Friday, 17 May 2013

The Country Blues- Smithsonian Folkways Archival

The Country Blues was released as a musical accompaniment to the book of the same name in 1959, it was an album that helped to spearhead the revival of country blues in the early 60's. The country blues is a majestically raw and uncompromising style of music, it conveys the torridness of daily life, the upheavals, the sadness but it also shines a light on the joys of love and the freedom of living. It's a musical testament, an historical document of a time of hardship but also of resilience, it was the birth of the blues and it's emergence into a wider light. Listening to this album I'm struck by the quality and inventiveness of the music, I'm also captured by it's stark reality and the ensuing darkness.

The album starts with the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson, who is often cited as the father of the Texas blues, he began his recording career for Paramount records in late 1925 early 1926. Jefferson had recorded one side for the Okeh label and the resulting single Matchbox Blues/Black Snake Moan was a considerable hit. It has this great blues riff in the middle, almost like a shuffle that has been copied by countless guitarists over the years. His playing displays a certain intricacy but he is more than capable of rapid fire picking.  Lonnie Johnson is an artist I wasn't familiar with before hearing him on this record, his song Careless Love is a remarkable tune it's quite bleak in it's description of a man tortured by love to the point of murder. The Cannon Jug Stompers provide the familiar Walk Right In, which I remember Dr Hook doing in the late 70's! It was also recorded by the Rooftop Singers who had a big hit with it in 1963. It's a song that has a more hillbilly feel, with banjo and kazoo and has a real footapping presence. Gus Cannon hailed from Red Banks Mississippi and moved to Clarksdale at the age of 12. His professional career started around the levee camps and sawmills of the delta region. He started recording for Paramount in 1927 but by 1930 he had retired from performing. In the wake of the revival in the 1950's he started performing club and college dates and even recorded an album for the Stax label in 1963.

The brilliant Blind Willie McTell was a towering influence on blues music and also an influence to a later generation of musicians like Bob Dylan. His classic Statesboro Blues displays an intense vocal style and the classic refrain mama turn your lamplight low, turn uncle John from your door. McTell hailed from Thompson, Georgia and had begun his career in his teens, by the late 20's he was cutting sides for Victor records. Stealin Stealin by the Memphis Jug Band has some nice harmony vocal interplay and some nice kazoo work and something that I think sounds like a harmonica but with a very thin reddy sound. Sleepy John Estes was a pioneer of the crying blues, an intense vocal against the backdrop of stories of life in his home town of Brownesville. Special Agent is a true tale of his attempts to get to a recording session by hopping a freight train. Big Bill Broonzy was another unique artist, starting out in the country blues Broonzy cut some brilliant material in the late 40's early 50's that were enormously influential on the R&B scene. Bukka White was another seminal influence on the revival movement, his Fixin To die was covered by Dylan in the early 60's, it's another song that has an ethereal feel to it, as death shuffles in from the mist the song depicts the scene of a grieving family preparing for the loss of a family member.

The country blues just scratches the surface of the material available from that period and for me it's a journey I'm going to continue on and take on the winding path, maybe take it further north out of the delta and into the Appalachian Mountains, stay tuned.

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