Music Reviews

Road To Robert Johnson & Beyond When The Levee Breaks

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)



Blues Roots LP

By now everyone knows that Ike Turner has passed. Just about every notable publication had an obituary or opinion on Ike and not surprisingly many focused on his well publicized troubles instead of his musical legacy. Serious blues and rock fans know that well before Tina, Ike was a major player on the R&B and blues scene of the 1950’s. Less well known is that even during the Ike & Tina years Ike would occasionally go in the studio with a version of his Kings of Rhythm or members of the Ike & Tina band and cut some roots based records. In 1962 he cut an instrumental album for Sue called Dance With Ike & Tina Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, in 1969 when he was out on tour with the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, he found time to cut the instrumental album A Black Man’s Soul (reissued by Funky Delicacies in 2003), Strange Fruit was another instrumental outing cut in 1972 for United Artists and then there was the aptly titled Blues Roots also cut for United Artists in 1972. it seems Ike was looking back a bit to his early days as Ike and Tina cut a couple of solid blues based albums for Blue Thumb in 1969; Outta Season and The Hunter, the latter featuring an uncredited Albert Collins on guitar. In 1969 he also produced Earl Hooker's Sweet Black Angel for Blue Thumb; supposedly he plays piano but it may in fact be Ike's buddy Ernest Lane but Ike does play guitar on the blistering instrumental "The Mood" that closes the album.

It's a shame Blues Roots hasn't been issued on CD as it features Ike on a dozen blues tracks playing some stinging guitar and singing exceptionally well. Ike reminds me of Earl Hooker in the sense that both were outstanding guitar players who weren't confident vocally, although both were good singers, who relied on a host of others to do the singing. From what I've been able to dig up Turner cut the album in his home studio (the album was cut at Bolic Sound which was a studio Ike himself built) and played all the instruments himself although there's no mention of this on the album itself.

Blues Roots is an earthy, well produced album with some occasionally odd but effective overdubbing and it's clear that Ike was having some fun turning the knobs and experimenting in the studio. At it's heart the album sticks close to the title as Ike puts his unique stamp on covers like Chuck Willis' "You're Still My Baby" and "Broken Hearted" both beautifully sung numbers with Ike crooning quite a bit like Charles Brown with the latter featuring Ike tearing it up on both piano and guitar. Ike proves to be a fine singer and his frequent spoken asides are priceless. "Goin' Home" is another wonderfully sung number with bleating trumpet while "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" and "Think" are fairly faithful covers with the latter boasting some of Ike's dazzling string bending. Ike's impressive fretwork is also showcased on the low-down "Rockin' Blues", a sizzling cover of "That's Alright" backed by some vamping horns, "My Babe" and the slightly chaotic, yet infectious "If You Love Me Like You Say" sporting a wild, rock tinged guitar sound. Finally I have to mention the bizarre "Right On" with a strangely overdubbed vocal as Ike raps out a litany of observations; pearls of wisdom include "I love snow but I hate cold weather, things always go better with Coke" and "Like the rich man he, go out look for the pretty girl, the pretty girl go out looking for the rich man. The two get together – sad news" and "There's one thing about the dark, you can't tell black from white – everything feel alright." Whatever you say Ike!?

I'll be doing an extensive tribute to Ike on the January 13th show. Featured will be a good number of Ike's 1950's sides with the Kings of Rhythm, some of his session work, sides with Tina plus a few other assorted odds and ends including some tracks from Blues Roots.

You're Still My Baby (MP3)

Rockin' The Blues (MP3)

That's Alright (MP3)


Ma Rainey: Mother of the Blues

A tough, forthright woman blessed with a powerful, earthy voice and a deep soulfulness, Ma Rainey waxed a remarkable body of songs between 1923 and 1938. All 111 of those songs, including alternate takes, can be found on JSP's exhaustive 5-CD Ma Rainey – Mother Of The Blues box set. Rainey was extremely consistent throughout her five-year recording career making this set particularly worthwhile and listenable. It didn't hurt that the quality of her songs is consistently high and lyrically interesting plus she was backed by outstanding musicians like Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, Coleman Hawkins, Tommy Ladnier, Kid Ory and on later sides by Georgia Tom and Tampa Red.

