Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Jackson Blues 1928-1938 (Yazoo, 1968; 1991)


Jackson Blues 1928-1938 convincingly demonstrates that first-rate prewar blues from Mississippi was not limited to the Delta region. Furthermore, it presents additional evidence that "Mississippi blues" and "Delta blues" are not the same things, even though a lot of people incorrectly use the terms in an interchangeable fashion. Much of this has to do with the fact that such labels and systems of categorization have primarily been developed by white academics who come from backgrounds that are about as far removed from rural African-American culture as one can get. A topic of discussion that I often have with other blues aficionados is if it's better to classify the musicians on a geographic basis or a stylistic one. Well, I could go on, but that's a subject for an essay in its own right.

TOMMY JOHNSON, STERNO CONNOISSEUR AND BLUES GUITARIST

In addition to containing some great music, Jackson Blues is notable for several other reasons. The original 1968 vinyl version was the first proper release on Yazoo, with the company's six previously-issued titles having initially appeared on Belzona Records before its name change. As with other LPs on the label, this one has some great cover art. Where did Nick Perls find this particular photo that says a thousand words? Although probably not taken in Mississippi's capital, this picture could easily be a scene of some Jackson cop checking up on the local black folks to make sure that their cavorting wasn't getting too out of hand. And finally, this album marks one of the few times that musicologist David Evans (who authored this CD's booklet notes) collaborated with the Perls-Stephen Calt-Gayle Dean Wardlow axis (who more or less were the brains behind Yazoo Records at the time) before their eventual falling out.


CHARLIE McCOY

Some of the artists on this collection have stronger connections to Jackson than others. In many cases, as with Ishman Bracey and members of the Mississippi Sheiks, these musicians came from small towns within a 50-mile radius of the city and relocated due to the greater opportunities offered by an urban environment. Tommy Johnson took things a step further by also playing in the Delta on a regular basis. His shadow looms large over this album, even on recordings in which he was not a participant. Certainly, Johnson rivaled Charlie Patton in terms of influence over other prewar Mississippi blues musicians. At the time that Evans wrote the liners for this LP and his book Big Road Blues, he championed the former as "perhaps the most popular and influential blues musician in the state," although his Grammy Award-winning notes for Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton suggest that he may have reconsidered that particular belief to the benefit of the latter. Be that as it may, one can immediately discern Johnson's "Big Road Blues" as the inspiration for Jackson-native Willie Lofton's "Dark Road Blues," which features some fantastic string-snapping and sounds like it was played on a metal-body guitar. The Mississippi Sheiks' "Stop and Listen" is essentially a string band version of that same aforementioned song and, in turn, may have been the basis for Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightnin'." Evans comments that "Overtime Blues,"a solo recording by the Sheiks' guitarist, Walter Vincent," also bears Johnson's imprint. Another Jackson bluesman, Wilbur "Kansas Joe" McCoy (Memphis Minnie's first husband and featured here under his lesser-known pseudonym, "Mississippi Mudder"), clearly used Johnson's "Cool Drink of Water Blues" as the source for the unmistakably similar "Going Back Home." Kansas Joe's brother, multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy, plays a delicate, mandolin-like second guitar on both songs, whereas his own "Last Time Blues" showcases an impressive slide technique, which Evans points out as a rarity in blues from Jackson. He provides accompaniment to Johnson once again on "Bye Bye Blues," a piece that some blues scholars have compared unfavorably with Charlie Patton's "Pony Blues" in spite of the singer's magnificent vocals. The strange "Black Mare Blues," on which Tommy is backed and almost overwhelmed by the piano of Charley Taylor and the clarinet of Kid Ernest Mitchell, is yet another performance that is obviously related to "Pony Blues," but the question remains as to who learned it from whom. (My money is on Johnson learning it from Patton.) Johnson's unaccompanied "Lonesome Home" might be the bleakest blues recording ever made.


ISHMAN BRACEY

Among the bluesmen with more individual musical identities on this disc, Bo Carter (another member of the Mississippi Sheiks who was originally from the area near Bolton, a town to the west of Jackson) was the most accomplished. Although primarily known for his smutty double-entendre tunes, the sensational "Old Devil" shows him impeccably performing a piece of considerably older vintage with a much more sinister subject matter. Due largely to the truly stunning guitar work during the song's instrumental break, this is my favorite of the erstwhile Armenter Chatmon's plethora of sides from the 1930s. Paul Oliver once described the music of Ishman Bracey (who, if not as influential, was as representative of Jackson blues as Tommy Johnson) with the word "uncompromising," and I can think of no better adjective. With a rudimentary guitar style and a keening voice, he's an acquired taste to be sure. I'll at least vouch for the stark emotional power of "Trouble Hearted Blues" and "The Fore Day Blues," while the presence of Charley Taylor and Ernest Mitchell actually enhances "Pay Me No Mind Blues," at least in my opinion. As Yazoo was occasionally wont to do on their compilations, Jackson Blues includes a couple of tracks by obscure artists who had no discernible connection to the other musicians on the album or to the region on which it focuses. Nonetheless, "Never Drive a Stranger from Your Door" (a variation of "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor" with prominent slide guitar) and "Two Time Blues" - respectively by Willie Harris and Arthur Pettis, guitarists with somewhat tenuous connections to Mississippi in general - are both outstanding performances worthy of inclusion on this essential release their regional origins notwithstanding.

1. Dark Road Blues - Willie Lofton
2. Bye Bye Blues - Tommy Johnson
3. Never Drive a Stranger from Your Door - Willie Harris
4. Old Devil - Bo Carter
5. Stop and Listen Blues - Mississippi Sheiks
6. Last Time Blues - Charlie McCoy
7. Trouble Hearted Blues - Ishman Bracey
8. Going Back Home - Mississippi Mudder
9. Overtime Blues - Walter Vincent
10. Two Time Blues - Arthur Pettis
11. The Fore Day Blues - Ishman Bracey
12. Lonesome Home Blues - Tommy Johnson
13. Pay Me No Mind Blues - Ishman Bracey
14. Black Mare Blues - Tommy Johnson

Monday, December 27, 2010

Music Down Home - An Introduction to Negro Folk Music, U.S.A. (Folkways, 1965)


Very much a product of its time, Music Down Home - An Introduction to Negro Folk Music U.S.A. was released in the mid 1960s to complement Harold Courlander's similarly-titled book that was originally published in 1963. In the process of assembling this two-LP set, Folkways Records utilized their extensive archive of recordings made mostly during the preceding decade. As a result, this anthology not only provides a fairly comprehensive overview of African-American folk music as it was understood at the time, it also serves as an eminently listenable sampler of the label's catalogue from its most fruitful period.

RICH AMERSON

Producer Charles Edward Smith (not to be confused with Harry Smith, whose landmark Anthology of American Folk Music was also issued on Folkways) wrote his liner notes through the perspective of one of the defining phenomena of his generation, the Civil Rights movement. Thus, it is not surprising that a number of the songs, which are grouped in a fashion that corresponds with the chapters in Courlander's book, are expressions of resistance and/or liberation. Smith takes great care in explaining the definition of "down home" and presenting various examples of such music - including field hollers, play songs, spirituals, minstrel material, ballads, jug band music, and blues. In addition, he provides detailed notes on each of this set's 33 well-chosen tracks, featuring details on personnel, recording dates, the Folkways LP on which the piece originally appeared, background of the performance, and, in many instances, transcriptions of the lyrics.


