Entries tagged with “Son Thomas”.


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J.D. Short

I suppose it sounds rather romantic spending your time roaming around the south with a tape recorder recording blues but for all the rewards and exciting discoveries it’s a stressful enterprise, not to mention a precarious way to make a living. These days hardly anyone one does it anymore and the sad fact is that blues has largely disappeared as integral part of African-American rural communities; most of the old timers have passed on and few of the younger generation are interested in blues, particularly traditional blues. Much has been written about John and Alan Lomax who scoured the south and beyond making landmark recordings for the Library of Congress from the 1930’s through the 1960’s. Less well known are those that followed in the Lomax’s footsteps; there was folklorists and researchers such as David Evans, Sam Charters, Gayle Dean Wardlow, Art Rosenbaum, Pete Welding, Chris Strachwitz ,Bruce Bastin, Bengt Olsson, Dick Spottswood, Kip Lornell, Glenn Hinson, Tim Duffy, Siegfried A. Christmann and Axel Küstner. 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 who were seeking to document the blues tradition as it still existed in rural communities, men like George Mitchell and Peter B. Lowry. This was a very different undertaking than 1960’s blues revival which sought out and put back on the circuit such legendary artists of the past as Son House, Skip James, Bukka White and Mississippi John Hurt. The field recordings made during this era were a sort of a parallel undercurrent to the more famous artists. What they recorded in the rural communities of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi in the 1960’s was a still thriving, if largely undocumented, blues culture.

Today's abbreviated show is part two of our look at field recordings made in the 1960's and 70's. Today's program spotlights recordings made by Paul Oliver, David Evans, Sam Charters, William Ferris, Fredric Ramsey Jr. and Bruce Jackson. In the second hour we present Truckin' My Blues an hour-long special which introduces listeners to the stories and sounds of four older Southern bluesmen—and to the efforts of Tim Duffy, founder of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, to help lift these musicians from poverty and obscurity.

In the opening set we spin a couple of tracks recorded by Sam Charters.  Charters' fieldwork, extensive liner notes, production efforts, and books served as an introduction to many who had never heard of artists like Lightnin' Hopkins and Robert Johnson. Charters also began his work as a field recorder during the '50s, and this research would result in his first book in 1959, The Country Blues. "…The Country Blues was the first full-length treatment of the topic," wrote Benjamin Filene in Romancing the Folk, "and its evocative style inspired thousands of whites to explore the music." A companion album, also titled The Country Blues, would simultaneously be released on Folkways. Charters compiled vintage blues reissues, produced numerous albums and did extensive field recording, much of it released on the Folkways label.

Baby Tate's "When I First Started Hoboing" comes from the film The Blues (read loner notes) which  was begun as, Charters wrote, " an effort to document aspects of the blues that couldn't be put on to a phonograph record. In 1961 and 1962 I was doing a great deal of recording in the South, and in Memphis I became interested in not only the sound of Furry Lewis's guitar style, but in the patterns of movement in his hands and fingers as he played. Out of this came the long trip through St. Louis, Memphis, Louisiana, and South Carolina in the summer of 1962 that led to the film. It was shot under very severe limitations of equipment and film knowledge with a hand held Bolex 16 mm camera, and the sound track was recorded with a portable Ampex machine and a small battery operated Uher. The Blues was finished early in 1963, and was premiered at the University of Chicago Folk Festival in January, 1963"

J.D. Short recorded two sessions in the early '30s for Paramount and Vocalion, then quickly faded into obscurity. Charters recorded Short at his transplanted home base of St. Louis in 1961 while Charters was passing through the area making similar field recordings of Henry Townsend, Barrelhouse Buck Edith North Johnson, Henry Brown, and Daddy Hotcakes. Short's recordings have recently been reissued on CD as part of the Sonet Blues Story. As Charters writes in the notes: "The recording that we did in his house that summer – mostly in the kitchen to get away from the noises in the street – was his last, but we didn't have any idea of it. I was filming him for a sequence in 'The Blues' and trying to get his ideas about the backgrounds and the aesthetics of the blues for 'The Poetry Of The Blues' so we recorded a lot of music – new versions of songs he'd done before – new songs – and his own comments about the styles and the music." Short unexpectedly passed away shortly after this session at the age of 60. Short also did a 1958 session with pal Big Joe Williams which was released on Delmark as Stavin' Chain Blues.