For an artist of her stature Rainey hasn't been well served in the reissue market no doubt because of the poor quality of the original Paramount 78's. It's one of the great blues ironies or tragedy's if you will, that while Paramount recorded some of the greatest blues of the era the quality of their pressings was notoriously bad. Compounding the problem were the popularity of the discs which means existing copies are often quite worn. Prior to the JSP box all of Rainey's recordings could be found on five volumes on Document with adequate sound. JSP hasn't performed any miracles with their transfers but have managed some worthwhile noise reduction, sometimes subtle, occasionally fairly significant, all in the service of bringing out Rainey's vocals with better clarity. Formerly muffled numbers sound clearer and the consistent hiss, while still present, has been submerged. Songs that show improvement are "Slave To The Blues", "Titanic Man Blues", "Seeking The Blues", "Dead Drunk Blues", "Damper Down Blues", "Booze And Blues", "Honey Where You Been So Long", "Bo-Weavil Blues", "Cell Bound Blues", "Stormy Sea Blues", "Misery Blues" among several others.

Many of the early woman blues singers had a strong vaudevillian streak but Rainey's output is dominated by the blues, something by her own account she added to her act in 1902. Like Charlie Patton did, Rainey's was a decidedly downhome southern viewpoint, no doubt really connecting with southern audience on songs about the Bo-Weavil ("Bo-Weavil Blues"), Hoo-Doo ("Southern Blues", "Louisiana Hoo-Doo Blues", "Black Cat, Hoot Owl Blues"), jail ("Chain Gang Blues", "Cell Bound Blues"), plus self explanatory numbers like "Levee Camp Moan", "Log Camp Blues" and "Moonshine Blues." Rainey tackled a wide range of topics in a poetic, direct, and sometime arresting fashion; sexuality in "Sissy Man Blues", "Don't Fish In My Sea", the lesbian proclamation of "Prove It to Me Blues", prostitution in "Hustlin' Blues", spousal violence in "Black Eye Blues" and "Sweet, Rough Man." While there's a somber tone to much of the music she had innate sense of swing, showcased on numbers like "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom", "Hellish Rag" and "Hear Me Talking to You." As mentioned Rainey was blessed with better bands than most female singers; there were the great horn players mentioned above, jug groups and guitarists like Miles Pruitt, Blind Blake and Tampa Red on a terrific batch of sides from 1928 at the tail end of Rainey's recording career. Spending time with this box set also makes clear Rainey's influence, not only recording songs that became standards like "See See Rider" and "Bo-Weavil Blues" but also her influence on male country blues singers; "Booze And Blues" was transformed by Charlie Patton into "Tom Rushen Blues, "Last Minute Blues" echoed in Willie Brown's "Future Blues" as well as lyrically influencing artists as diverse as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Hicks, Robert Johnson and others.

Ma Rainey – Mother Of The Blues ranks as one of JSP's more impressive and important reissues. This is a set to savor with timeless music that retains a high artistic quality from start to finish, improved sound that brings Rainey's magnificent voice closer to the surface and an unbeatable budget price. The only knock is that a set like this deserves a first class set of notes and Max Haymes' booklet fails to deliver. It's a odd mix of dry academic writing and fannish praise that fails to do justice to the material.

Booze And Blues (MP3)

Yonder Comes The Blues (MP3)

Black Eye Blues (MP3)




I Can't Keep My Foot From Jumping Complete Blue Horizon Recordings

While there are a few modern day blues mandolin revivalists, the instrument has largely consigned to the dustbin of history. Although little-heard on commercial recordings after the 1940s, the mandolin played an important role in blues and early rural black music. The mandolin can be heard on numerous recordings of the 1920’s and 1930’s particularly on several black string band and jug band recordings. Johnny Young was the most famous of the post-war mandolin players who after waxing a couple of exciting 78's for Ora Nelle and Planet/Old Swing-Master circa 1947-48 didn't resurface on record for fifteen years. Thankfully the 1960's and 70's were a different story with Young recording for Testament, Arhoolie Vangaurd, Spivey, Blue Horizon, Blues On Blues, Bluesway as well as a number of of other scattered sides. Young played traditional Chicago blues, rooted in the 40's and early 50's, and didn't share much in common with more modern upstarts like Otis Rush, Buddy Guy and Magic Sam. He also had one foot in his home state of Mississippi, his music still tied to the southern blues style of the 1920's and 30's and the vibrant string band tradition.

