What we have here is an expanded version of a soundtrack for a 1964 documentary film called AND THIS IS FREE. The 48 minute film captured the scene on Chicago's Maxwell street, an open-air market filled with a massive conglomeration of odd wares, running the gamut from clothes to car parts to mineral foot bath cures. The streets were populated with hustlers, pitchmen selling schemes and toys--and other forms of entertainment as well. There was a gamut of musicians there too, running from preachers and gospel musicians to hard-core blues players, all angling for passerby's coins and bills.
The film used music as background for a visual panorama, without dwelling for too long on any single performers--with two notable exceptions. The camera crew captured some rare footage of Robert Nighthawk, a legendary peripatetic slide guitar player, who just happened to be spending a few weeks working the street during the shooting schedule--he's seen off and on during a 3 minute performance of "Cheating & Lying Blues", a cousin to "Gonna Murder My Baby". Nighthawk is also heard in other segments, for a total of a minute and a half or so. A gospel group led by James Brewer gets the most screen time, with a nearly 6 minute version of "I'll Fly Away." The film crew included young guitarist Mike Bloomfield, a couple of years prior to his joining the Butterfield Blues Band--he lobbied for a documentary that focused only on the music, but sadly, from a music fans perspective film-maker Mike Shea opted for a more general approach.
There was a lot more music recorded and filmed than was used--some of the Nighthawk cuts eventually turned up on a Rounder album called ROBERT NIGHTHAWK LIVE ON MAXWELL STREET--it came from second or third generation dubs that hired sound man Norman Dayron kept when the project was done. An "expanded" version was recently issued--but though it appeared there were several new titles added to the previous version, most of them were simply retitlings of old tracks.
Now the definitive version of the original music tracks is at last available. After the rather lackadaisical notice the film got, Shea shelved the footage in a warehouse where it stayed until his death in 1995. His son found the audio archives and brought them to a producer who recognized the value in the 69 reels of tape that had been stashed, and this Rooster 3 CD box set is the result.
Nighthawk is a pervasive presence on the two music CD's (the third disc is 40 minutes of interview done by Mike Bloomfield with Nighthawk on his history and memories). He sings lead on nine tracks, backs guitar playing Johnny Young on two, harpist Carey Bell on five and one-armed harpman Big John Wrencher on a couple as well. There are a couple of single track artists heard also--Mojo Elem and Little Arthur King.
The rest of the music heard is provided by gospel musicians James Brewer and his group, and solo guitar performer Arvella Gray. Gray plays slide guitar, having lost a couple of fingers to a shotgun blast, he does a topical "John Henry" with some local geographical references. The Brewer Gospel group manages to stir some fervor with the dual guitar, tambourine and multi-vocal numbers, especially with their closing piece, "I'll Fly Away."
Nighthawk is backed by rhythm guitar and a drum set, and his amplified guitar alternates between walking boogie lines ala Jimmy Reed and the sweet slide sound heard on his biggest hits "Annie Lee" and "Sweet Black Angel"--done here as a medley. Other numbers include the staple "That's All Right", a couple of instrumentals "Peter Gunn Jam" and "Honky Tonk" and "Dust My Broom"--an eclectic and crowd pleasing set. There's more funk than filigree here, but the ambiance counts for a lot, and if it gets a bit samey, it does so in a good groove.
Carey Bell was a young 28 at the time, and these were his first recordings. Heavily influenced by Little Walter, he turns in nice gritty instrumental performances, using chromatic harp on several numbers, including Muddy Waters "I'm Ready". Johnny Young was better known as a mandolinist, but he's on electric guitar for his two features, and he undoubtedly picked up some decent coin for his day on the street.
The set comes with a 63 page booklet with biographical entries as well as song by song notations and photos. The sound quality is much crisper and cleaner than any previous releases of the material--its from the original film audio recordings. And given the $25 or so list price, this is a value for money proposition. If you want the flavor of a once vital venue, its here for the asking.
This review is copyright © 2001 by Tony Glover, 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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