Also in the first set we play a recording by another early field recorder, Frederic Ramsey. Ramsey traveled all over the South photographing black life.Much of his fieldwork is to be found in Music From the South, a 10-volume set of recordings that was released on Folkway. His book "Been Here and Gone," about black culture was published in 1960.In 1958, folklorist Frederic Ramsey, Jr. recorded someone named Cat-Iron in Buckner's Alley in Natchez, Mississippi. Ramsey wrote a detailed poetic description of his discovery of Cat-Iron for The Saturday Review which, alas, offered no background on the artist. A biographic cipher, Cat-Iron's sole testament is Cat-Iron Sings Blues and Hymns, described in the 1958 Folkways catalogue as "old-time Negro songs and guitar style."

We also play a pair of tracks from the CD accompanying William Ferris' new book, Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues. Ferris has written and edited 10 books, including the influential Blues from the Delta, and created 15 documentary films, most of which deal with African-American music and other folklore representing the Mississippi Delta. Ferris has produced several albums and made numerous field recordings.

On part one of this feature we played several recordings made by David Evans. It was Evans’ investigation into Tommy Johnson in the late 1960’s that we owe a good deal of what we know about Johnson and it was through Evans’ field recordings that Johnson’s influence comes into sharper focus. Evans began making field recordings in 1965 when he spent about five weeks taping blues artists in Mississippi and Louisiana. The collection Goin’ Up The Country released on Decca in 1968 collects some of the best performances he recorded. The album was reissued in 1976 on Rounder and Rounder also released South Mississippi Blues in 1973, another collection of field recordings from the same period. The Legacy of Tommy Johnson (1972) was issued as  the companion LP to Evans’ Tommy Johnson biography. Today's selection, Ranie Burnette's "Shake ‘Em On Down", comes from the album Afro-American Folk Music From Tate And Panola Counties, Mississippi . The collection is a survey of the hill country, just east of the more famous Mississippi Delta, which has been compiled from recordings made by David Evans in 1969 -71, together with three takes from Alan Lomax’s famous 1942 visit there.

The earliest tracks come from 1960 and were made by Paul Oliver and Chris Strachwitz and come from the albums Conversations With The Blues, a companion to Oliver’s landmark book, and recordings the men made of Alex Moore and the Black Ace which were subsequently issued on Arhoolie Records. Conversation With The Blues is a series of interviews in the artists own words, compiled from interviews with over sixty blues singers. In the Summer of 1960 blues scholar Paul Oliver and his wife made a trip through Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas to interview and record older blues artists for a series of programs sponsored by the BBC. Among those recorded were Sam Chatmon, K.C. Douglas, Big Joe Williams, Butch Cage & Willie Thomas, Robert Curtis Smith among several others.Oliver was also in Chicago were he organized a recording session resulting the album Blues From Maxwell Street which features tracks by Arvella Gray, James Brewer, Daddy Stovepipe and King Davis.

Born in Hughes Springs, Texas, Babe Kyro Lemon AKA Black Ace was raised on the family farm, and taught himself to play guitar, performing in east Texas from the late 1920s on. During the early 1930s he began playing with Smokey Hogg and Oscar "Buddy" Woods, a Hawaiian-style guitarist who played with the instrument flat on his lap. In 1937 Turner recorded six songs Decca Records in Dallas, including the blues song "Black Ace". In the same year, he started a radio show in Fort Worth, using the cut as a theme song, and soon assumed the name. In 1941 he appeared in The Blood of Jesus, an African-American movie produced by Spencer Williams Jr. In 1943 he was drafted into the United States Army, and gave up playing music for some years. However, in 1960, Arhoolie Records owner Chris Strachwitz and paul Oliver persuaded him to record an album for Arhoolie (reissued on CD as I Am The Boss Card In Your Hand). His last public performance was in a 1962 documentary, The Blues, and he died of cancer in Fort Worth, in 1972.