WILLIE THOMAS (L) & BUTCH CAGE

With the exception of Lead Belly's well-known "Take This Hammer," all of the titles that comprise "When Life Is Big..." are from Courlander's a cappella field recordings from Alabama made in 1950. Grace Horn Dodson's "Field Call" and "Children's Call" in addition to Enoch Brown's "Complaint Call" are intriguing examples of proto-blues modes of expression that have roots in antebellum times. Annie Dodson's "Water Boy" and Rich Amerson's "Railroad 1" both straddle the line between work song and poetry, whereas "Move Members Move" by
Rosie Hibler & Family is an example of a religiously-themed "playparty song." Several more unaccompanied vocal performances taped by Courlander during his expedition in Alabama are included among the gospel selections of "Go Pray Ye...", including the title track by Earthy Annie Dodson, the hypnotic "Prayer Song" by Dock Reed and Vera Hall Ward, and Rich Amerson and Anne Coleman's lovely "King David." Noted jazz scholar Frederic Ramsey, Jr. recorded Dorothy Melton's "The Day Is Past" in 1954, while the sophistication of the venerable Fisk Jubilee Singer's "Rockin' Jerusalem" contrasts significantly with the more rough-hewn numbers in this section. "Just Got Over at Last" finds blues pianist Little Brother Montgomery capably leading a sanctified group with exceptionally rousing vocal harmonies. "When Life Is Young" presents the lullaby of "Mama's Goin' to Buy Him a Little Lap Dog" by Vera Hall Ward, a recitation of black folk tales "Brother Hawk, Brother Buzzard and Brother Rabbit" by Rich Amerson (the star of Music Down Home, if you ask me), and the youngsters' ring-game song "I'm Goin' up North - Satisfied" by the Children of East York School" - all aural documents collected by Courlander. Amerson leads off "Work Songs" with the track-lining piece "Railroad 2," which is followed by two radically different versions of a tune as old as the hills, "Lost John." The first is a wordless harmonica-with-whooping routine by Sonny Terry, with the second being an a cappella masterpiece by an anonymous group from a Texas prison camp recorded by Pete Seeger and others in 1951. The "Blues" tracks are a folkie's interpretation of the genre, meaning that the focus is on acoustic performers. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that when you've got the harmonica-backed almost-field holler of "I'm Goin' to Pack up My Things" (a "Mean Old World" variant) by Mozelle Moore, a fantastic East Coast Piedmont-flavored take on "Careless Love" by Brownie McGhee, "Let Me Go Home, Whiskey" performed by a young Snooks Eaglin, a representation of the female point of view in "You're My Man - Slick Chick Blues" by Victoria Spivey," and two excellent Big Bill Broonzy songs recorded shortly before his death, the poignant "Mule Ridin', Talking Blues" and the poignant "I Wonder When I'll Get to Be Called a Man." Rich Amerson's unaccompanied "Black Woman" brings it all back home. "Instrumental Sounds" showcases ancient banjo and jug player Gus Cannon (formerly of Cannon's Jug Stompers) solo on "Old John Booker - You Call That Gone" and with Memphis Jug Band alumni Will Shade and Charlie Burse on "Take Your Fingers Off It" as well as Furry Lewis demonstrating his impressive slide guitar licks on "John Henry," guitarist Butch Cage and fiddler Willie Thomas getting down on a rendition of "44 Blues," and Sonny Terry once again doing his thing (with a washboard band providing support) on "Sonny's Jump." Music Down Home concludes with two Alabama-centric (that state and Mississippi were considered the front lines in the battle for Civil Rights at the time) tracks, Lead Belly's "Birmingham Jail" (from his Last Sessions) and a 1961 recording of "We Shall Overcome" by the Montgomery Gospel Trio, which fuses an old black gospel song with new lyrics reflective of the era's struggle for racial equality in the United States.

SNOOKS EAGLIN

I. WHEN LIFE IS BIG...
1. Take This Hammer - Lead Belly
2. Field Call - Grace Horn Dodson
3. Children's Call - Grace Horn Dodson
4. Complaint Call - Enoch Brown
5. Water on the Wheel - Annie Dodson
6. Railroad 1 - Rich Amerson
7. Move Members Move - Rosie Hibler & Family

II. GO PRAY YE...
8. Go Pray Ye - Annie Dodson
9. The Day Is Past - Dorothy Melton
10. Prayer Song - Dock Reed & Vera Hall Ward
11. King David - Rich Amerson & Earthy Ann Coleman
12. Rockin' Jerusalem - Fisk Jubilee Singers
13. Just Got Over at Last - Little Brother Montgomery

III. WHEN LIFE IS YOUNG...
14. Mama's Goin to Buy Him a Little Lap Dog - Vera Hall Ward
15. Brother Hawk, Brother Buzzard, and Brother Rabbit - Rich Amerson
16. I'm Goin' up North - Satisfied - Children of East York School

IV. WORK SONGS
17. Railroad 2 - Rich Amerson
18. Lost John - Sonny Terry
19. Lost John - Prison Farm Work Group

V. BLUES
20. I'm Goin' to Pack up My Things - Mozelle Moore
21. Careless Love - Brownie McGhee
22. Let Me Go Home, Whiskey - Snooks Eaglin
23. You're My Man - Slick Chick Blues - Victoria Spivey
24. I Wonder When I'll Get to Be Called a Man - Big Bill Broonzy
25. Mule Ridin', Talking Blues - Big Bill Broonzy
26. Black Woman - Rich Amerson

VI. INSTRUMENTAL SOUNDS
27. Old John Booker - You Call That Gone - Gus Cannon
28. John Henry - Furry Lewis
29. Take Your Fingers Off It - Gus Cannon & Skiffle Group
30. Blues Fiddle (44 Blues) - Willie Thomas & Butch Cage
31. Sonny's Jump - Sonny Terry's Washboard Band

VII. TWO SONGS OF ALABAMA
32. Birmingham Jail - Lead Belly
33. I'm So Glad - Montgomery Gospel Trio

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Casey Bill (Weldon) - The Hawaiian Guitar Wizard 1935-1938 (Blues Collection, 1994)


Although he's definitely not my favorite prewar blues guitarist, Casey Bill Weldon was a significant figure in the genre by virtue of his commercial success during the Great Depression and for having an utterly distinctive playing style. Unfortunately, he remains a biographical cipher, a somewhat puzzling situation given the relative abundance of records released under his name during the 1930s. In fact, so little is known about Weldon that blues scholars continue to debate the possible details of his life story.

AD FOR ONE OF WELDON'S BEST-KNOWN RECORDS
NOTE HOW HE IS REFERRED TO AS "BILL CASEY"

There have long been supporters of the theory that Casey Bill Weldon is the same person as Will Weldon, a sometime guitarist in the Memphis Jug Band who also recorded two duets with fellow group member Will Shade in the late 1920s.
Given the radically different instrumental approaches heard on their respective recordings, I have always found this proposition to be highly improbable. If anything, I think it is far more likely that the moniker "Casey Bill" is a corruption of "K.C. Bill," used to note his possible Kansas City origins and to distinguish him from the similarly-named Will Weldon. However, some blues myths are often regrettably viewed as facts (cf. Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads), with the blind acceptance of Will Weldon and Casey Bill Weldon being the same person being yet another example of this phenomenon. This belief is so deeply entrenched that compilations of the latter's work often feature a photo of the former (taken from a group portrait of the Memphis Jug Band) on the album cover, with the subject of this review, The Hawaiian Guitar Wizard, being no exception. However, in recent years, another picture purporting to be Casey Bill has surfaced. Most notably, it shows the subject playing his instrument lap-style, which is universally accepted as the guitarist's modus operandi. I've come to the conclusion that these photos do not feature the same person and, as a result, we finally know what Casey Bill Weldon looked like. But I could just as easily be wrong.

