Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33, No. 1 18 February 1970
The Story of the Blues
The Story of the Blues
The Story of the Blues is the most important blues release yet made in New Zealand. To the serious blues enthusiast, who will probably have many of the tracks on this double-album already, there may be other milestones. But to those who are only very interested in the Blues and aren't fanatics, this is an all-but definitive cross-section of blues styles and includes some of the best-known artists.
Now that the blues has become a major influence on the popular music of the world it is easy to overlook its importance as a twentieth century folk music of the Negro in the United States. A generation is growing up which associates the sounds of the blues with the music made by groups of young people playing amplified guitars and harmonicas in a manner substantially the same in San Francisco, London or Tokyo. This collection attempts to sketch in the background of its musical history, from its origins in the Southern states of America to its final phase as an independent music created by the members of a segregated minority.
Side One of the first album, titled Origins of the Blues, opens with an interesting, almost amusing piece recorded in Ghana by Oliver himself in 1964. It is a rhythmic praise song performed by Fra-Fra tribesmen and suggests the African origin of the blues.
This track is followed by songster Mississippi John Hurt recorded in 1928 with Stack-O-Lee Blues, a song well known at that time among the Negroes. On comparison with his recent recording of this ballad, Hurt's very distinctive finger style has altered very little, and I feel the original recording showed a distinct white influence. It is difficult to isolate the outstanding tracks on this album, but one of my favourites is Blind Willie McTell, the notable Georgia Bluesman, singing Travelin' Blues. McTell imitates both a train and a human voice, with a slide on his biting 12-string guitar. This elusive character recorded (as did many other blues singers) on many different labels, using various pseudonyms to avoid contractual problems.
Charley Patton, regarded by many as 'Father of the Blues' was an intensely powerful and influential Mississippi bluesman and his Stone Pony Blues is typical of his style.
Blind Lemon Jefferson and Leadbelly should need no introduction—both are legendary blues figures. Lemon's Black Snake Moan is sung with poetic sexual imagery, while Leadbelly, the virtual one-man compendium of all Negro music styles and a sadly unappreciated artist, tings a fine blues, Pig Meat Papa, with his usual driving guitar accompaniment.
Texas Alexander came from outside Leona, Texas, and is a rare example of a blues singer who does not play an instrument. His vocal style, based on freely rhytnmic field hollers and work songs, made accompaniment difficult. Guitarist Lonnie Johnson, who played on many of Alexander's recordings including this track, Broken Yo Yo, adopts an almost entirely melodic background with a simple rhythmic imitation of Alexander's voice.
The last track on this side is a common blues plea. Peg Leg Howell's Broke and Hungry Blues is a simple uptempo rowdy blues. His vocal and guitar is supported here by a wailing fiddle. Peg Leg, a heavy white-haired man, was well known on the streets of Atlanta where he and his 'Gang' played for many years.
Side Two of the first album is entitled Blues and Entertainment and deals with the lighthearted side of Negro life. It Won't Be Long is performed by brothers Robert and Charlie Hicks, who entertained the customers of the Drive-in Barbecue where they worked. They accompany their question-and-answer lyric routine with huge laughs and an unusually accented guitar style. Robert Hicks, by the way, was a popular artist in his own right recording under the name of Barbecue Bob.
The blues was also an important dance music—many small groups played in the bars and barrelhouses up and down the country. Henry Williams, vocal and guitar, and Eddie Anthony, vocal and fiddle, race along with Georgia Crawl. The famous Memphis Jook Band with Dangerous Woman and the Memphis Jug Band, led by Will Shade, with Gator Wobble also move along at great pace. These sounds are typical of the humorous and simple music popular during the 20's and 30's. Of the 'classic blues singers' the undoubted Empress was Bessie Smith. Her jazz-styled phrasing and down home emotional feavour are evident in In The House Blues. Although they did not match Bessie's exceptionally tough voice, Lillian Glinn with Shake It Down and Bertha (Chippie) Hill with Pratt City Blues were among the first females to reach a white audience. They toured widely on the T.O.B.A. (commonly referred to as Tough On Black Artists) vaudeville stage shows, interspersing their blues with popular songs. It is also interesting to hear on the Bertha Hill recording the young New Orleans trumpet player Louis Armstrong. The final track on this side is a vocal duct from Butterbeans and Susie—a corny vaudeville novelty song titled What It Takes To Bring You Back. It's not 100% blues, but it's interesting.
Side Three, headed The Thirties, Urban and Rural Blues, opens with pianist Leroy Carr, one of the most influential and best loved musicians of the 30's. He and his partner, guitarist Scrapper Blackwell, made popular a city blues style which was a softer, almost sweet combination. But Carr's melancholy voice on Midnight Hour Blues still retains the blues feel.
