In the midst of the excitement surrounding Year of the Blues celebrations, particularly of the PBS presentation of the Martin Scorsese series, blues fans are reminded of another even more significant event on the 2003 blues calendar. This auspicious year also marks the 50th anniversary of Delmark Records, the label that blues and jazz aficionado Bob Koester founded in Chicago in 1953. Over the years, he would count Bruce Iglauer (Alligator Records owner), Michael Frank (Earwig Records owner) and Charlie Musselwhite among his employees, and his Jazz Record Mart would serve as de facto home for a while to Big Joe Williams, the cover subject for this package. The label has released a number of collections this year that highlight a roster second to none and further solidify their place in the blues music pantheon. In addition to a 4-CD blues and jazz box, there is a 2-CD blues collection, as well as “West Side Chicago Blues” (with Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Luther Allison and others) and “Masters of the Blues Piano” (Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, Roosevelt Sykes, etc.).
“Blues From Up The Country” is a bit of Blues 101, or at least the Blues According to Delmark. There are no surprises here, just 11 superb glimpses of the blues. These are primarily familiar works. Big Joe Williams’ “49 Highway Blues” opens the collection. Big Joe’s unique 9-string guitar and strong and expressive vocals are supported by Ransom Knowling’s bass on this 1961 recording. This is a classic in the blues repertoire and sounds as good now as it must have 42 years ago when Koester recording it. Robert Nighthawk’s classic “Crying Won’t Help You,” cut in 1951, is a bit of a mystery. The credits list either Roosevelt Sykes or Bob Call on piano and “probably” Jump Jackson on drums. Knowling is on bass here, as well. Nighthawk plays excellent guitar and lends his fine vocals to one of those tunes that have been recorded many times, but none as powerfully as this half century old gem.
The story is well known that Elvis Presley was mightily impressed when he first heard Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup. It was Crudup’s “That’s All Right” that became Presely’s first recording. The original presented here, with the busy Mr. Knowling in tow, was cut in May 1957.
One of the great trios in blues history was that of Sleepy John Estes (vocals and guitar), Yank Rachell (mandolin) and Hammie Nixon (harmonica). Their 1964 recording of Estes’ “Beale Street Sugar” is priceless. This is hardly quaint blues, but it is a glimpse into the appeal that simple, stripped down blues has always had. These were master musicians who worked well together, regardless of who’s name was up front. “I’m Gonna Get Up In The Morning,” from 1963, was cut under Rachell’s name and is a wonderful, if short, representation of the magic and appeal of his mandolin work. No wonder no one’s much touched the instrument, since. He did it perfect the first time.
Curtis Jones’ 1962 solo piano and vocal recording of his classic “Lonesome Bedroom Blues,” a tune covered years later by William Clarke, is stripped bare -- musically and emotionally. Chamption Jack Dupree, one of the great pianists of his time serves up his “Rub A Little Boogie,” a 1949 tune that sounds like a precursor to the rock and roll that would follow a few years later. His shouted encouragement to the un-credited washboard player reminds a bit of Fats Waller. He’s joined on this stomper by Brownie McGhee on guitar and an unidentified rhythm section. For harper/vocalist J.D. Short’s 1958 take on the traditional “You Got To Help Me Some,” Big Joe Williams sits in on guitar. Jimmie Rogers’ often covered “That’s All Right” sounds great on this version originally cut under Sunnyland Slim’s name in 1949. This one, again pointing to how poorly records were sometimes kept half a century ago, lists Andrew Harris as “probably” on bass. Delmark didn’t do the recording on some of this older catalog material, so cab be forgiven for these lapses in memory.
Blind Willie McTell’s “Hide Me In Thy Bosom” points to the marriage between the sacred and secular in the seminal days of this music. Cut in 1949 or 1950, it features McTell’s guitar in accompaniment to his exquisite vocals.
Delmark continues to be an important documenter of this music we love. Jimmy Burns, represented here with a 1996 version of the classic “Catfish Blues” from his “Leave Here Walking” disc, one of the finest recordings of the 1990s, is proof positive that the label is still one of the major players on the market. Happy birthday Delmark!
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