FINALLY, A PHOTO OF CASEY BILL WELDON (?)

Regardless of his true identity, the man was a rather sophisticated musician for his time, typically playing with uptown small groups and displaying a penchant for articulate and original lyrics (usually credited to "William Weldon" on the record labels). Detail-conscious writers have pointed out that "The Hawaiian Guitar Wizard" did not actually perform on this type of instrument, strictly speaking. Although he did play the guitar on his lap in a Hawaiian fashion, Weldon actually utilized a National steel model that was different than those used by non-blues musicians such as Sol Hoopii and King Nawahi, for example. The Bluebird and Vocalion labels released more than 60 sides by Casey Bill during the mid to late 1930s, a total that suggests his titles must have sold in respectable numbers. These recordings feature him with established Chicago race stars like Black Bob, Tampa Red, Washboard Sam, Ransom Knowling, and others who operated within the orbit of producer Lester Melrose. Stephen Calt's liner notes from Bottleneck Trendsetters of the 1930s describe Weldon's music in the following manner:
Although Weldon's singing is in the familiar mode of Bill Broonzy, Jazz Gillum and Washboard Sam, his arrangements are unique in blues. He is one step removed from the black musical idiom. His own slide playing, which has strong treble emphasis, is less faithful to blues bottleneck playing than true Hawaiian guitar-playing, and makes use of the customary Hawaiian tuning. He may well have influenced such white slide guitarists as Leon McAuliffe, the steel guitarist for Bob Wills' Texas Playboys. While (his) tremelo runs are reminiscent of modern bluegrass dobro-playing, (his occasional use of) heavily-emphasized backbeat is a staple of Western swing.


The Hawaiian Guitar Wizard presents Weldon in a variety of settings. Numbers such as the metaphorically-rich "Somebody Changed the Lock on My Door" and "My Stove Don't Work" alongside "W.P.A. Blues," "I Got a Letter This Morning," "Casey Blues," "Big Bill Blues," the original version of the oft-covered "We Gonna Move (To the Outskirts of Town)," "I've Been Tricked," "Spider Blues," "Worried About That Woman," and "Christmas Time Blues" are among the most straight-ahead blues recordings that he did, with many of them giving the listener an idea of what Big Bill Broonzy might have sounded like had he been a slide guitarist. "Caught Us Doing It," in fact, finds him playing in the company of Broonzy as a member of the Hokum Boys and is a risque performance typical for the ensemble. Weldon appears as a member of the Washboard Rhythm Kings (which also includes Tampa Red on guitar and kazoo, Arnett Nelson on clarinet, Washboard Sam on washboard, and an unknown bassist) on the effervescent "Arlena." Additionally, this collection includes several tracks that exemplify the kind of material that was unique to Weldon, something best described as a mix between 1930s pop, jazz, western swing, and blues as exemplified by "Has My Gal Been Here," "You Just As Well Let Her Go," "The Big Boat," "Can't You Remember," "Back Door Blues," "Guitar Swing" (attributed to the Brown Bombers of Swing, an outfit that featured the group vocals of Clifford Medlock, Henry Singleton, and Calvin Dillard as well as unknown backing guitarists and a rhythm section), "You Shouldn't Do That," "Go Ahead, Buddy," and "New Round and Round." The final two cuts, "Way Down in Louisiana" and "I Believe You're Cheatin' on Me," were waxed during Weldon's last recording session in 1938 and are particularly noteworthy for featuring him on amplified steel guitar. This electric instrument helps make these songs sound rather ahead of their time and give an indication of the direction that both black and white music would follow in the years immediately after World War II. As for why Casey Bill Weldon's recording career came to a screeching halt, the explanation sadly remains a mystery.

1. Somebody Changed the Lock on My Door - Casey Bill
2. My Stove Don't Work
- Casey Bill
3. Arlena - Washboard Rhythm Kings
4. Caught Us Doing It - The Hokum Boys
5. W.P.A. Blues
- Casey Bill
6. I Got a Letter This Morning
- Casey Bill
7. Has My Gal Been Here
- Casey Bill
8. Casey Blues
- Casey Bill
9. You Just As Well Let Her Go
- Casey Bill
10. Big Bill Blues
- Casey Bill
11. The Big Boat
- Casey Bill
12. Can't You Remember?
- Casey Bill
13. We Gonna Move (To the Outskirts of Town)
- Casey Bill
14. Back Door Blues
- Casey Bill
15. I've Been Tricked - Casey Bill & His Orchestra
16. Guitar Swing - The Brown Bombers of Swing
17. Spider Blues
- Casey Bill
18. You Shouldn't Do That
- Casey Bill
19. Worried About That Woman
- Casey Bill
20. Go Ahead, Buddy
- Casey Bill
21. Christmas Time Blues
- Casey Bill & His Orchestra
22. New Round and Round
- Casey Bill & His Orchestra
23. Way Down in Louisiana
- Casey Bill
24. I Believe You're Cheatin' on Me
- Casey Bill

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Larry Johnson - Fast & Funky (Blue Goose, 1971; 1996)


Once again, I've been the recipient of some generosity from some regular blog readers. Today's post has been made possible by both Boswell, who sent me an MP3 version of this album, and Rambling Rolf, who provided the tracks in WAV format. Thanks to both of you for helping me fill some gaps in my digital music collection and for giving fellow readers another opportunity to check out Larry Johnson, arguably the most extraordinary of acoustic postwar bluesmen.

LARRY JOHNSON AT THE 1998 DC BLUES FESTIVAL

Fast & Funky, recorded in 1970 and released the following year, was Johnson's third album, which followed The Blues/A New Generation (an LP from 1966 on which he was paired with guitarist Henry Adkins) and Presenting the Country Blues (a 1969 Blue Horizon title that compiled material probably recorded in 1964). It was also the debut release for Nick Perls' fledgling Blue Goose label, a Yazoo Records subsidiary that specialized in new - as opposed to reissued - recordings of blues musicians. It's not surprising that Johnson was selected for such an honor since he was held in high esteem by 78 collectors such as Stephen Calt, who refers to him as "the only black of the current generation to perfect forgotten styles" as well as "the only living country blues artist who continually develops his musical skills for his sake rather than to perpetuate or revive them to satisfy the curiosity of the professional folklorist" in his liner notes. Additionally, the blues scholar explains how an extended convalescence in 1968 allowed the guitarist to redevelop his playing style, transforming him from the "good blues artist" displayed on A New Generation to the "great blues artist" who recorded Fast & Funky. Of course, that's just Calt's opinion, but his notes also detail how Johnson's adoption of Rev. Gary Davis-influenced "hard chords" allowed him to develop the "stride guitar" technique that gives his playing such a distinctive sound.


