenced by Son House and may have seen Johnson once or not at all, Robert Lee McCoy (Robert Nighthawk) probably met Johnson but bears no stylistic influence, the same can be said for Big Joe Williams (although a couple of Johnson's Terraplane Blues lines showed up in I'm A Highway Man) and Baby Boy Warren does a faithful cover of Stop Breaking Down although it's unknown where he learned the song and artists like Homesick James, Little Walter and Baby Face Leroy have only a tenuous connection to Johnson at best. Then there's eleven tracks from 1975 by the mysterious Blind Will Dukes who claimed to learn from Johnson himself but sound suspiciously like he learned from the records. Still, the material itself is hard to fault, sound generally very good and typically informative notes by JSP's chief writer Neil Slaven who surely must have writer's cramp at the rate these box sets are issued. Buying this set I suppose depends on how much of the music you already have and certainly the budget price is attractive. For those newer to the music who's main introduction to country blues is through Johnson, this box is worthwhile for putting Johnson's music in historical context.
Thematically When the Levee Breaks Mississippi Blues Rare Cuts 1926-41, there's a mouthful of a title, is a bit loose as well gathering recordings made by Mississippi artists in a fruitful fifteen year span. The one hundred recordings contain many outright masterpieces with the slant on lesser know artists such as Freddie Spruell, Arthur Petties, William Harris, Mississippi Bracey, Otto Virgial, Walter Rhodes, Willie '61' Blackwell. Most of these names are well known among collectors and certainly artists like Geeshie Wiley, King Solomon Hill, Blind Joe Reynolds and Garfield Akers have long ago entered the blues cannon despite exceedingly slim discographies. Mississippi blues is usually associated with Delta, usually with the prevalence on slide or bottleneck playing but this collection goes some ways to dispel that notion providing a wide range of styles from men and woman all over the state.
Sound quality is generally good, considering the extreme rarity of the records, generally on par with Document but not the equivalent of Yazoo, which have an exceptional feel for remastering pre-war blues that's virtually unmatched outside other specialist outfits like Revenant and Old Hat. Indeed for several of these records there's only one known copy; newly discovered sides by Son House, Blind Joe Reynolds and King Solomon Hill are included, all of which have been released previously by Yazoo so it's easy to deduce where JSP sourced their copies. "Clarksdale Moan" b/w "Mississippi County Farm Blues" is from House’s legendary 1930 Paramount session with Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. "Clarksdale Moan" is a strange tune but "Mississippi County Farm Blues" is a surging, slide driven powerhouse version of a number he would cut a dozen years later for the Library of Congress. Another long lost Paramount from the same year is Blind Joe Reynolds' "Ninety Nine Blues" b/w "Cold Woman Blues" found at a flea market a few years back and purchased for one dollar! A quick comparison between JSP's transfer and that found on Revenant's Screamin' & Hollerin' The Blues finds Revenant's transfer much more lively, with JSP damping down some of the noise to negative effect. I'll simply agree with Yazoo's Richard Nevins who called "Cold Woman Blues" a masterpiece although I prefer "Ninety Nine Blues" with it's explosive drive and unrelenting swing. Lyrically it shares a number of verses with the magnificent "Third Street Woman Blues" ("My woman's got something called a stingaree/Four o'clock in the morning she turns it loose on me"), also included, which unlike his other slide numbers, features some very effective strumming. King Solomon Hill is another shadowy figure who signed to the Paramount label in 1932, soon traveling to Grafton, Wisconsin to record six tracks – two of them alternate takes – which comprise his known discography; songs like the eerie "Gone Dead Train" and "Down on Bended Knee" are masterly performances featuring Hill's eerie falsetto and raw, unorthodox guitar work. In 2002 record collector John Tefteller went to Grafton and discovered the long lost Hill 78 "My Buddy Blind Papa Lemon" b/w "Times Has Done Got Hard" in mint condition, both included here. "My Buddy Blind Papa Lemon" is a stunner and one of the rare tributes from one bluesman to another (Leroy Carr garnered a few and Lemon was also mention in a sermon by Rev. Emmett Dickinson).
