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Minstrels at the Crossroads

Photo by Anthony Barbosa

If you want to be a musician playing some strain of American popular music either professionally or as a hobbyist, you get a choice of two main roads — working "organically" and developing chops on a specific instrument, or delving into the Euro-rooted post-Kraftwerk realm of electronic programming and composition — although nowadays many outstanding artists are doing both. And what’s the easiest way — other than via punk-metal-thrash, or buying a sampler and a sequencer — to start playing music for yourself without becoming another soulless GIT geek or lab technician? You pick up a few blues chords and work your own path from there . . . then you enroll at GIT to learn a million scales and licks.

Ask Bob Dylan or Beck Hansen, both of whom instinctively understood at a young age that to absorb the blues is to tap directly into the DNA of U.S. popular culture, something that’ll give you longevity as an artist, something you won’t get at that noble Hollywood institute of guitar "technology" no matter how much you fork over in tuition fees.

Here’s a slew of new and re issued blues albums recently released on CD. Somebody, somewhere cares a lot to put these out, especially the Evidence label, which has been reissuing the L&R catalog, a German blues archivist label whose specialty was recording forgotten old bluesmen in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Delmark has also been busy reissuing its own catalog of Chicago-style electric guitar–based proto–blues-soul.

While some of the discs may not necessarily be these artists’ greatest recorded works, it doesn’t really matter, since cobbled together they represent a quickie-skimp history of the blues, from the hardcore Delta style to the polished blues-rock soul of Etta James. So buy a book of chords and some of these records to practice with, and have some fun, ’cos Delta blues is the original embodiment of the DIY, Anybody Can Do It ethos that punk rockers sincerely and naively thought they invented.

 

BIG JOE WILLIAMS

No More Whiskey (Evidence/L&R)

1977–1980

A mixed bag of Big Joe songs and a few traditional folk and gospel duets with Lydia Carter, this is a rough-hewn sample of Williams’ repertoire, which numbers hundreds of songs dating back to the ’20s and earlier, when he worked the ultimate blues gig — the brothel circuit in Mississippi and Louisiana — as a duo with pianist Little Brother Montgomery.

Big Joe’s unmistakable sound was created by playing hand-crafted nine-string guitars with doubled treble strings, which gave a mandolinlike overtone to his shadowy musings, whose most obvious influence was Blind Lemon Jefferson. Conspicuously absent from this set is the blues-rock standard "Baby Please Don’t Go," which launched Van Morrison’s career at the dawn of big-time Brit-blues when a fresh, cheeky-faced session guitarist named Jimmy Page welded that unforgettable guitar-lick intro onto Them’s version of Big Joe’s most famous song.

Williams was in his mid-70s and still living in a trailer in Crawford, Mississippi, when the L&R guys rolled their tape. It was indeed "No Mo’ Whiskey" for Big Joe, finally chilling after a phenomenal 60 years on the road.

 

JAMES "SON" THOMAS

Beefsteak Blues (Evidence/L&R)

Early ’80s

Beefsteak Blues is a solid compilation of original tunes and reworkings of the late Delta-influenced guitarist-singer James "Son" Thomas, culled from three L&R albums split mostly between studio dates in Leland, Mississippi, Son’s hometown, and live shows from various tours of Germany. A disciple of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Thomas was sometimes billed as Son Ford Thomas and a bunch of other names. A buddy of R.L. Burnside (who was recently discovered by some terrifyingly hip East Coast art-noise band), Thomas’ day gig was classic bluesman: sharecropper and gravedigger combined.

Pity nobody thought to put a mike on the stage floor during Son’s live dates, when sometime traveling pal Cleveland "Broomman" Jones often conducted the fascinatingly symbolic routine of throwing dirt on the floor while Son was playing and then proceeding to sweep up, with the sound of the scraping broom serving as percussion.