THEY JUST DON'T MAKE CORPORATE LOGOS LIKE THIS ANYMORE

Whereas his earlier efforts found him performing in a manner almost totally derived from the East Coast Piedmont school of blues, this album shows Johnson branching out into other regional styles of the genre with similar success. "Keep It Clean" is his unique interpretation of St. Louis bluesman Charley Jordan's signature piece, while "Four Women Blues" finds him reimagining a tune that originally appeared on his first LP. He gives new life to the old warhorse "
Nobody's Business If I Do," with his take on "Pick Poor Robin Clean" comparing favorably with Luke Jordan's original recording. "Up North Blues" (which displays similarities to "Pea Vine Blues") and "Spoonful Blues" are both nods to the immortal Charlie Patton, and "Two White Horses" could have been inspired either by the Two Poor Boys or Blind Lemon Jefferson. Other outstanding covers include "Ragged and Dirty" - apparently first waxed under this title by William (not Willie) Brown for the Library of Congress in 1942 (although the song goes back much further than that) - and Memphis Minnie's "'Frisco Town," which appears on this album as "Frisco Blues." Johnson's fantastic, roots-inspired originals - "Charley Stone," "The Beat from Rampart Street," "Cookbook," "My Game Blues" (a guitar duet with Nick Perls), and "Lordy Good Lord" - sound like the recordings of a blues singer-guitarist who just stepped out of a time machine from 1935. Yes, Larry Johnson is that great.

COVER FROM THE ORIGINAL BLUE GOOSE LP

1. Keep It Clean
2. Charley Stone
3. Four Women Blues
4. Nobody's Business If I Do
5. Pick Poor Robin Clean
6. Up North Blues
7. The Beat from Rampart Street
8. Spoonful Blues
9. Two White Horses
10. Ragged and Dirty
11. Cookbook
12. Frisco Blues
13. My Game Blues
14. Lordy Good Lord

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Eddie Gale's Ghetto Music (Blue Note, 1968; 2003)


It's not strictly rhythm and blues and it's not strictly jazz and it's not strictly Jewish folk music, so people are sometimes confused by what I mean when I use the term "ghetto" to describe what I'm doing. But they answer their own question when they put it that way. As a Black artist from a ghetto, I'm in a position to see that the entire planet Earth is a ghetto in relationship to the rest of the universe, and I'm using that term to describe my music because along with expressing my experience of Bedford-Stuyvesant where I was born, I want to express my experience of living in the whole world as well. That means being in touch with and using all kinds of expressions.

-Eddie Gale


SOME OF THE NOBLE GALE SINGERS IN THE STUDIO

Eddie Gale may not be the best-known trumpeter in jazz, but he certainly qualifies as one of the most visionary. Having played with luminaries such as Sun Ra, John Coltrane, and Cecil Taylor, his own music was the sum total of a diverse group of influences. His upbringing in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn also exposed him to a wide range of cultures that can only exist in the megalopolis of New York City. Not surprisingly, the artist's debut effort as a bandleader, Ghetto Music, defies easy categorization. Not only does this album feature a rather unconventional jazz sextet - Gale on trumpet, recorder, bird whistle, thumb piano, and steel drum; Russell Lyle on tenor sax and flute; James "Tokio" Reid and Judah Samuel on basses; and Thomas Holman and Richard Hackett on drums - the performances also include an 11-member vocal group, the Noble Gale Singers, whose most noteworthy members are lead singer Elaine Beiner and Gale's acoustic guitar-playing sister, Joann. According to the original liner notes, the project "was conceived as a full-scale musical production with costumes, acting and dramatic presentation and is a musical reflection of his life in the ghetto." Moreover, this was practically an unprecedented endeavor for Blue Note Records, not so much because of the experimental nature of the album, but more because of Gale's insistence that the label let him record with musicians who were mostly unknown outside of his neighborhood. The hands-off approach of producer Francis Wolff and engineer Rudy Van Gelder paid handsome dividends.

EDDIE GALE IN EXCELCIS

Far be it from me, some white dude from the Chicago suburbs, to explain Eddie Gale's Ghetto Music to you, but I love this record for its unique, hauntingly beautiful sound. When this minor masterpiece was reissued in 2003, the sticker on the shrinkwrap stated, "Imagine the Edwin Hawkins Singers fronting Sun Ra's band and you'll have a hint of this obscure, yet brilliantly joyous LP." That's a pretty damn good description (and I must admit that it certainly piqued my curiosity), but it perhaps overstates the free jazz element just a bit. While there are times that the music gets extremely intense, it never abandons its sense of melody. And lest you think that the title of this album is some sort of hostile Black Power statement, Gale explains, "Our society has us believing 'Oh, they're Black, so they must be with this and that'...but our society gives us those things. There's no hate in this music!" Such sentiment is readily apparent in the inspirational opening track, "The Rain," on which the Gale siblings display their considerable vocal and/or instrumental talents. If Joann almost sounds like a white folk singer on this piece, that's because Eddie has readily acknowledged the influence that Joan Baez (!) had on his sister. The dynamic "Fulton Street" musically recreates the fast-paced environment of a thoroughfare known for its markets and nightlife, while the solemn "A Understanding" represents the downside of ghetto life. The wordless vocals on the former give it at least a superficial similarity to "Danse Kalinda Ba Doom" on Dr. John's Gris-Gris.
The mood becomes more uplifting again with the almost martial "A Walk with Thee," which was inspired by Gale's participation in marching bands during his youth. The mystical epic, "Coming of Gwilu" (which evidently commemorates the birth of Gale's son), is the album's most African-sounding composition and an extremely multi-faceted performance that reveals more upon each listening.

ADDITIONAL MEMBERS OF THE NOBLE GALE SINGERS

1. The Rain
2. Fulton Street
3. A Understanding
4. A Walk with Thee
5. The Coming of Gwilu

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Honky Tonk Man: The Essential Johnny Horton 1956-1960 (Columbia/Legacy, 1996)


Anthologies are the best way to go with Johnny Horton. In spite of his talents, his discography is inconsistent, featuring as many low points as high ones. For the most part, Honky Tonk Man: The Essential Johnny Horton 1956-1960 does a fine job of separating the wheat from the chaff.


Much of the reason why this singer-guitarist didn't achieve greater stardom, according to country music authority and booklet notes writer Colin Escott, was a lack of "deep-seated commitment" to his music. A drifter from a family of drifters, Horton seemed to view being a musician as just another job that would pay the bills while he pursued more important interests like hunting, fishing, and extrasensory perception. By the early 1950s, he was a professional entertainer with a few releases on Mercury whose biggest claim to fame was marrying Hank Williams' widow. His new manager, Tillman Franks, helped him secure a contract with Columbia in 1955 and had visions of recasting him as a rockabilly. The following year, Horton had his first big hit, "Honky Tonk Man," as well as a few other singles that achieved respectable positions on the country and western charts. 1957 and 1958 were lean years, but his career peaked in 1959 and 1960 with the historically-flavored smashes "When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's Forty Below)," "The Battle of New Orleans," "Johnny Reb," "Sink the Bismark," and "North to Alaska." However, this formula eventually started to wear thin, requiring Horton and Franks to come up with another musical reinvention. They never received the opportunity to do so. Not long after allegedly having premonitions of his impending death, Horton was killed in a car accident caused by a drunk driver on November 5, 1960.