One of the benefits of having all these tracks in one place is that it lets you reassess some of the lesser known names such as Freddie Spruell, 'Bogus' Ben Covington, Arthur Petties, J.D. Short, Mississippi Bracey, William Harris, Joe Calicott, Sam Butler (Bo Weavil Jackson), Willie '61' Blackwell among others. Spruell was one of the first self-accompanied guitarists to record and lived in Chicago when he made his debut for OKeh Records in 1926. He seems to have some connection to the Delta but his background is hazy. Eight of his ten records are on board showcasing a fine singer/guitarist particularly on "Muddy Water Blues" from his first session and "Mr. Freddie's Kokomo Blues" and "Let's Go Riding" from his last with Carl Martin on guitar. Arthur Petties was another appealing singer who we know little about. He possessed a fine rich voice with "Revenue Man Blues" and "That Won't Do" being standouts with Jed Davenport on harmonica on the former. It should be noted that his song "Good Boy Blues" is actually Webster Taylor's "Sunny Southern Blues." Unfortunately these kind of mistakes appear on many of the JSP sets. The excellent Jaydee Short or J.D. Short who recorded as 'Jelly Jaw' Short and Joe Stone was born in Mississippi but is really associated with St. Louis where he spent his entire life. "Let's get stomped out and get drunk and run" he announces at the beginning of "Barefoot Blues" propelled by his quick chorded runs and powerful vocal. Equally strong is the wonderful "Snake Doctor Blues" and the tough depression era blues of "It's Hard Time." 'Bogus' Ben Covington sounds like a throwback from an older era as he plays banjo and harmonica energetically on "Boodle-de-Bum Blues" and the hilarious "Adam & Eve in the Garden" which is just the type of song church folk probably labeled the devil's music: "When Adam and Eve was in the Garden of Eden, they must have shook that thing/Well the leaves started falling, the snakes started crawling/He must have give her a diamond ring." Joe Calicott has been a long time favorite of mine and is marvelous whether backing Garfield Akers on the throbbing two part "Cottonfield Blues" (Aker's other two numbers are also included) or his lone 78 "Fare Thee Well Blues" b/w "Traveling Mama Blues." When he was rediscovered some forty years down the line his talents remained virtually unchanged and those late period records come highly recommended. Then there's the marvelous Bo Weavil Jackson who actually hailed from Birmingham, Alabama but is called in the notes an "honorary Mississipian" for some reason. The sides included come from his 1926 Vocalion session (some of the Paramounts were issued on JSP's Paramount Masters – in fact quite a number of artists on this set also have cuts on the Paramount box); Jackson possessed a high piercing voice and played remarkable, complex slide heard to fine effect on "You Can't Keep No Brown" although I prefer the earlier version he cut for Paramount, "Devil and My Brown Blues" and the fine "Jefferson County Blues."
When the Levee Breaks is a treasure trove of terrific country blues and I suppose collectors will have to sort out how much of this material they have where as newer fans may be a bit overwhelmed by it all. Neal Slaven offers up a particularly fine set of notes for this collection. JSP's remastering is very uneven; on certain sets like the recently reviewed Ma Rainey they've generally done a fine job but on a set like this many tracks sound quite good while several others fall well short of similar tracks reissued by Yazoo and Revenant. I've also read a comment on a pre-war blues forum where the writer suggested that JSP's remastering isn't done for the sake of the music but to hide the fact that they are re-releasing tracks from other labels. I suppose you'll have to make up your own mind but certainly the music can't be faulted and the price is right.
Son House – Walkin' Blues [The Road To Robert Johnson](MP3)
Blind Blake – Georgia Bound [The Road To Robert Johnson] (MP3)
Blind Joe Reynolds – Ninety Nine Blues [When The Levee Breaks] (MP3)