Thank goodness for Library of Congress archivists John and Alan Lomax as well as Fisk University musicologist John Work. Without them, Mississippi blues from the 1940s - with the exception of a few performers such as Robert Petway and Tommy McClennan - might never have been documented at all. Such material often makes for a fascinating listening experience because it can be viewed as the bridge between prewar styles and the amplified Chicago variety popularized by Robert Nighthawk, Muddy Waters, et al. that took hold in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Mississippi Blues Library of Congress Recordings 1940-1942 serves as an excellent complementary piece to both Son House's Complete Library of Congress Sessions 1941-1942 and Mississippi Blues & Gospel 1934-1942 Field Recordings, which also consist of material recorded by Work and/or the Lomaxes. The former features musicians such as Leroy Williams, Fiddlin' Joe Martin, and Willie Brown as accompanists to House, although on this collection they perform as group leaders or solo. As with House's sessions, one can occasionally hear trains in the background, since these recordings from 1941 were made at the same location, a general store in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi that was in close proximity to a railway branch line. The latter title includes performances from 1940 by Lucious Curtis and Willie Ford recorded in Natchez, Mississippi in addition to a song by Willie Blackwell that was documented at Sadie Beck's Plantation in Arkansas in 1942. Mississippi Blues Library of Congress Recordings 1940-1942 contains the remainder of their material from these sessions as well as some other choice cuts. (Despite the fact that some of the tracks on these albums were not recorded in the Magnolia State, all of the featured musicians are classified as Mississippi bluesmen, thus the justification for the albums' titles.) Remarkably, there is no duplication between these three discs.
Not surprisingly - because of the era in which these performances were recorded - the lyrics of one title address the mobilization for the upcoming war (harmonicist Leroy Williams' "Uncle Sam Done Called," which also features guitar accompaniment by Willie Brown), while other songs deal with World War II itself (Honeyboy Edwards' "Army Blues" and Willie Blackwell's curiously-titled "Junior's a Jap Girl's Christmas for His Santa Claus," which features the backing guitar of Willie Brown). Although this CD maintains a consistently high standard throughout, the best performances belong to David "Honeyboy" Edwards, who amazingly is still alive aged 94 at the time of this post. Truth be told, prior to hearing his songs here, I didn't think that much of him and viewed him as something of a Mississippi Delta blues also-ran whose handlers just hyped his connection to Robert Johnson to generate record sales. Listening to his more recent recordings as well as seeing him play live twice in the 1990s continued to leave me feeling a bit underwhelmed about him. However, the performances herein completely justify his reputation, and his dexterous guitar playing on "Water Coast Blues," the aforementioned "Army Blues" (which seems to have been the inspiration for Hot Tuna's "Uncle Sam Blues"), "Spread My Raincoat Down," "Wind Howlin' Blues," and "Roamin' & Ramblin' Blues" is nothing short of amazing. His engaging vocals and and harmonica blowing are icing on the cake. Fiddlin' Joe Martin (who, despite his nickname, played mandolin and not violin) apparently set down his usual instrument in favor of a washboard on the archaic-sounding "Going to Fishing" on which he also handles the vocal duties and is backed by Willie Brown on guitar and Leroy Williams on harmonica. The pre-blues "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor" marks the only time Brown recorded under his own name other than the four sides he cut for Paramount in 1930. Guitarist Willie Ford also demonstrates a knack for songster material on "Pay Day" (a song with origins from 1901 that proto-bluesman Henry Thomas recorded as "Shanty Blues") as well as blues such as "Santa Field" ("Sante Fe"?) and "Sto' Gallery." His duet partner on the latter, Lucious Curtis, also demonstrates a diverse repertory with the excellent "High Lonesome Hill," "Train Blues," "Lonesome Highway Blues," "Mississippi River Blues," "Stagolee," "Farmin' Man Blues," and "Rubber Ball Blues." All of these titles, with the exception of "Train Blues" (a solo piece) feature excellent guitar interplay between Ford and Curtis. Finally, the resulting title of Willie Blackwell's sole performance on this disc must have resulted from a misinterpretation on the part of Alan Lomax. Blackwell was something of a one-trick pony when it came to his guitar technique, and so "Junior's a Jap Girl's Christmas," even with Willie Brown as an accompanist, sounds like much of the material he had recorded for Bluebird, rendering it interesting but not essential.
And if you were wondering, that's a Mississippi State Highway Commission map of Clarksdale on the cover.
1. Uncle Sam Done Called - Leroy Williams
2. Water Coast Blues - Honeyboy Edwards
3. Army Blues - Honeyboy Edwards
4. Going to Fishing - Fiddlin' Joe Martin
5. Spread My Raincoat Down - Honeyboy Edwards
6. Wind Howlin' Blues - Honeyboy Edwards
7. Make Me a Pallet on the Floor - Willie Brown
8. Roamin' & Ramblin' Blues - Honeyboy Edwards
9. High Lonesome Hill - Lucious Curtis
10. Payday - Willie Ford
11. Train Blues - Lucious Curtis
12. Lonesome Highway Blues - Lucious Curtis
13. Mississippi River Blues - Lucious Curtis
14. Stagolee - Lucious Curtis
15. Farmin' Man Blues - Lucious Curtis
16. Santa Field Blues (sic) - Willie Ford
17. Sto' Gallery Blues - Willie Ford
18. Rubber Ball Blues - Lucious Curtis
19. Junior's a Jap Girl's Christmas for His Santa Claus (sic) - Willie Blackwell