Like it's 2 previous CD's, these albums follow the trail blazed by Harry Smiths best-selling (surprisingly) ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC, mixing rural music from the twenties and thirties by both black and white performers. In the introductory notes, compiler Richard Nevins make the interesting point that these songs developed on the frontier. Nevins: "The real deal in early American music is not the woefully misguided concept of separate bodies of white and black repertoires and styles, but simply the stark division of rural and urban life...Throughout the 1800's there was little difference between the music of rural blacks and whites...the real contrasts are between rural folks and uptown urban people who usually performed in a much stiffer, less rhythmically compelling manner..." These CD's bear ample evidence to back up his idea.
Again, there's a mix of musical icons and virtual unknowns here: bluesmen Charlie Patton, Tommy Johnson, Son House, Sleepy John Estes and Skip James are spread across both albums, as is Fiddling John Carson, the man deemed responsible for the recording boom in old-time music in the twenties. His solo vocal and fiddle piece "Bachelors Hall" has that same high-lonesome tone that Dock Boggs projected on his early sides. There are a total of nine fiddle instrumentals here including Lowe Stokes masterwork "Billy In The Lowground," "Bath House Blues" by Ashleys Melody Men and "Wolves Howling" by the Stripling Brothers. (The latter is incorrectly identified as a source for the fiddle staple, "Black Mountain Rag," actually, Charles Wolfe in his book THE DEVILS BOX, names "The Lost Child" is the parent tune.) Another, "Make Down The Bed And We'll All Sleep Together" by Jess Hillard & his West Virginia Hillbillies sounds like a 30's forerunner of bluegrass picking--as does Martin & Hobbs intricately woven guitar duet on "Havana River Glide." But perhaps that in itself was inspired by the Lonnie Johnson-Eddie Lang duets?
Gospel is covered by shape note singers Allisons Sacred Harp Singers, Rev Rice and Congregation, the New Orleans gospel/jazz mix of the Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers and the amazing Blind Willie Johnson. The liner notes (FINALLY arranged in the same order as on the discs--a chronic complaint of all past Yazoo compilations--about time!!!) point out that Johnson was unique in having no apparent stylistic antecedents. In years to come there were several bluesmen who adopted his rough-voiced growl to do their spiritual pieces--but Johnson started recording in 1927, a couple years before Charlie Patton (considered the father of delta blues styles) cut his first sides.
There are several tracks of white slide players, the most bluesy being Frank Hutchison's "Worried Blues," while the others are closer to "Singing Brakeman" Jimmie Rogers in style. In the blues field, Son House's long-lost and sought after "Walking Blues" is included here, it shows where Robert Johnson copped a few riffs. Skip James is heard doing his amazingly speed-picked tune later covered by Cream, "I'm So Glad"--this version has a noticeably improved quality over previous reissues--as does Tommy Johnson's "Walking Shoes."
Another interesting entry in the cross-cultural influences is Watts & Wilsons track "Walk Right In Belmont"--it contains the melody and several verses of a tune later credited to Leadbelly, "The Midnight Special." A white duo, the Carlisle Brothers, in their "Sals Got A Meatskin" prove that double-entendre "party records" weren't for the black market only--it's about losing ones virginity. There are also a couple of different versions of the John Henry man vs. machine song-legend; "Gonna Die With My Hammer In My Hand" by Williamson Brothers & Curry, and the Fruit Jar Guzzlers "Steel Driving Man"--both, are white string bands.
I think Nevins is on to something here--the frontier wildness and vitality is shot through these songs, and the divisions are obviously more geographic than racial. Music comes from the same deep well no matter whose hand is on the pump.
This review is copyright © 1999 by Tony Glover, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.