In 1929, Alex Moore made his debut recordings for Columbia Records and recorded again in 1937 for Decca Records. It was 1951 before Moore recorded again with RPM/Kent. However, throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Moore performed in clubs in Dallas and occasionally other parts of Texas. He was recorded by Paul Oliver and Chris Stratwichz in 1960 (reissued as From North Dallas To The East Side), and those subsequent recordings saw him obtain nationwide recognition.

Our final selection, the nearly ten minute "I Got Too Much Time For The Crime I Done", comes from the remarkable album Ever Since I Have Been a Man Full Grown issued on  Takoma in 1965. The recording was made by Bruce Jackson in 1965 at Texas’s Ramsey Prison Farm of a fellow named Johnnie B., or J. B., Smith. As far as I know this is the only LP devoted to a single unaccompanied singer of prison work-song. From the liner notes: "Smitty – J.B. Smith – is eleven years into a forty-five year sentence that begun in 1954; he is 48 years old. This is his fourth time in prison in Texas and he does not expect to be paroled for some time. For him, a song like “No More Good Time in the World for Me”, though it draws heavily on the general inmate song vocabulary, is completely personal; the situation applies to him almost without qualification.” J.B. Smith: “The oldtimers still sing. That is, if whoever is carrying (in charge of) the squad will let them. In some cases the boss won’t let them sing. …The young men don’t get a chance to work with the older men and they haven’t experienced working with older men. A lot of them have never been in the system before. And the crews they work with don’t even know the songs, the worksongs that they work by. But once they get to working with the older men, they learn the songs and they try to carry them on when they can. But like I said, in most cases they can’t because they’re not permitted."

In the second half of the program we air Truckin’ My Blues Away. From the notes: "This music-rich hour-long special introduces listeners to the stories and sounds of four older Southern bluesmen—and to the efforts of Tim Duffy, founder of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, to help lift these musicians from poverty and obscurity. The musicians cover a wide swath of the South: Boo Hanks from Virgina, Va.; Captain Luke from Winston-Salem, N.C.; Eddie Tigner from Atlanta; and Little Freddie King from New Orleans. In their own words and performances, these men bring us the story of a music, an era and a culture that are uniquely American.The program is co-produced and co-written by Richard Ziglar and Barry Yeoman, who traveled around the South collecting interviews and field recordings of the musicians. Yeoman, who co-produced our Gracie Award-winning program 'Picking Up the Pieces,' narrates."

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Show Notes:

John Cephas
John Cephas, Photo by Tom Pich for National Endowment of the Arts

A somber note hangs over today's show as we pay tribute to the recently departed John Cephas and Snooks Eaglin. John Cephas, best known as the guitarist and singer with the duo Cephas & Wiggins died March 4th. He was 78. Both Cephas and Wiggins were born in Washington, D.C., although Wiggins was a quarter century younger than his partner; they met at a jam session in 1977, and both performed as regular members of Big Chief Ellis' band prior to Ellis' death. The duo had been recording since the early 80's, cutting records for Flying Fish, Rounder and most recently Alligator. The tracks featured today were the first by Cephas, cut in the mid-70's by Pete Lowry but never released at the time. Lowry has given me permission to play these cuts which are not available anywhere else. Lowry recorded Cephas & Wiggins extensively in 1980 and recorded Cephas in-depth in 1976.