JOHNNY HORTON IN THE MIDDLE FLANKED BY TILLMAN
FRANKS ON BASS & TOMMY TOMLINSON ON ELECTRIC GUITAR

This collection's first disc predominantly features material that straddles the line between country and rockabilly, which is evident on the deservedly successful "Honky Tonk Man," "I'm a One Woman Man," "I'm Coming Home," and "The Woman I Need (Honky Tonk Mind)." However, there are also several worthwhile non-hits dating from Horton's first couple of years on Columbia, including songs with a stripped-down sound similar to early Johnny Cash and Johnny Burnette: "Take Me Like I Am," "I Don't Like I Did (Before)," "Hooray for That Little Difference," "She Knows Why," "Goodbye Lonesome (Hello, Baby Doll)," "I'll Do It Every Time," and "Let's Take the Long Way Home." Other tracks display continued musical development, such as the syncopated rhythms on "Lover's Rock," the bass strings guitar solo on the Chuck Berryish "Honky-Tonk Hardwood Floor," and the engaging arrangements on "The Wild One." The concluding four tracks come from a rare album that was recorded in early 1958 and issued exclusively to radio stations. The lame "Hot in the Sugarcane Field" is fake calypso (!), while "Wise to the Ways of a Woman" and "I Love You Baby" are so-so pop songs with hokey backing singers. "Out in New Mexico," on the other hand, is an exceptional western ballad written by Horton that would not have sounded out of place on a Marty Robbins album.

CD number two gets off to a terrible start with the rockabilly-lite of "All Grown Up." It's not necessarily that bad of a song, but those lamentably cloying female vocalists pretty much ruin things. All is forgiven, however, on the steady-rolling "Got the Bull by the Horns." Horton's aforementioned string of novelty song hits -
"When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's Forty Below)," "The Battle of New Orleans" (a bowdlerized version of Jimmy Driftwood's interpretation of an old fiddle piece commemorating Andrew Jackson's celebrated victory over the British during the War of 1812), "Johnny Reb" (notably covered by Johnny Cash), "Sink the Bismark" (perhaps intended as an apologia for the blatantly anti-British "New Orleans"), and "North to Alaska" - can arguably still be considered his finest moments, especially if you are as much of a history buff as I am. "Lost Highway" is a superb reading of a country standard, with "Words" featuring a similar vibe. "Cherokee Boogie" and "The Golden Rocket" both rock pretty convincingly as one would hope with titles such as those, while "Sal's Got a Sugar Lip" finds Horton successfully covering another Jimmie Driftwood tune. If you can get past the "hee-haws" in the chorus, then maybe you won't think that "The Electrified Donkey" is as corny as I do. While similarly rural in a thematic sense, "Ole Slew Foot" and "Sleepy-Eyed John" avoid the pitfalls of the previously-mentioned song and point to a musical direction Horton could have successfully followed had he lived long enough to develop further as an artist. "The Mansion You Stole" is a little too syrupy for my tastes, but "Evil Hearted Me" and "You Don't Move Me Baby Anymore" feature a return to that honky tonk sound that defined Horton during the beginning of his tenure with Columbia.


REMAINS OF A PICTURE SLEEVE FROM A 45 OF
"THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS" (CLICK TO ENLARGE)


Disc 1 (all tracks monaural)

1. Honky Tonk Man
2. I'm a One Woman Man
3. Take Me Like I Am
4. I Don't Like I Did (Before)
5. Hooray for That Little Difference
6. I'm Coming Home
7. She Knows Why
8. The Woman I Need (Honky Tonk Mind)
9. Goodbye Lonesome (Hello, Baby Doll)
10 I'll Do It Every Time
11. Let's Take the Long Way Home
12. Lover's Rock
13. Honky-Tonk Hardwood Floor
14. The Wild One
15. Hot in the Sugarcane Field
16. Wise to the Ways of a Woman
17. Out in New Mexico
18. I Love You Baby

Disc 2 (all tracks stereo)

1. All Grown Up
2. Got the Bull by the Horns
3. When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's Forty Below)
4. The Battle of New Orleans
5. Lost Highway
6. Cherokee Boogie
7. The Golden Rocket
8. Words
9. Johnny Reb
10. Sal's Got a Sugar Lip
11. The Electrified Donkey
12. Sink the Bismark
13. Ole Slew Foot
14. Sleepy-Eyed John
15. The Mansion You Stole
16. North to Alaska
17. Evil Hearted Me
18. You Don't Move Me Baby Anymore

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Orange Blossom Jug Five - Skiffle in Stereo (Lyrichord, 1958)


Once again, I am indebted to loyal reader Rambling Rolf for providing another fantastic contribution from his incredibly deep collection of American roots music. So far, he's already shared several items with me that had been on my want list for years but could not be found in the blogosphere. Hopefully, our teamwork will benefit others with like-minded musical tastes who have also been frustrated in previous searches.

SAMUEL CHARTERS (R) RECORDS SLEEPY JOHN ESTES IN THE EARLY 1960s

The Orange Blossom Jug Five's Skiffle in Stereo is an especially notable album for several reasons. First, it was one of the first ever stereophonic records to hit the market by virtue of its 1958 release date. Second, it is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, LP (and not a collection of singles) by a white group performing African-American music from a bygone era in a revivalist manner. And third, the band included personnel who, for the most part, would go on to achieve a greater degree of fame during subsequent decades. Interestingly, only one member of the Orange Blossom Jug Five continued as a professional musician: singer-guitarist Dave Van Ronk, best known for his role as patriarch of the early 1960s Greenwich Village Folk scene. As far as I can tell, Skiffle in Stereo seems to be his debut recording. Samuel Charters contributes on vocals, guitar, and cornet, although he would become much better known as a blues and jazz scholar, with books such as The Country Blues and Trumpet Around the Corner: The Story of New Orleans Jazz to his credit. The washboard player is Ann Danberg (future wife and eventual ex-wife of Charters), who later became well known for her photography of rediscovered blues musicians and her still-compelling biography of Jack Kerouac. Leonard Kunstadt contributes on kazoo. Around the same time that this album was issued, he started publishing the legendary Record Research magazine and, several years down the road, co-authored Jazz: A History of the New York Scene with Charters. As for his involvement with the blues, his connection was a rather direct one since he married prewar race star Victoria Spivey, with whom he started the Spivey record label in 1961. Relatively speaking, jug player Russell Glynn is the least distinguished name in the group, although I'm pretty sure that I've seen his name in books or periodicals about blues, jazz, and/or folk music.

