In his final book, Barrellhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary, recently departed blues scholar Stephen Calt defines the word "mamlish" as
A vogue term of unknown meaning that figured in half a dozen blues recordings between 1927 and 1930. It may have been facetiously nonsensical, an intensifier, or a euphemistic expletive, perhaps deriving from mamesh, a Yiddish word meaning "really, truly, literally," Ma'alish! a World War I expression used by British troops meaning "Never mind!", or (less likely) mamish, meaning "foolish, effeminate, mammyish."When I acquired this album about 16 years ago, I had no idea what the word meant. I just knew that I had to get my hands on every LP of reissued prewar blues sides that I could find. At the time I came across this title, records from the Yazoo catalogue were my primary interest nearly to the exclusion of all else. But after one look at the enticingly-titled Ed Bell's Mamlish Moan, I knew that I had to have it, even if I was not familiar with the label on which it had been released. In truth, I didn't even know that Mamlish was a record company run by many of the same collectors who were the brain trust behind Yazoo - including the usual suspects such as Calt, Nick Perls, Don Kent, Bernard Klatzko, and Michael Stewart - until I read the liner notes. But even then, I was somewhat confused. Why did the name of the label also happen to be one of the words in the title? Was this just a one-shot effort that didn't make it on to Yazoo for some reason? Back then, there was no Internet to inform me that this much ado about mamlish (the word) did not mean what I had first guessed and that Mamlish (the company) had also released several other excellent prewar blues collections in addition to this one.
Assuming that all 14 of this album's tracks feature the same person, Ed Bell merits distinction as Alabama's most frequently recorded prewar blues guitarist. For that to be true, however, sides by "Sluefoot Joe" and "Barefoot Bill" would have had to have been different instances in which he recorded under a pseudonym, which is likely but not definite. Certainly there are uncanny similarities exhibited by these three musicians on records made between 1927 and 1930, especially in regard to the vocals and, to a lesser extent, the guitar playing. Born in 1905, Bell grew up in Greenville, Alabama, in the south central part of the state. As seems to be typical for bluesmen, he spent much of his formative years learning guitar from a mentor whom he eventually bested, living a transient lifestyle, and performing in a variety of venues including street corners and country dances. According to the liner notes, Bell might have been discovered by Alabama talent scout Henry Charles, which would explain how he came to record for Paramount in 1927. Since Charles often used different names for his artists in an effort to maximize their commercial potential, it is likely that he came up with both the "Sluefoot Joe" moniker utilized on 78s released by QRS in 1929 as well as the even more colorful "Barefoot Bill from Alabama" sobriquet that appeared on sides issued by Columbia later that year and in 1930. The Great Depression, of course, intervened, and by 1933, Bell recast himself as preacher either out of a newfound religious conviction or economic necessity. Mystery surrounds his death in 1966 as different sources ascribe his demise variously to natural causes, black magic, or even murder on account of his involvement with the Civil Rights movement.
ED BELL AS BLUES MUSICIAN, 1927 (THE PHOTO ON THE
ALBUM COVER DATES FROM HIS LATER SANCTIFIED YEARS)
Bell's four songs for Paramount - "Mamlish Blues," "Mean Conductor Blues," "Ham Bone Blues," and "Frisco Whistle Blues" - represent the musician at the height of his powers. Although they contain floating verses and themes undoubtedly familiar to most prewar blues aficionados, the unique arrangements, magnificent vocals, and impressively unique guitar phrasing contribute to these performances belonging to the creme de la creme of the genre. Stephen Calt even goes as far as favorably comparing the first two numbers with the work of Charlie Patton in addition to grouping "Ham Bone" in the "Slidin' Delta-Crow Jane" family of songs and describing the figure that gives "Frisco Whistle" its dynamic character as a "fast 'pick-strum' tonic riff." The Sluefoot Joe sides - "Shouting Baby Blues," "She's a Fool," "Tooten' Out Blues," and "House Top Blues" - curiously feature Bell (in all likelihood) on vocals only, with one notable exception. The guitarist on three of these titles is the outstanding St. Louis musician Clifford Gibson, while on "Tooten' Out" (an urbanized version of "Mamlish Blues," according to Calt) he probably provides piano accompaniment to the guitar playing of "Sluefoot." Why QRS paired these two dissimilar bluesmen is unclear, though I can't complain about the end results, even if Gibson's more deliberate approach forces Bell to perform in a less idiosyncratic manner. "From Now On," "She's Got a Nice Line" (a duet with singer Pillie Bolling that is reminiscent of "It's Tight Like That"), "One More Time," "Big Rock Jail," and "Squabblin' Blues" (whose lyrics recall Henry Thomas' "Texas Worried Blues") are all 1929-1930 recordings that Columbia released under the name "Barefoot Bill." The singer once again assumes guitar-playing duties, which means that they sound more like the Paramount material from 1927. However, the liner notes point out one key difference:
As a sidepoint, even a casual listen to "Squabbling Blues" signifies that Bell almost certainly uses a different guitar from his Paramount sides. It seems one of the earliest examples of the use of a 14 fret guitar, possibly a Gibson. It appears unlikely for Bell to have executed the slide from the 19th fret on anything less than a 14 fret guitar, as most 12 fret guitars end at or before the 19th fret, rendering a smooth execution of this manoeuvre nearly impossible. Prior to 1930, a 14 fret guitar was virtually unobtainable.By the time of his last issued Columbia record, the raggy "Carry It Right Back Home," the musician was back to being called Ed Bell once again, despite referring to himself in the song as "Barefoot Bill." The man's complete biographical details will unfortunately remain unknown, and we may never be able conclusively to determine if these three bluesmen were indeed one and the same. Nevertheless, the recorded legacy Ed Bell-Sluefoot Joe-Barefoot Bill provides us with some tantalizing glimpses of Alabama's underdocumented prewar blues scene.
**This LP not only features superb liner notes a la Yazoo but also includes a booklet with additional information and lyrics for each of the songs, all scanned for your reading pleasure.
1. Mamlish Blues - Ed Bell
2. Shouting Baby Blues - Sluefoot Joe
3. From Now On - Barefoot Bill from Alabama
4. She's a Fool - Sluefoot Joe
5. Mean Conductor Blues - Ed Bell
6. She's Got a Nice Line - Pillie Bolling and Barefoot Bill
7. One More Time - Barefoot Bill from Alabama
8. Ham Bone Blues - Ed Bell
9. Big Rock Jail - Barefoot Bill from Alabama
10. Tooten' Out Blues - Sluefoot Joe
11. Frisco Whistile Blues - Ed Bell
12. Carry It Right Back Home - Ed Bell
13. House Top Blues - Sluefoot Joe
14. Squabblin' Blues - Barefoot Bill from Alabama