Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Blind Blake - Ragtime Guitar's Foremost Fingerpicker (Yazoo 1068, 1984)




 LISTEN TO "DIDDIE WA DIDDIE"

While this two-LP set bears a somewhat long-winded title, Ragtime Guitar's Foremost Fingerpicker remains the definitive Blind Blake document and is certainly preferable to its abridged twenty-three-track CD counterpart.  (Completists, of course, can indulge themselves in the five-disc All the Published Sides JSP Records box set if either Yazoo item proves to be insufficient.)  The attractive gatefold packaging features the only known photo of the musician, which is enhanced by the beautiful color tinting work of Terry Zwigoff, as well as background pattern artwork by Robert Armstrong that is stylistically reminiscent of designs popular in the 1920s and early 1930s.  In other words, had LP technology been around during Blake's lifetime, this is probably what his Greatest Hits could have looked like.  Then again, since he recorded for the notoriously stingy Paramount label, it's doubtful that the company would have produced something with such attention to detail.  Their cheapness manifests itself most prominently in the generally poor sound quality of Blake's 78s, a characteristic that resulted from the use of substandard material in the pressing process.  Nevertheless, his artistry comes through consistently throughout these performances, which range from instrumental or spoken-word-accompanied solo guitar showcases ("Blind Arthur's Breakdown," "Southern Rag," and "Seaboard Stomp") to collaborations with small jazz combos ("C.C. Pill Blues" and "Sweet Papa Low Down") to sides backing female singers Leola B. Wilson ("Black Biting Bee Blues," "Wilson Dam," and "Down the Country Blues"), Irene "Chocolate Brown" Scruggs ("Itching Heel"), and Bertha Henderson ("Let Your Love Come Down") to risque songs ("Hard Pushing Papa," "Diddie Wa Diddie," and "Righteous Blues") and stereotypical lowdown blues sides ("One Time Blues" and "Bad Feeling Blues").
 

ARTWORK RECYCLED FROM ADVERTISEMENT FOR 
BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON'S "'LECTRIC CHAIR BLUES"



Sunday, November 1, 2015

Blind Lemon Jefferson - King of the Country Blues (Yazoo L-1069, 1984)




 LISTEN TO "LONG LONESOME BLUES"

There is no disputing that Blind Lemon Jefferson qualifies as one of the most significant and influential prewar blues musicians who ever lived.  Many of the tracks on this definitive anthology, especially "Broke and Hungry," "Corrina Blues," "Match Box Blues," "Easy Rider Blues," and "Bad Luck Blues," would become standards of the genre and receive interpretations from a diverse group of artists ranging from Big Joe Turner to Carl Perkins to B.B. King.  Why, then, does Jefferson not seem to receive the same adulation as other guitarists from the 1920s and 1930s such as Charlie Patton, Skip James, and Robert Johnson?  I suspect there are a variety of reasons including but not limited to the relative profusion of his original 78s, the generally poor sonic quality of these recordings, and a publicity photo that simply does not compare favorably with those of his counterparts.  Nonetheless, he remains a justifiable legend based on the consistently high artistic quality of his sides from 1926 and 1927, on which King of the Country Blues wisely emphasizes.  Almost ninety years after it was recorded, the revolutionary and trendsetting "Long Lonesome Blues" continues to astound, with Lemon's jaw-dropping breakneck guitar playing just audible over a sea of static.


Inspired by the recent discovery of Jefferson's death certificate, I decided to take a drive into the city from my suburban Chicago home one lazy mid-July day last year for the purpose of checking out the block where he was residing at the time of his death on December 20, 1929.  The document stated he had been living at 3754 (South) Rhodes Avenue in Bronzeville on the South Side and had died in the street of the same block.  I came to an atypically somewhat desolate stretch of what is otherwise an architecturally interesting neighborhood and found absolutely nothing remaining of what might have been the blues singer's former domicile or for that matter any other buildings.  More American history for developers to bury further, I suppose.

BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON'S DEATH CERTIFICATE - CLICK TO ENLARGE

BLIND LEMON'S BLOCK - CLICK TO ENLARGE

BLIND LEMON'S LONESOME STREET BLUES - CLICK TO ENLARGE

Friday, September 4, 2015

Yazoo's History of Jazz (Yazoo L-1070, 1984)




 LISTEN TO "STOMP TIME BLUES"

My passion for prewar blues has always exceeded that for jazz from the same era, but this album deserves praise as one of the best compilations of its kind.  Released in conjunction with  R. Crumb's Early Jazz Greats trading card set, it stands out in Yazoo's catalogue as the only item devoted to this genre that doesn't focus exclusively on guitarists.  Indeed, pianists as well as horn and woodwind players dominate on these performances, with well-known names such as Fletcher Henderson, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman headlining much of the LP's second side.  Although seasoned jazz 78 collectors might scoff at those not familiar with the likes of Jimmy Noone, Jabbo Smith, or Jean Goldkette, the performances by these artists might prove to be revelatory listening experiences to the uninitiated.  The compilers did a fantastic job of placing an emphasis on the some of the most propulsive recordings known to this style of music.  Many of these cuts will, at the very least, get your toes tapping.  Music of this variety was the preeminent dance music of its day, even if most of the people who originally bought Yazoo's History of Jazz probably couldn't foxtrot to save their lives.
 
JIMMY NOONE FLANKED BY PIANIST GIDEON 
HONORE (L) & DRUMMER MEL DRAPER (R), 1936

KING OLIVER WITH BAND, 1931 (CLICK TO ENLARGE)

SIDNEY BECHET, CA. 1930


Sunday, August 16, 2015

Ma Rainey - Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Yazoo L-1071, 1985)




 LISTEN TO "DON'T FISH IN MY SEA"

Truth be told, most prewar female blues singers don't do much for me, with the notable exceptions of Memphis Minnie and Geeshie Wiley, who both also happened to be exceptional guitarists.  My completist nature was the primary motivation for purchasing this LP several years ago, although I have become more appreciative of both the "Mother of the Blues" and her protege Bessie Smith as I've gotten older.  Ma Rainey's historical importance is beyond dispute; whether you enjoy her music depends largely upon your feelings regarding her accompanists.  Fans of 1920s jazz have generally been more partial to her oeuvre because of the presence of legends such as Coleman Hawkins, Kid Ory, and Fletcher Henderson on several of her recordings, which many consider to be among the finest "classic blues" sides committed to wax.  Ever the contrarian, liner notes writer Stephen Calt invalidates this term and instead more accurately describes her material as "black vaudeville blues."  He goes on to note that her deserved prominence in this field resulted from her talent and powerful voice as opposed to her appearance.  Typical for the label, Yazoo presents the listener with Rainey in a variety of musical settings including not only vaudeville-style backing but also less complex arrangements where she was recorded with only one or two accompanists such as Jimmy Blythe, Tom Dorsey, Tampa Red, or Miles Pruitt.  As one of the first race records stars, Ma was both influenced by material in the folk blues tradition in addition to influencing those who would follow in her success.  For example, her rendition of "Stack O' Lee Blues" closely follows the lyrics of other versions, while musically-speaking it sounds more like "Frankie and Albert."  In similar fashion, "Blues Oh Blues" utilizes the melody of "Careless Love."  On the other hand, astute listeners will immediately recognize "Booze and Blues" as the inspiration for Charlie Patton's "Tom Rushen Blues."
 


MA WITH GEORGIA TOM DORSEY