DAVE VAN RONK (L) & ANN CHARTERS (NEE DANBERG)

Skiffle in Stereo
is very much a product of its time. The folk revival was still in its formative years, and the blues revival as a distinct phenomenon had yet to occur.
The very use of the word "skiffle" in the album's title indicates the era in which it was recorded since it was a term for jug bands or string bands that would soon fall out of favor stateside. The liner notes provide the context in which the material on this LP and the musicians who influenced the Orange Blossom Jug Five were viewed at the time. To wit, the anonymous writer of said notes refers to sides by the Memphis Jug Band and Cannon's Jug Stompers as "some of the earliest jazz recordings." Although not necessarily an incorrect perspective, such categorizations demonstrate the typical manner by which white people got into old black music during the 1950s. White blues fans as we understand them today had yet to come into existence. Overall, these performances sound only somewhat inspired by the aforementioned jug bands since there is a much stronger 1920s New Orleans vibe thanks to Charters' cornet solos and Van Ronk's well-known affinity for hot jazz. The titles of some songs will probably be familiar to collectors of prewar American music, and these selections are all inspired interpretations of classics such as "Salty Dog," "Down by the Riverside," "Trouble in Mind," and "Voice of a Porkchop." Of the remaining tracks, the ones that really stand out are those on which Van Ronk handles lead vocals, such as "Reckless Blues" and his own compositions, "You Gotta Like It" and "Long Time Man." Charters isn't bad as a singer on "Just Because," "Camille Gaspegeau," the corny "New Original Hello Alaska Statehood Joys," and "Ice Cream," but his pipes really can't fairly compete with those of "The Mayor of MacDougal Street." The two share vocals on the irresistible "Take Your Fingers Off It," while "Keepin' Thin" and "Snake Rag" are a pair of appealing instrumentals. In short, this is more than just a curio; it's a piece of vintage Americana in its own right.

LEONARD KUNSTADT (L) & VICTORIA SPIVEY

1. Just Because
2. Camille Gaspegeau
3. You Gotta Like It
4. Keepin' Thin
5. Salty Dog
6. Down by the Riverside
7. Trouble in Mind
8. New Original Hello Alaska Statehood Joys
9. Take Your Fingers Off It
10. Snake Rag
11. Reckless Blues
12. Ice Cream
13. Voice of a Porkchop
14. Long Time Man

Monday, December 13, 2010

George Abdo - The Joy of Belly Dancing (Monitor, 1975)


After one has been collecting belly dance records for a significant amount of time, it's possible to become a bit desensitized to the cheesecake cover photography. A lot of it has to do with the fact that beautiful harem girls adorning the album sleeve don't necessarily guarantee good music. The Joy of Belly Dancing, however, offers the best of both worlds: an image of the divinely curvaceous Juliana (something of a legend in the the belly dance community) gracing the packaging for vinyl with some solid Middle Eastern grooves.


Although not the most prestigious of labels, Monitor released quite a few worthwhile Middle Eastern-belly dance titles during the 1970s and 1980s. Vocalist George Abdo (who I believe is of Lebanese heritage) and His Flames of Araby Orchestra were one of their more prolific and popular acts with The Joy of Belly Dancing being the group's third effort for the company. The singer also held down a regular gig at the now-defunct Averof Restaurant & Supper Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts and was an especially popular entertainer with the Middle Eastern crowd in Boston and the rest of New England at this time. As was typical for the region, the musicians who backed "The King of Belly Dance Music" were mostly Armenians including the underrated Joseph Kouyoumjian on oud, Eli Nazarian on kanun, Ted Vartabed on violin, Chris Marashlian on electric bass, and many others.

GEORGE ABDO

As a product of the mid 1970s, this album admittedly sounds like a product of its time. Middle Eastern music purists might find the arrangements to be a little too funky for their tastes what with the electrified instruments. However, if you got into this kind of music via pioneering rock or jazz fusion experiments, you probably won't mind in the least bit. That said, it still is a little weird to hear the ELO-like electric violin on pieces such as "Raks Abdo," "A Nada," and "Raks Averof." The Arabic vocals on "Hizzi Ya Nawaim" and "Noora Ya Noora" might be a little cheesy, but there is certainly nothing wrong the instrumental passages in either song. Martin Yaffee's haunting oboe solos are the best among many highlights on "Raks El Gezlan" and "Raks Leyla," while the Flames' unique interpretation of the oft-covered "Misirlou" keeps things interesting. The album closes with the epic 11-plus minute "Raks Mustapha," which is long enough to give everybody in the band a chance to show off their chops.

1. Hizzi Ya Nawaim
2. Raks Abdo
3. Noora Ya Noora
4. Raks El Gezlan
5. Misirlou
6. Raks Leyla
7. A Nada
8. Raks Averof
9. Raks Mustapha

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Lemon Drops - Sunshower Flower Power (Cicadelic, 2009)


In the Chicagoland area, there has always been a divide between city folks and suburbanites. For those who live in Chicago itself, the 'burbs have often been derided as places filled with semi-rural yokels and nothing to do in terms of entertainment and nightlife. On the other hand, a lot of burbies consider the city to be an overpriced, crime-infested pit of depravity and corruption where blind loyalty to the local political machine is the only way to keep residential neighborhoods inhabitable. As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in between these two extremes. In many respects, the Chicago region was behind the times during the 1960s largely due to the fact that it didn't really have anything comparable to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, New York City's Greenwich Village, or Los Angeles' Sunset Strip. Much of this probably resulted from Richard J. Daley's iron-fisted rule as mayor and his blatant hostility to anything countercultural (e.g. the 1968 Democratic Convention). Little wonder then that, with a few notable exceptions like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and H.P. Lovecraft, most of the 1960s rock bands associated with Chicago - such as the Cryan' Shames, the Shadows of Knight, the American Breed, the Bachs, etc., etc. - were in fact not from the city but instead from the suburbs.

EARLY LEMON DROPS (L TO R): JEFF BRANDT, GARY WEISS, & EDDIE WEISS

One of my top three favorite groups in this category is the Lemon Drops, whose members hailed from the far northwest suburbs in the Chain o' Lakes region near the Illinois-Wisconsin border. Although turnover in personnel and failure to secure a recording contract with a major label prevented them from achieving significant commercial success, they left behind a solid and at times mind-blowing body of work for posterity. The band essentially revolved around the Weiss brothers: guitarist Eddie, drummer Gary, and songwriter-producer Reggie, who also owned and operated the Rembrandt recording studio and record label based in downstate Carbondale. The remainder of the Lemon Drops included Eddie and Gary's friends from McHenry High School: Danny Smola on lead vocals, George Sorrenson on lead guitar, Bobby Lunak on 12-string guitar, and Jeff Brandt on bass. This early 1967 lineup gave the group an average age of just less than 16 years old! Although obviously influenced by what was musically going on at the time, this unit of talented teenagers created a distinctive psychedelic folk rock sound that deserved to be more widely heard. By the time of their first recording session in May 1967, Sorrenson had quit and was replaced by a relative senior citizen, the 19-year-old Ricky Erickson. Additionally, when spring had progressed into the Summer of Love, Dick Sidman had taken over for Smola as the new singer. Despite some well-received gigs at local high schools (which were the band's only viable option for performing venues on account of their underage status), a single ("I Live in the Springtime" b/w "Listen Girl"), and numerous other recordings in the can, Reggie Weiss was not able to generate any interest among music labels. By early 1968, Erickson was gone, and the group folded. A few months later, however, they were revived as a five-piece after being approached by Buena Vista Records (a Disney subsidiary), but this eventually came to naught after the owner unexpectedly died. Nonetheless, the Lemon Drops kept plugging away by continuing to record new material and eventually relocating to California by 1969. Although Reggie had secured financial backing from Dan Herron of Alden Productions, an established figure in the music industry, the band broke up for good while ensconced at their benefactor's mansion, a time during which there was apparently more emphasis on partying than furthering their musical careers. With such an abrupt ending, it's a good thing that we have Sunshower Flower Power to document the band's story.

