There are those who thrive on CD's loaded with great country blues, while there are others who remain devoted to the blues that burst out of the 1950's from men like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, and there are others still who hold tightly to the modern blues of today. Regardless of what your tastes may be, discs like this should be in the 'required listening' category for anyone, period. This is truly some of the greatest music ever to come out of America. The artists that appear on this set are those who still have a powerful impact on blues to this day. It is also where the young turks turned; when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Eric Clapton, and others were planning their seige on American soil in the continuing British Invasion, they took their cues from what Catfish Records included in this great set. Stretching over 2 CD's, packed with 46 tracks, excellent sound, and well-written notes by Keith Briggs, compilations should always be this good.
The first disc, while including Charley Patton and Skip James, lays solid focus on lesser-known masters like Kid Bailey, Arthur Petties, Robert Petway,Tommy McClennan, and Willie Brown. It is Bailey who starts the proceedings with his strong "Mississippi Bottom Blues" and steps aside for Otto Virgial, who contributes two with "Little Girl In Rome" and "Bad Notion Blues," both propelled by his own jangling rhythms on guitar, and a bit of a nod to Charley Patton, who was known for rapping on the body of his instruments to accentuate the groove. The Mississippi Jook Band delivers two wonderful pieces with "Hittin' The Bottle Stomp" and "Skippy Wippy." There's a bit of everything on these two with some fine guitar, rippling piano, and stumbling yet steady percussive backing. Poor Boy Lofton, little more than an asterisk in Blues history, is muscular with his "Dirty Mistreater" and waves the Tommy Johnson flag. Arthur Petties, another who seems almost forgotten, is simply gripping with his "Two Time Blues." The name of Tommy McClennan is more widely recognized, as he was certainly well represented on record and quite popular with the buying public in his day. McClennan was certainly his own man too, known for laughing and talking to himself while recording. His "I'm A Guitar King" and equally heavy"New Highway 51" are both tough performances. Robert Petway, McClennan's runnin' partner, took many of his buddy's tactics for "In The Evening" and still managed to sound like himself. Skip James calls on the darker side with "Devil Got My Woman" and his piano work on "Little Low And Calf Gonna Die Blues" is marvelous. From the area around Bentonia, Skip James was a true original. Freddie Spruell, regarded as the first man who recorded actual blues, adds a couple and his "Let's Go Riding" is a treat. Charley Patton, who exerted as much influence on the future as any other, is chilling with the tale of the "Revenue Man Blues." Willie Brown has the the grasp of the Mississippi Delta firmly in hand with his lone, yet riveting performance of the "M&O Blues" and it's a matter of debate as to who influenced who in the Delta, but one thing is certain, Brown managed a couple of the finest sides ever to spin out of the region, and they were his only sides at that. The final four tracks on disc one are string band features for the Mud Steppers, Blacksnakes, and Sheiks, all putting the Mississippi tag in front of their band names.
Disc two is just as interesting as the first with cuts by Robert Johnson, Son House, Ishmon Bracey, Garfield Akers, and more. Joe Calicot opens with "Fare Thee Well" and a vocal strength that rode well above his quiet guitar work. Robert Johnson, perhaps the most widely known Mississippi blues artist, needs little mention, just suffice it to say the inclusion of "Me And The Devil Blues" fits perfectly. Son House delivers a stunning masterpiece in "Shetland Pony Blues" which stems from his Library Of Congress recordings in 1941. Recorded at Clack's Store in Lake Cormorant, MS, the sounds of a train rolling by conjure thoughts of the Delta masters who 'rode the rails' constantly. Louise Johnson was notorious for her up-front sexual prowess but her true strength seems to lie in her piano attack which shows in both "On The Wall" and "All Night Long Blues," where she is pushed along by the vocal asides of either Willie Brown or Son House. Ishmon Bracey is strong on "Leavin' Town Blues" where he is accompanied by Charlie McCoy's tasteful mandolin work, and his longtime friend, Tommy Johnson is simply incredible with "Canned Heat Blues." Johnson's penchant for drinking strained shoe polish, sterno, or anything else that afforded him his necessary dose is well known, and he died in 1956 after years of self-abuse. Sonny Boy Nelson is potent with "Pony Blues" and "Bullfrog Blues" by William Harris is especially muscular, but Garfield Akers is breathtaking with the two-part "Cottonfield Blues." His vocals identify him as a man steeped in the traditions of the Delta while the relentless and stuttering rhythm from his guitar sets these two sides apart as being by a true master and innovator. Papa Harvey Hull brags about his "Gang Of Brown Skin Women" and does a fine "Original Stack O' Lee Blues." Mississippi John Hurt shows his individuality with "Candy Man" and "Avalon Blues," both cut in New York in 1928. The guitar work is deft and light when compared to the riveting use of the instrument by others on this set. Caldwell Bracy is touching on the heartfelt "I'll Overcome Someday" and Rube Lacy closes out the two CD set with the pleading "Mississippi Jailhouse Groan" from 1928. Lacy, like a handful of others, gave up playing the devil's music, turned to the church, and became an ordained minister.
The Catfish label has been successful with their reissue project and part of the reason is the care with which things are done. Their dedication to superior sound quality remains well above what many might expect from music recorded decades ago and they continue to cram as much music as possible into their CD's. What stands tall above everything else is the amount of work that goes into gathering some of the finest music in the history of blues. It's rather appropriate that a UK label is shining so brightly; it was, after all, the British that rekindled the interest in blues here many years ago, and when you can grab hold of a two-disc set and pay the price of a single CD, you're already ahead of the game, but when the music rivets the listener to the chair with long-forgotten names and rare sides, there's no way to calculate a cost. www.catfishrecords.co.uk will answer any further questions.
This review is copyright © 2001 by Craig Ruskey, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.
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