 

CEPHAS & WIGGINS

Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad (Evidence/L&R)

1980

A.k.a. Bowling Green John Cephas and Harmonica Phil Wiggins, this duo carries the tradition of so-called Piedmont Blues, initially the terrain of folk-blues monuments Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, especially with the similar instrumentation — acoustic guitar and vocals with harmonica — and an upbeat feel. This album is not sonically below par and is dig-able all the way through.

Like their mentors Terry and McGhee, Cephas and Wiggins show a polished affinity with Euro-influenced ragtime and traveling minstrel shows. Echoes of the Reverend Gary Davis and Blind Boy Fuller can be detected in the folksy "rag" feel, with intricate guitar picking by Cephas and harp wailings by Wiggins, who blows both harmonica styles: away from the mike (à la Sonny Terry and Hammie Nixon) and cupped into the mike (à la Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 and Little Walter).

FRANK FROST

Deep Blues (Evidence/Appaloosa)

1991

Originally on the Appaloosa label, this recording is one of the cleaner-sounding items on today’s menu, partly because of the great band led by guitarist-producer Fred James, who used understated modern production techniques to great effect. Frost, a vocalist, harp player and writer, will be remembered for his contribution to Crossroads, the Robert Johnson film bio-drama, and here whips up a mixture of Delta and electric Chicago style. Traditional electric blues cannot sound any better.

 

YANK RACHELL’S TENNESSEE JUG BUSTERS

Mandolin Blues (Delmark)

1963

Half this album was recorded at Mike Bloomfield’s crib in Chicago in 1963, and the story goes that the sessions had to adjourn to another house ’cos harmonicist Hammie Nixon’s foot beat the floor so hard that plaster fell from the ceiling into the downstairs apartment! Hailing from Tennessee, as did his traveling and musical partner Sleepy John Estes (who also plays on these sessions), Rachell was "rediscovered" in the ’60s after years of obscurity and is now acknowledged as the main man of blues mandolin. Here’s Yank raw as hell and awesomely real, with shaky miking and the jug’s bass resonance cutting in and out.

 

JIMMY DAWKINS

Fast Fingers (Delmark)

1968-69

This is Jimmy Dawkins’ first album as a leader; he’s spent most of his career as an in-demand accompanist at West Side Chicago blues clubs, where his distinct Magic Sam/Luther Allison/Mighty Joe Young ’lectric guitar tone sets the scene. Check in on this one after you’ve worked through some rural acoustic Delta stuff and feel up to plugging into an amp.

Like label buddy Mighty Joe Young, Dawkins may not be Chicago’s most original practitioner, but you definitely want him in your band as a guitarist, and if you don’t have a band yet, then pay attention to "Fast Fingers" (Jimmy’s nickname) for tips on technique, feel and tone.

 

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG

Blues With a Touch of Soul (Delmark)

1970

Like Jimmy Dawkins’ Fast Fingers, this is Mighty Joe Young’s first album as a leader, and it represents a marriage of Magic Sam guitar style to early-’60s soul with cool trumpet–tenor sax swells. Sure enough, guitarist Dawkins also appears on this recording, as did Young on Dawkins’ album. This set, however, has a fuller sound, with more bass presence. Go with Dawkins’ record first, then progress to Young’s — but if you can’t afford both, get this one.

 

ETTA JAMES

Life, Love & the Blues (Private/Windham Hill)

1998

Etta James is a great vocal interpreter rather than a songwriter, and this recent set features classic tunes by Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Joe Tex, Willie Dixon, Sly Stone, Brook Benton and Albert King. How can you miss with songwriting in this league and a great, well-oiled band, with Etta producing the sessions herself?

You don’t need me to testify to Etta’s Hall of Fame eminence in blues, rock, jazz and even country-soul, and onstage, no male or female can out-rock Etta as she humps her stool during "I Just Wanna Make Love to You" while trouncing David Lee Roth as the world’s most accomplished air-guitar player.


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