POSTER FOR THE BAND'S CONCERT AT WOODSTOCK (ILLINOIS) HIGH SCHOOL

As this two-CD set's booklet notes point out, it's pretty amazing that a group who released only one single managed to record in such a prolific fashion. The Lemon Drops' initial 1967 session in the studio yielded the only sides -
their aforementioned single - to see the light of day during the 1960s. Although it failed to chart due in no small part to pressing and promotional problems, "I Live in the Springtime" has retroactively been recognized as the psych-folk rock classic that it is, especially with its engagingly simplistic LSD-inspired lyrics and positively wicked fuzz guitar supplied by Ricky Erickson. Notable for its gorgeous melancholy-tinged vocal harmonies, "Listen Girl" makes for the perfect B-side. Recorded later that year, the anti-Vietnam War piece "It Happens Everyday" more or less rips off "Springtime," but Erickson's fuzz tone is even more intense, so I'll let that slide. He continues to show off his considerable guitar chops on the instrumental "Alone," while "Nobody for Me" further exhibits the group's sublimely collective singing abilities. "Sometime Ago" appears in both an earlier, more straight-ahead folk rock incarnation as well as a truly awe-inspiring raga version that ranks among the best East-West musical fusions of the 1960s. In similar fashion, "My Friend" is an earlier version of the dreamy "Theater of Your Eyes," although there is far more difference in the titles than in the performances themselves. The next group of songs come from home recordings made in January 1968. Intended as a rough draft for an LP, these tracks barely feature Gary Weiss' drum kit apparently due to space limitations in the makeshift studio. Because of the delicate nature of many of the performances, the almost total lack of percussion does not work against them, especially on "Flower Child Eyes and Arms," "Guinevere," "Love Is a Word," "Flowers on the Hillside," "Dream," "I Like You," and a truncated version of "The Theater of Your Eyes," which is mislabeled as "(acoustic)" on the first disc of this collection. "Learn to Fly," "To the Tower," and "Death Calls" feature some exquisite wailing guitar, while the primary appeal of "Saturday Be-In" (and "Hi, How Are You Today?", a retitled version of the same song from a different recording date) is the slightly humorous stoner lyrics. Two versions of the jangly "Paper Plane Flyer" were attempted afterward. The first took place in February during the group's last visit to the studio prior to their first breakup, which also produced a spare, early version of "Flower Pure." The second was taped during another session at the Weiss' house just after their reformation in September. This time, they were able to incorporate drums into the recordings, which also included the heavy, dirge-like "Maria" and the mind-expanding "Sleeping on Colors." The Lemon Drops returned to the studio in November 1968 and made several attempts at cutting a take of "Fairy Tale" (with an introduction inspired by Moby Grape's "Just Like Gene Autry: A Foxtrot") but without success. Two separate sessions from the following month yielded the transcendent "Flower Pure" and the almost British-sounding, phase-laden "Popsicle Girl" in addition to the super-heavy ode to speed "Crystal Pure" and the mellow acoustic number "Jennifer-Ann." The booklet notes don't specify, but I'm guessing that "Talk to the Animals," which is cut from the same heavy musical cloth as "Crystal Pure," dates from around the same time. And just in case the original single mix isn't enough, Sunshine Flower Power includes three alternative versions of "I Live in the Springtime" (completists should also check out the mistakenly-issued drumless mix on the Nuggets box set) as well as an alternate version of "It Happens Everyday."

Note: The booklet cover at the top of this post shows from left to right: Ricky Erickson, Danny Smola, Gary Weiss, Edddie Weiss, Bobby Lunak, and Jeff Brandt. The Weiss brothers would later go on to form early 1970s hard rock outfit Buzzsaw.

GARY (L) & EDDIE WEISS IN THE STUDIO, 1968

Disc 1

1. Sometime Ago (previously unreleased version)
2. I Live in the Springtime (previously unreleased version)
3. It Happens Everyday (previously unreleased version)
4. Sometime Ago (raga version)
5. The Theater of Your Eyes
6. Popsicle Girl
7. Flower Child Eyes and Arms
8. To the Tower
9. Death Calls
10. Saturday Be-In
11. Paper Plane Flyer (previously unreleased mix)
12. Flower Pure
13. Jennifer-Ann
14. Guinevere
15. Learn to Fly
16. Crystal Pure
17. Love Is a Word
18. The Theater of Your Eyes (acoustic)

Disc 2

1. My Friend
2. I Live in the Springtime (original single mix)
3. Listen Girl (original single mix)
4. It Happens Everyday
5. Alone (previously unreleased version)
6. Nobody for Me
7. Flowers on the Hillside
8. Dream
9. I Like You
10. Flower Pure (previously unreleased version)
11. Paper Plane Flyer (previously unreleased version)
12. Talk to the Animals
13. Maria
14. Sleeping on Colors
15. Fairy Tales (previously unreleased complete session)
16. Hi, How Are You Today?
17. I Live in the Springtime (previously unreleased early version)
18. I Live in the Springtime (extended alternate version)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Juke Joint Blues (Blues Classics, 1970)


In many respects, Juke Joint Blues can be listened to as a companion piece to the previously reviewed Rural Blues because it features blues musicians recorded during the 1940s and 1950s who, despite taking up modern amplified instruments, played a raw, often appealingly crude, form of music that was in stark contrast to the uptown styles being developed by their more sophisticated urban counterparts. The title is not totally accurate since many of the featured artists were, in fact, city dwellers at this point in their careers, even if their material had never really left the country juke joint in a figurative sense. As with Country Blues Classics Volume 1, this LP was released on the Arhoolie subsidiary Blues Classics, an imprint that specialized in releasing vintage recordings that predated the 1960s blues revival, a phenomenon in which label founder Chris Strachwitz played a key role.