Snooks Eaglin passed away on February 18th. In true New Orleans fashion he was given a full jazz funeral send off. I first encountered Snooks via his terrific Black Top Records of the late 1980's and 90's. After the label's demise Snooks only recorded one more album, The Way It Is, in 2001 which happens to be one of my favorites. Fans of Snooks' later electric records may be surprised that his earliest records (1958-1959) which are all acoustic. From that period we spin the charming "Country Boy Down In New Orleans" from the wonderful Snooks Eaglin: The Sonet Blues Storyalbum of the same name on Arhoolie. We also play the soulful "By The Water" cut for Imperial in 1960 and "I Get The Blues When It Rains" from 1971's The Sonet Blues Story.

We do a bit of compare and contrast today by playing two versions of the classic "How Blue Can You Get?", one by Louis Jordan and the other by B.B. King.  Johnny Moore's Three Blazer's cut the original version in 1949 which we played on the program a couple of weeks back. It was covered in 1951 by Louis Jordan which is where B.B. King first heard the song. King began using it in his live act at recorded it on his classic Live At The Regal album from 1963.

There's plenty vintage blues from the 1920's and 30's including a trio of sides from Atlanta artists Peg Leg Howell, Sloppy Henry and Barbecue Bob.  Like Memphis, Atlanta was a staging post for musicians on their way to all points. It's not surprising then that the first country blues musician, Ed Andrews, was recorded there in 1924. The company that recorded him, Okeh, was one of many to send their engineers to Southern cities to record local talent. Companies like Victor, Columbia, Vocalion and Brunswick made at least yearly visits until the depression. Between 1927-1930 Atlanta was visited seventeen times by the record companies. Among the bluesmen to record in Atalanta in the 1920's, the first to arrive in the city was Joshua Barnes Powell, known as Peg Leg because of a shooting accident in 1916. We also hear Peg Leg in the Barbecue Bob: Chocalate To The Bonecompany of singer Sloppy Henry. Henry cut sixteen between 1924 and 1929 for the Okeh label. Within a year or so of Howell's arrival in Atlanta, Robert Hicks came to the city. He learned guitar, as did his older brother Charlie, and their friend Curley Weaver from the latter's mother Savannah Weaver. Hicks earned his nickname from his day job as the chef of a barbecue restaurant and Columbia photographed him for their publicity material in his work apron.  As Barbecue Bob he became the most heavily recorded Atlanta bluesman of the 1920's with his records selling steadily for Columbia until his untimely death in 1931.

We also feature some fine blues ladies including Susie Hawthorne, one half of the popular Butterbeans & Susie, Lucille Bogan and Bessie Smith. Butterbeans and Susie were a comedy duo that began touring with the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA) and later moved to vaudeville before signing with Okeh Records. They cut close to 70 sides for the label between 1924 and 1930. Our track, "He Likes It Slow", from 1926 features Louis Armstrong on cornet. From the same year we play Bessie Smith's "Them 'Has Been' Blues." This cut comes form the the eight volume series on the Frog label that collects all of Bessie's recordings.  Sound quality on this series is outstanding, noticeably better then Columbia's series, which is interesting since Columbia had the actual masters to work with. The Frog series is a testament to the skills of engineer John R.T. Davies and label owner David French, who commissioned collectors for the best available originals. Sadly Davies and French both passed before the completion of the series. From Lucille Bogan we spin her classic "Shave 'Em Dry." This of course is the  clean version. The unreleased version is extremely explicit and if aired would surely be the end of my broadcasting career!

Butterbeans & Susie
Butterbeans & Susie

We close out our show with a stunning version of "Prodigal Son" by Robert Wilkins recorded live at Newport in 1964.  During the 1920's and 1930's, Tim Wilkins was one of the most popular blues artists associated with Beale Street. He left the blues world to become an ordained minister. When the Rolling Stones recorded Wilkins' "Prodigal Son" in the early '60s (originally titled "That's No Way To Get Along"), blues researchers found Wilkins at home in Memphis, ministering to the congregation at the Lane Avenue Church of God in Christ and performing gospel songs at street corner revivals. He returned to recording with the album Memphis Gospel Singer in 1964, a classic record that yet to make it to CD. He performed at several festivals including Newport in 1964 and the Memphis Country Blues Festival in 1968. He passed in 1987.

