Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Mama Let Me Lay It on You 1926-1936 (Yazoo, 1974; 1991)
I think that I picked this one up sometime during my college years or shortly thereafter back when it was possible to find a surprisingly large selection of Yazoo Records titles in the music departments of otherwise lame chain electronics stores. Yours truly was probably just about the only customer who ever bought these CDs at such places, so it was comforting to know that, in instances where I had insufficient funds in my wallet to make a purchase, a particular item would probably still be there waiting for me when I came back a week or even sometimes a month later. Unlike other Yazoo albums, Mama Let Me Lay It on You does not have a track listing on the tray card. Instead, it just features a picture - probably taken by Dorthea Lange or another photographer for the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s - of black folks getting down at a juke joint with a caption at the bottom that reads, "featuring BLIND BOY FULLER, JOSH WHITE, WILLIAM WALKER, BLIND BLAKE and others." At the time, I had a marked preference for Mississippi and Memphis bluesmen, so I wasn't especially convinced that I had to make this item a part of my collection, especially when I didn't even know what songs were on it. Anyway, it took awhile before I finally started getting to the bottom of my Yazoo wish list and eventually decided to buy this CD due to my completist tendencies.
The musicians mentioned on the aforementioned tray card led me to believe that Mama Let Me Lay It on You would focus on blues from the East Coast. After peeling off the shrink wrap and giving the booklet notes a cursory glance, I determined that for the most part I was correct. In their accompanying essay, Stephen Calt and John Miller make two important points. First, they describe the songs of the relatively refined Eastern Seaboard and Piedmont sub-genres as "generally smoother, more melodic, and less dissonant than Mississippi or St. Louis blues." Second, they point out that, despite the region's large black population, the East Coast produced only three prewar blues singers - Barbecue Bob, Blind Blake, and Tampa Red - who waxed hit records. Well, if push comes to shove, I'll still take blues from the Deep South over anything else. But as this CD abundantly makes clear, the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida also had much to offer.
"Black and Tan," most likely a slang term for oral sex, features Fulton "Blind Boy Fuller" Allen performing a number that - instrumentally speaking, of course - displays a strong Rev. Gary Davis influence, while a very young Josh White (pictured in a really nice suit on the album cover) lays down an impressive solo rendition of "Good Gal." This future darling of the folk revival probably played guitar on pianist Charlie Spand's original performance, which had been recorded a few years earlier. Although Blind Boy Fuller recorded a better-known version of "Mama Let Lay It on You" (with the "laying," of course, having sexual connotations), for some reason Yazoo decided to include Cincinnati blues guitarist Walter Coleman's interpretation, which had been recorded a couple of months earlier, in its place. The earliest recording of this song seems to have been Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy's "Can I Do It for You?" from 1930. By the time Eric von Schmidt passed it on to Bob Dylan in the early 1960s, it had become better known as "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down." "Whiskey and Gin Blues" is a trio performance including singer-harmonicist Robert Cooksey, guitarist Alfred Martin, and Bobby Leecan on banjo-mandolin. Despite its AAB verse structure, the arrangements on this song sound more string band or ragtime than blues. What little information that exists on these musicians suggests that they may have operated out of New York City or Philadelphia during the 1920s. Pretty much nothing is known about the Smith & Harper duo who recorded the lowdown "Insurance Policy Blues" and "Poor Girl." The former features an appealing harmonica and bottleneck guitar combination, and the latter finds them singing in a duet style reminiscent of some of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee's later works. "Every Day in the Week Blues" is essentially a medicine show version of the "Crow Jane"/"Sliding Delta" idiom. Blind Simmie Dooley was an elder statesman of the South Carolina blues scene, with a young Pink Anderson, his student, serving as his duet partner on this recording. Willie Walker, a contemporary of Dooley and another founding father of South Carolina blues, unfortunately recorded a mere three titles. This alternate take of "South Carolina Rag" is just ever so slightly less perfect than its issued counterpart, but with the able assistance of accompanist Sam Brooks, it remains a guitar duet tour de force. What would an East Coast blues compilation be without Blind Blake? The celebrated virtuoso displays his blues side on "Chump Man Blues," while on "Sweet Jivin' Mama" - according to the notes, "among his most esoteric works" - the listener can hear a rare example of him making mistakes. Blake's guitar provides typically expert backing to female blues singers Irene "Chocolate Brown" Scruggs and Leola B. Wilson respectively on "Itching Heel" and "Wilson Dam." Spark Plug Smith and Charlie Manson number among the blues musicians about whom we have no real biographical information. Calt and Miller seem to speculate that Smith could have been white, and indeed "Vampire Women" does possess an almost hillbilly sound. However, an advertisement photo clearly shows that he was a black singer-guitarist, although his origins remain unknown. Charlie Manson is another bluesman whose East Coast connections remain speculative at best. He may or may not have recorded guitar duets with St. Louis-based Charley Jordan as "The Two Charlies." Regardless of that possibility, most sources I've consulted confirm Jordan's presence on the unissued "Nineteen Women Blues," which the notes correctly point out bears similarities to the material by Sylvester Weaver.
1. Black and Tan - Blind Boy Fuller
2. Good Gal - Josh White
3. Mama Let Me Lay It on You - Walter Coleman
4. Whiskey and Gin Blues - Bobby Leecan & Robert Cooksey
5. Insurance Policy Blues - Smith & Harper
6. Every Day in the Week Blues - Pink Anderson & Simmie Dooley
7. Poor Girl - Smith & Harper
8. South Carolina Rag (unissued take) - Willie Walker
9. Chump Man Blues - Blind Blake
10. Itching Heel - Irene Scruggs
11. Vampire Women - Spark Plug Smith
12. Wilson Dam - Leola B. Wilson
13. Nineteen Women Blues (previously unissued) - Charlie Manson
14. Sweet Jivin' Mama - Blind Blake