Not surprisingly, this is a truly compelling collection of tracks, even if it does not possess the thematic unity its title would seem to indicate. Blues scholar Paul Oliver's typically eloquent liner notes make for interesting reading, though they don't necessarily provide that much information about the eclectic group of performers featured on this album. Several different geographical regions are represented on Juke Joint Blues, giving the listener a relatively broad overview of musicians with strong country roots who never achieved the fame of kindred bluesmen such as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. Detroit is represented by Eddie Burns' "Bad Woman Blues" (which sounds like it's just a few steps removed from the Mississippi Delta) and Harvey Hill, Jr.'s rollicking "She Fooled Me." Obscurities such as Ernest "Buddy" Lewis ("Lonesome Bedroom") and Sonny Boy Holmes ("The $64 Dollar Question" and the Lightnin' Hopkins-influenced "TNT Woman") were both recorded during the early 1950s in Los Angeles, suggesting origins from Texas or another nearby state. Although the venerable David "Honeyboy" Edwards is considered a Chicago-by-way-of-Mississippi blues musician, the A-side of his first commercial recording, "Build a Cave," was waxed in Houston in 1951. The song seems to be an updated version of his "Army Blues," a piece recorded for the Library of Congress in 1942 by Alan Lomax. The gruff-voiced Arthur "Big Boy" Spires came from a similar background and is probably best known for a handful of magnificent releases on the Chess label. "Which One Do I Love" comes from a ridiculously rare 1953 record on the short-lived Chance label. "The Lazy J" finds Texas singer and Lightnin' Hopkins disciple L.C. Williams doing his thing with the distinctive guitar of his mentor providing sympathetic accompaniment, while "Hattie Green" by Austin-based pianist and radio personality Lavada "Dr. Hepcat" Durst represents a completely different, more humorous style of blues from the Lone Star State. This LP's biggest surprise is "Repossession Blues" by Lightning Leon, a name that was in actuality a pseudonym for Arkansas rockabilly and Sun recording artist Billy Lee Riley. Examples of white guys doing the blues rarely sounded more convincing. Unlike the post-World War II blues scene in Los Angeles that almost exclusively drew its talent from the Southwest, blues from the San Francisco Bay area was more geographically diverse and just as likely to have originated from the Deep South - the music of K.C. Douglas, for example, comes to mind. Of the following pair of tracks recorded in Oakland, Jimmy Wilson's cover of Lowell Fulson's "Trouble, Trouble" represents blues originally from the first aforementioned region, with Alvin Smith's "On My Way" (which borrows the "Dust My Broom" riff and features the memorable spoken introduction, "Aw, tell me the truth, snaggletooth, and then I'll rob you of all your youth") serving as an exemplification of the latter. On the other side of the country, artists who recorded in New York City during the 1940s-1950s period tended to have Eastern Seaboard roots, as was the case with harmonicist Sonny Terry and guitarist Brownie McGhee, who never sounded grittier than they do on "Harmonica Train," an early version of "Sonny's Squall" from their revival-era Blues and Folk album. Terry also blows harp on "Bad Hangover" by Squire Walton, a mysterious but nonetheless capable singer-guitarist whose only other extant recording is the equally good flip side, "Fishtail Blues."

LIGHTNING LEON'S BETTER-KNOWN ALTER-EGO, BILLY LEE RILEY

1. Bad Woman Blues - Eddie Burns
2. Lonesome Bedroom - Ernest "Buddy" Lewis
3. She Fooled Me - Harvey Hill, Jr.
4. Build a Cave - Mr. Honey (David Edwards)
5. The Lazy J. - L.C. Williams
6. Repossession Blues - Lightning Leon (Billy Lee Riley)
7. On My Way - Alvin Smith
8. Hattie Green - Dr. Hepcat (Lavada Durst)
9. The $64 Question - Sonny Boy Holmes
10. Which One Do I Love - Arthur "Big Boy" Spires
11. Harmonica Train - Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee
12. TNT Woman - Sonny Boy Holmes
13. Trouble, Trouble - Jimmy Wilson
14. Bad Hangover - Square Walton

ARTHUR "BIG BOY" SPIRES

Monday, December 6, 2010

Kalman Balogh and the Gipsy Cimbalom Band (FolkEuropa, 2007)


This review makes for a somewhat bittersweet post because of the circumstances in which I was introduced to the music of cimbalom virtuoso Kalman Balogh. Up until fairly recently, there was a great Hungarian restaurant called the Epicurean located in the town of Hillisde, which is close to my part of the Chicago suburbs. Quality ethnic eateries are still somewhat of a novelty in this area (especially something as unexpected as Hungarian), so it was a great pleasure for my friends, family, and I to have a place where we could get langos (garlic bread), gombaleves (cream of mushroom soup), csalamade (mixed vegetable salad), csirkepaprikas (chicken paprikash - my favorite), and placki ziemiaczane (potato pancakes) when we had a craving for such things. On occasion, the Epicurean featured live music, and about three years ago, they were heavily promoting a Saturday-night appearance by a gypsy band from Budapest. I am not especially knowledgeable about this style of music and knew absolutely nothing about the group (which turned out to be Balogh's) that was scheduled to perform that evening, but something told me that it would be a good show. It did not disappoint, and I found the ensemble's improvised numbers to be some of the best dinner music that I have ever experienced. So what was so bittersweet about this event? Well, this was one of my last meals at the Epicurean before it lost its liquor license. Sometime afterward, an underage person apparently was served alcohol by an employee, and I've heard rumors that the whole thing was one of those bullshit sting operations conducted by overzealous local police who are unable or unwilling to find truly dangerous crime to fight. The restaurant had a very nice bar and an extremely impressive selection of Hungarian wines that they could no longer utilize after the license was revoked. Anyone in the food service industry knows that losing the ability to serve alcohol usually results in the establishment going out of business, and this case was no exception. The Epicurean limped along for a little while afterward, but the atmosphere was pretty depressing while it was going through its death throes. Sometime earlier this year, I think, it sadly closed its doors for good.

KALMAN BALOGH (L) & GYORGY MIHALY (R)

Fortunately, the career of Balogh, a Roma (Gypsy) from the northeastern Hungarian city of Miskolc, has not followed the same downward trajectory. Indeed, he is recognized as one of the world's foremost players of the cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer whose current form features approximately125 metal strings, with anywhere from three to five strings per note. To this non-musician, it sounds somewhat like a piano, and, to my reckoning, can be viewed as a missing link between that instrument and the zither. The cimbalom is widespread throughout central and eastern Europe and has evolved considerably over the last few hundred years. Its versatility as either a lead or accompanying instrument makes it ideal for a bandleader such as Balogh since the improvisatory nature of his group's music requires the other instrumentalists to take their turns in the solo spotlight. The other musicians include guitarist Gyorgy Mihaly, violinist Frankie Lato, trumpeter Ferenc Kovacs, saxophonist Peter Bede, and bassist Csaba Novak.

FRANKIE LATO (L) & FERENC KOVACS (R)

Aven Shavale
is the title of this CD, which I purchased from the band after their aforementioned top-notch performance at the Epicurean. Most of the instrumentals are especially representative of their sound from that evening, music that ranges between early 1900s-style cimbalom and horn klezmer to European jazz in the manner of 1930s-era Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli and all points in between. Such
performances include "Hora Jazz," "Saxy Hora & Sirba," and the breathtaking "Cimbalom Improvizacio." Are the words of the title track in Yiddish? The CD inlay card seems to translate it into Hungarian as "Gyertek Fiuk," which comes out as "Let's Go Boys" in English. Regardless, it's a lively track with some engaging vocalizing that reminds me of the solfege that can sometimes be heard on ska records. As its title suggests, "Bolgaros" sounds like Bulgarian wedding music a la Yuri Yunakov, while "Mahala" and "Moldaviai" are similarly dynamic but probably cultural products of different nationalities. Guest male and female vocalists enliven "Ederlezi," "Romnya Lel Muro Shavo" (anyone know what language this is?), "Erev Shle Shoshanin" (looks Yiddish to me), and "Zavaros A Nyarad." While this album may not appeal to everyone, those with a liking for central and eastern European musical goulash will find much to enjoy.

PETER BEDE (L) & CSABA NOVAK (R)

1. Hora Jazz
2. Aven Shavale (Let's Go Boys)
3. Bolgaros
4. Ederlezi
5. Mahala
6. Moldaviai Cimbalmos
7. Romnya Lel Muro Shavo (My Son's Getting Married)
8. Erev Shel Shoshanin (Night of the Roses)
9. Zavaros A Nyarad (The Nyarad Is Troubled)
10. Saxy Hora & Sirba
11. Cimbalom Improvizacio

SOUVENIR FROM THE EPICUREAN'S GLORY DAYS (CLICK TO ENLARGE)