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Show Notes:

Houston Shuffle

We open the show on a somber note with two by Pete Mayes. Mayes, a staple of the Houston scene for the past 50 years, died December 16th at the age of 70. Mayes played guitar with greats like Junior Parker and Bill Doggett and has fronted his own band, the Houserockers, for 40 years.  Mayes owned and maintained the historic Double Bayou Dancehall, which once served as a regular venue for Amos Milburn, Lightnin' Hopkins, Big Joe Turner, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and scores of others.  It was there that Mayes, then just 16 years old, first heard T-Bone Walker who became a major influence. According to his own story, by the age of 14 he had already worked with Lester Williams, although he did not meet T-Bone Walker until 1954. During the next 20 years, he often worked with Walker and made the acquaintance of many other bluesmen who would later come to fame, most prominently Joe Hughes. Mayes' discography is slim with just three full length albums;  Pete's Sake (Antone's, 1998), I'm Ready (Double Trouble, 1986) and Live! At Double Bayou Dance Hall (GoldRhyme Music, 2005). According to The Blues Discography 1943-1970 he cut the following singles: "The Things I Used To Do" (Home Cooking, 1965), "Crazy Woman" (Ovide, 1969) and "Movin' Out" (Ovide, 1969). Our opening tracks, "Crazy Woman" and "Lowdown Feeling" come from the Krazy Kat LP  Houston Shuffle.

Welfare blues 45Lots of vinyl on today's show as I've been trying to organize my LP's and stumbled across some gems I haven't played in a while. On tap today are several fine 1960's and 70's recordings by Guitar Gabriel, Babe Stovall, Willie Guy Rainey, Guitar Slim Green and Sam Chatmon. Guitar Gabriel is familiar to some collectors Nyles Jones, the name under which he recorded the superb LP, My South, My Blues, for the Gemini label in 1970.Mike Leadbitter, writing in Blues Unlimited in 1970, called the single, "Welfare Blues", the most important 45 released that year. He dropped out of sight for about 20 years and his belated return to performing was due largely to folklorist and musician Timothy Duffy, who located Gabriel in 1991. With Duffy accompanying him as second guitarist on acoustic sets and as a member of his band, Brothers in the Kitchen, Gabriel performed frequently at clubs and festivals, and appeared overseas. He recorded several albums for Duffy's Music Maker label before passing in 1996.

West Coast guitarist Slim Green cut "Alla Blues" in 1948, the precursor to Jimmy Wilson's "Tin Pan Alley."  He cut singles in the 40's, 50's and 60's for labels such as J & M Fullbright, Murray, Dig,Canton and Geenote. He 1970 he cut his only full length LP, Stone Down Blues, for Kent backed by Johnny Otis and his son Shuggie. From that album we play the fine protest blues "This War Ain't Right."

Sam Chatmon's Advice

Sam Chatmon began playing music as a child, occasionally with his family's string band, as well as the Mississippi Sheiks. Sam launched his own solo career in the early '30s. While he performed and recorded as a solo act, he would still record with the Mississippi Sheiks and with his brother Lonnie. Throughout the '30s, Sam traveled throughout the south, playing with a variety of minstrel and medicine shows. He stopped traveling in the early '40s, making himself a home in Hollandale, Mississippi, where he worked on plantations. For the next two decades, Sam Chatmon was essentially retired from music and only worked on the plantations. When the blues revival arrived in the late '50s, he managed to capitalize on the genre's resurgent popularity and throughout the '60s and '70s, he recorded for a variety of labels, as well as playing clubs and blues and folk festivals across America. Chatmon was an active performer and recording artist until his death in 1983.