The general consensus ranks his Arhoolie recordings among his best but for my money his Bluesway album, I Can't Keep My Foot From Jumping, is one of his finest and one that gets unjustly ignored. Of course it doesn't help that the album has been long out of print and that the Bluesway label doesn't have the best reputation. Producer Al Smith has been the target of much of the animosity against the label summed up writer Pete Lowry in a 1974 Living Blues review: "Here was a strange man-I don't know if he was any kind of bass player, but he surely produced some screwed-up sessions. I won't go into artist "relations," but merely deal with the sessions; there have been some predictable characteristics. Lousy liner notes, replete with phonetic spelling (to be kind), incomplete or wrong personnel data, as well as often incomplete or disordered listings of the tunes… As for the records themselves, they varied from good to near disasters. The results of Al's Special Ninety Minute Album Sessions included inconsistent levels on instruments, as if the warm up/test stuff was mixed for release (as was most likely the case!), some strange sounding stuff (out-of-synch echo units), and just total lack of programming. Al seems to have assembled albums in the order recorded, with no concept of the album as a programmed whole. For an artist to survive this sort of "production" he had to be damn good, or be having a better than average day in the studio."

Fat MandolinIn 1969 Young cut a record for Blue Horizon that was titled Fat Mandolin in the UK. I've had the US version for years which goes under the less inspired title of Blues Masters Vol. 9. My impression of this one has been less than favorable although admittedly I hadn't listened to it in years. Apparently I'm not the only one as Mike Vernon relates: "To the best of my recall, the album got little press coverage. It was, of course, certainly reviewed by the blues magazines of the time but with little real enthusiasm." Now with the release of Johnny Young: The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions it's time for a reassessment. For his part, Young had scorn for both labels: "Them people really cheated me, man. You know how much they gave me to make the LP? $50."

After listening to the The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions I've revised my opinion of theses sessions and have to say they hold up quite well although I don't think they rival the Bluesway and Arhoolie recordings. Mike Vernon's assessment is right on the mark: "What you will be listening to is tough, straight ahead, no messin' Chicago blues, echoing the great 40's era, as exemplified in the work of Big Maceo Merriweather and John Lee Williamson." Young plays mandolin on the bulk of the cuts aided by members of Muddy Waters' band: Otis Spann, Sammy Lawhorn, Paul Oscher and S.P. Leary. Young was a warm, powerful singer and magnificent mandolin player. Thankfully this set features a good dose of his rippling mandolin work on numbers like "Moaning And Groaning", "Lula Mae" which suffers from a very abrupt fade, "Prison Bound" and a rocking version of "Stealin' that fades just when things are really cooking. The latter track is one of three unreleased tracks, the others, "Go Ahead On (With That Funky Broadway Sound", a slow number despite the title, and "Johnny's Mess Around" are fun but a bit loose and aimless. The band, as to be expected is very good and of course Spann is always a joy to hear. While overall a very solid set, there's a spark missing, a sense of excitement and energy that's lacking.

That spark is clearly evident on I Can't Keep My Foot From Jumping a 1973 outing that was to be his final album. Young died the following year. Young's brawny, rippling mandolin playing is better recorded then the Blue Horizon, much more up front in the mix, and there's a crackling energy lacking in the earlier session. The band locks into a rock solid groove behind their leader: Louis Myers, Bill Warren and Richard Evans. The pianist is uncredited but may be Bob Reidy who Young had been playing with for several years and who appears on a Blues On Blues LP from around the same time period. Young plays mandolin on every track and there's an innate sense of swing beginning with the chugging title track, not only an instrumental showcase for Young's mandolin prowess but also for the band, including blistering guitar from Myers and in-the-pocket drumming from Bill Warren. Several of the same songs appear on both albums with the Bluesway versions superior; those include "Lend Me Your Love", "Train Fare Out Of Town" and a knockout version of "Deal The Cards." There's not a bad track to be found with favorites going to "I Gotta Find My Baby", "Stop Breaking Down" and the jumping shuffle "I Know She's Kinda Slick." Vocally young has rarely sounded better and the album as a whole serves as a clinic on blues mandolin playing.

Just about everything Young cut is worthwhile and despite some caveats I would certainly recommend the Blue Horizon set. Blue Horizon has been doing a superb job with their reissue series with all the releases boasting excellent sound and notes plus bonus tracks. Now if only someone would do this for the Bluesway catalog which, outside of a few which have made it onto CD, have languished in the cut out bin for far too long.

Moaning And Groaning [Blue Horizon](MP3)

Stealin' [Blue Horizon](MP3)

Deal The Cards [Bluesway] (MP3)

I Know She's Kinda Slick [Bluesway](MP3)



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