The title of this 3 CD collection might be a bit misleading, especially with the liner notes repeatedly listing dates and causes of death of many of the artists contained within. However at the time of recording (over two months in the fall of 1980), these cuts were the living result of two German bluesologists field trip to the American south, in search of what remained of the pre-war blues tradition. The trip was documented on a mind-numbing 14 albums released in Germany by L&R Records, founded by Lippman & Rau. The duo were the fans/promoters behind the seminal American Folk Blues Festival tours in the UK and Europe in the 60's--which were probably the inspiration for all the British blues based rockers to come, like the Stones.
This collection distills that set into a more digestible 3 CD size. Most of the performers are unknowns, although the original set included debut recordings for several who went on to further blues careers; Lonnie Pitchford, Cephas & Wiggins and Cedell Davis. Probably the only other recognizable name is Sam Chatmon, one of the Mississippi Sheiks, and half-brother of delta great Charlie Patton. The liner notes say " although many of the artists never made any commercial recordings, it was not due to a lack of talent, but to circumstance". In a few cases that may be true, but there are an equal or greater number of players here of only marginal interest and ability. It seems that foreign collectors traveling the US tend to equate obscurity inversely with importance, and that's how you end up with people like the prosaic Juke Boy Bonner cutting multiple albums.
That said, there's still a lot here to enjoy. Disc One (Mississippi Moan) samples from 12 delta artists, and styles range from the gospel of Cora Fluker (sole proprietor of the Fluker Chapel), the holler/narrative of Walter Brown (previously recorded by folk-lorist Alan Lomax on his 1940's expedition), the fife-and drum sound of Othar Turner, to the hypno-guitar-riff Son Thomas workout on "Catfish Blues". This is an x-rated 6:30 version of the southern classic, and probably the source for Mick Jagger's lyric quote "she can make a dead man come". Boyd Rivers does mostly gospel material, but with a fire & brimstone intensity that reminds a bit of street singer Blind Willie Johnson. Chatmon gets 4 cuts, including the classic he originated, "Sitting On Top Of The World".
Disc Two (East Coast Blues) feature artists more in the Piedmont, finger-picking rag-timey style. There's more instrumental dexterity here, but at the price of less emotional material. The disc focuses on five performers. Archie Edwards had a Washington DC barbershop that became a hangout for blues rediscoveries Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt, and Edwards has some of Hurts easy, insinuating delivery and facility on trad numbers like "Do Lord" and the Jimmy Rogers blue yodel "T For Texas". Guitar Frank also contributes a couple of standards-- "Railroad Bill" (*required of every fingerpicker during the sixties folk revival), and "Diggin My Potatoes" the Washboard Sam double-entendre jump number. Guitar Slim was a songster from Greensboro NC who does slide guitar work on Robert Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen", while Flora Molton was a gospel street singer whose Truth Band gave harpist Phil Wiggins his start. Wiggans teams up with John Cephas for a sound best described as Sonny & Brownie Lite, blues suitable for library recital concerts.
CD Three (Tennessee, Arkansas & More) is a mixed bag of areas and styles. It includes the debut recordings of Cedell Davis--a partially crippled slide player whose growl-shouted elemental pieces sound flat to most ears, despite some commentator referring to an "alternate tuning". Memphis Piano Red is the only pianist heard here, while Hammie Nixon, early partner to Sleepy John Estes, is heard on harp and jug, he does "Viola Lee Blues" and the Gus Cannon 1928 piece gets a nice reading.
There's a thoroughly annotated 48 page booklet with photos of most of the featured artists and the whole technical aspect of the release has been done with evident (no pun intended) care. If you enjoyed Harry Smiths Folksong Anthology, or the Yazoo reissues of early blues cuts, you'll probably enjoy this warts-and-all collection of a wide range of people who made entertaining and sometimes moving music on porches, at country stores and in small bars. Its nothing fancy--but then it wasn't supposed to be.
This review is copyright © 1999 by Tony Glover, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.