Born in 1907 in Tylertown, MS, Babe Stovall was the youngest of 11 children, most of them musicians. Stovall learned guitar when he was around eight years old, and was soon playing breakdowns, frolics, and parties in the area, even meeting and learning "Big Road Blues" from Tommy Johnson. In 1964 he moved to New Orleans, where he was "discovered" working as a street singer in the French Quarter. He recorded an LP for Verve in 1964, which is were today's selection comes off, simply titled Babe Stovall, and did further sessions in 1966 and with Bob West in 1968 and became active on the folk and blues college circuit. He died in 1974.

Willie Guy Rainey was a blues musician from Georgia who became a popular performing artist in the Atlanta area in the 1970's. Through the promotion of musician Ross Kapstein and the recording of a self-titled album in 1978 for Southland, Rainey (at 77 years old) went on tour, which eventually led to overseas tours. He died in 1983.

Esther Phillips Burnin'We also spotlight several fine vocalists including Helen Humes, Esther Phillips, Bobby Bland, Junior Parker and Jimmy Witherspoon. Helen Humes is in fine form on 1951's "I Ain't In The Mood" an answer song to John Lee Hooker's recent chart-topper titled "I Ain't in the Mood." Esther Phillips has long been a favorite and she sizzles on a reading of "I'm Gettin' 'Long Alright" recorded live at Freddie Jett's Pied Piper club from the terrific album Burnin'. In 1999 Collectables released Burnin 'paired with Confessin' the Blues, two of her finest records on one CD. From Jimmy Witherspoon we spin "Parcel Post Blues" from the Bluesway album Hunh! featuring an all-star lineup of Charles Brown (piano), Red Holloway (sax) and Earl Hooker and Mel Brown on guitars. Junior Parker is another favorite of mine and a great song interpreter as he proves on his cover of the chestnut "I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water." This comes from the excellent album I Tell Stories Sad And True from 1972 which unfortunately is out of print.

Other interesting tracks today include numbers by Will Ezell, Victoria Spivey, and some fine field recordings made by George Mitchell. 1929's "Playing The Dozen" is by great barrelhouse pianist Will Ezell who cut fourteen sides for Paramount between 1927 and 1929. He also backed artists such as Lucille Bogan, Blind Roosevelt Grave, Ethel Waters and others. Speaking of great pianists that's Little Brother Montgomery backing Victoria Spivey along with Lonnie Johnson on "Every Dog Has Its Day" from 1964. George Mitchell recorded some incredible music in his over twenty years of field recording and considered Cecil Barfield among his greatest discoveries. Barfield's repertoire was mostly covers but he truly sounded like no one else as he proves on his version of "Bottle Up And Go." By the way, Mitchell also wrote the notes to the above mentioned Willie Guy Rainey LP.

We wrap up with a trio of 1960's sides by great soul and blues artist Robert Ward who passed away on Christmas day after a long struggle with health issues. Like many, I first heard Robert Ward when his magnificent Fear No Evil debuted on Black Top in 1990 and was unaware of his earlier recordings. His subsequent Black Top follow-ups, Rhythm Of The People (1993) and Black Bottom (1995), were less inspired with the latter definitely the better of the two. After a five year absence he returned to form with his Hot Stuffmarvelous Delmark debut New Role Soul (2001). It wasn't until the Black Top records that I became aware of Ward's 1960's recordings which were thankfully collected on the album Hot Stuff (1995) on Relic. These sides spotlighted the recordings Ward cut as leader of the Ohio Untouchables (who later morphed into the Ohio Players long after Ward's departure) for tiny labels like LuPine, Thelma, and Groove City. These are fiery and soulful sides featuring Ward's trademark watery guitar playing and passionate vocals on numbers like "I'm Tired", "Your Love Is Real", "Something For Nothing" and "Fear No Evil." Also included are four classic cuts by the Falcons from 1962 sporting lead vocals by Wilson Pickett with the Untouchables in support on the soaring smash hit "I Found A Love" and "Let's Kiss and Make Up" with some sizzling guitar from Ward.

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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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