Chicago born pianist Jimmy Yancey accompanies vocalist Faber Smith on East St Louis Blues—a variation of Leroy Carr's famous How Long Blues.
Peetie Wheatstraw, vocal and piano, wholeheartedly welcomes legalised booze in 1935 with Good Whiskey Blues. He is helped along by Casey Bill, who plays some beautiful slide guitar. On the next track Casey puts down his own vocal with a social comment blues, W.P.A. Blues, and once again that zinging bottleneck is in evidence. Windy City Struggler but Lake introduced me to the music of bawdy bluesman Bo Carter early last year. But in the next track, Sorry Feelin Blues, Carter expresses a sad vocal with some sensitive Mississippi guitar playing.
The Delta guitar genius Robert Johnson developed an exciting instrumental and vocal method which suited his emotional and superstitious beliefs. His Little Queen of Spades is one of the few remaining Johnson tracks not previously released.
The distinctive "Dobro" guitar of Bukka White combines well with Washboard Sam's percussion on the gutsy Parchman Farm Blues. Bukka spent a considerable time in that notorious prison and apparently, when his release was secured, he didn't want to leave because the prison governor liked his music so much.
Side Three is completed by the masculine-sounding artist Memphis Minnie McKoy, one of the greatest female blues singers outside the 'Classic' style. She ably accompanies herself on guitar in the 1941 recording of Me and My Chauffeur Blues and was once rated by Big Bill Broonzy as equal to any male blues singer.
Side Four of this collection is entitled World War II and After and begins with Blind Boy Fuller, vocal and guitar, with Sonny Terry, harmonica, and I Want Some of Your Pie. Fuller, one of the East Coast greats, uses the standard up-tempo Georgia rag form with lyrics full of double meanings.
Brownie McGee, who began his recording career as Blind Boy Fuller No 2, recorded Million Lonesome Women, a comment on the Second World War's disruption of human relationships, with harp player Jordan Webb. It was soon after this track was recorded that Brownie and Sonny Terry first teamed up to form probably the best known and certainly the most enduring partnership in the history of the blues, and they are still performing together.
The third track on this side is by the notorious nomad Big Joe Williams, vocal and 9-string guitar, who performs Wild Cow Moan. Williams claimed that the extra three strings on his guitar were there to confuse people who kept wanting to borrow it. He is ably supported by a central figure in the Chicago Forties, Sonny Boy (John Lee). Williamson. Williamson was well known for his excellent harp playing and also plays a great solo on this track, helped along by Ransom Knowling on bass and Judge Riley on drums.
Another major blues influence was Big Bill Broonzy, He was partly responsible for the growth of the Chicago Blues and for getting several blues artists onto record, as well as recording his own large and varied repertoire. On an up-tempo track All By Myself, he is backed by pianist Memphis Slim.
Track Five on this last side is Roll Em Pete by vocalist Joe Turner and pianist Pete Johnson. Joe Turner is one of the best examples of a blues shouter. He was formerly a singing waiter in Kansas City and had great success with this song in the boogie-woogie boom that preceded Rhythm and Blues.
Otis Spann was taught by Big Maceo Merriweather, but has, through years of session work with Chess and the Muddy Waters Band, developed a distinctive sound of his own. His rather introspective voice is suited to the slower blues and on this track, Bloody Murder, recorded in 1968, he produces a fine blues.
I always associate Elmore James' music with excitement. His driving 12 bar blues are loud, electric and mean. His popular Dust My Blues slide guitar riff is combined here with his high-pitched asthmatic voice on Sunnyland, a blues recorded at one of his last recording sessions.
The last track on the double-album is from Johnny Shines. Shines was born in Memphis in 1915 and worked for a while with Robert Johnson. Johnson's influence is evident in Shines' playing, especially on the track on this album, I Don't Know. Although a somewhat derivative artist, Shines well executed slide work makes him one of the better bluesmen still playing in the older style.
The Story Of The Blues is well packaged with excellent liner notes by Paul Oliver, and each track has details of recording locations, dates, labels, original issue numbers and background on the personalities.
Some of the thirty-two tracks are very rare and previously unreleased—the total playing time is over two hours. Outstanding tracks are Blind Willie McTell's Travelin Blues, Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell's Midnight Hour Blues, Peetie Wheatstraw's Good Whiskey Blues, Casey Bill's W.P.A. Blues, Robert Johnson's Little Queen of Spades, Memphis Minnie's Me and My Chauffeur Blues, Big Bill Broonzy's All By Myself, Joe Turner's Roll Em Pete, Elmore James' Sunnyland and Johnny Shines' I Don't Know. Only one small criticism. The cover photo of Furry Lewis is accredited to Mississippi John Hurt.
This album is a must. Buy it!
Midge Marsden wishes to thank Bob Child for his assistance in the preparation of this review.