Sunday, April 17, 2011
Backwoods Blues (1926-1935) (Document, 1991)
Without question, this CD is one of the best items from Document Records' 5000-series of releases from the 1990s. I remember coveting it for quite some time before ultimately acquiring it during my grad student days about 15 years ago. For the most part, I was satisfied with the quality of the performances. This collection of prewar blues recordings has been around in the blogosphere previously, but I think someone asked me about it last year, and I'm always happy to take requests. The "Complete Recorded Works" approach particular to Document precludes it from assembling regional compilations in the same fashion that Yazoo did with several of their classic LPs from the 1960s and 1970s. Even though the former's modus operandi is often not conducive to consistent listenability, it occasionally produces brilliant results, especially when it presents the total output of prewar blues musicians who were talented but not particularly prolific and groups these sides on the same CD. Of all the albums in Document's catalogue, few, if any, succeed on this level better than Backwoods Blues.
Two extremely significant rural blues guitarists are profiled here, and their tracks alone make this disc essential to fans of this style of music. The first, James "Bo Weavil" Jackson (pictured in the hazy photo on the booklet cover), bears distinction for being one of the first of his kind to make records in 1926. Labels were frantically searching for another Blind Lemon Jefferson, whose debut 78, "Long Lonesome Blues," from earlier that year became an unexpected smash hit. Brought to the attention of Jefferson's label Paramount by Birmingham piano store owner and talent scout Harry Charles, Jackson has previously been misidentified as an East Coast bluesman but was more likely one who was based in Alabama and made intermittent forays into Mississippi. While Paul Oliver's booklet notes state that the "Sam Butler" pseudonym Jackson used on his recordings for Vocalion may have incorporated his mother's maiden name, Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow's research suggest that Charles came up with this alternate identity so he could present his street singer discovery to another label and double his profits from referral fees. It is regrettable that so little is known about Jackson as his life story would undoubtedly be as fascinating as his delightfully idiosyncratic music. No other prewar blues guitarist played as frantically as he does on Paramount sides such as the "Crow Jane" variant "Pistol Blues," the irresistibly titled "Some Scream High Yellow," and the Son House-like slide masterpiece "You Can't Keep No Brown" (the later test pressing for Vocalion is a completely different, less-interesting song). "Why Do You Moan?" almost sounds like a vaudeville piece and displays Jackson's versatility, as do his spirited renditions of gospel tunes "When the Saints Come Marching Home" (aka "When the Saints Go Marching In"), "I'm on My Way to the Kingdom Land," "Christians Fight On, Your Time Ain't Long," and "Heaven Is My View." Upon further listening, "Devil and My Brown Blues" reveals itself to be an interpretation of "The Ballad of the Boll Weevil," the song from which Jackson appropriated his nickname. Strangely enough, this test pressing was recorded for Vocalion, the label that billed him as "Sam Butler," but apparently was never attempted for Paramount. "Poor Boy" is actually another performance of "You Can't Keep No Brown" (Paramount version) that is marred by its sluggish execution, while the Charles-penned "Jefferson County Blues" became something of an Alabama blues standard by virtue of additional versions by Priscilla Stewart and William Harris (who waxed it as "Keep Your Man out of Birmingham").
King Solomon Hill is the second of the two exceptional guitarists whose works are collected on Backwoods Blues. It would be impossible to mistake him for any other blues musician, as one listen to his unique vocals and lap-style bottleneck approach will readily demonstrate. Quite simply, no one else before or since has sounded anything like Hill, suggesting that his 1932 sides for Paramount recorded just before the label's collapse are artistry of the highest caliber. He recasts Lonnie Johnson's "She's Making Whoopee in Hell Tonight" as "Whoopee Blues" (the first take not featuring his usual falsetto) and Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe's "What Fault You Find of Me?" as "Tell Me Baby," both being outstanding examples of his singular genius for interpretation. His own extradordinary compositions, "Down on My Bended Knee" and the incomparable "Gone Dead Train" have no parallels in the history of recorded blues. (Two additional King Solomon Hill sides would surface in 2002, one of which is available here.) Hill's true identity became the focus of a particularly vicious disagreement between blues scholars Gayle Dean Wardlow and David Evans. The former contends that a musician named Joe Holmes adopted King Solomon Hill (a small community that was in the vicinity of Minden, Louisiana) as his nom de disc, a view that has largely been accepted as fact in today's blues community. Meanwhile, Evans has not been able to present any evidence that convincingly refutes Wardlow's assertion.
Unfortunately, nothing is known about the other two artists whose material is included on Backwoods Blues. Bobby Grant was another rural bluesman who was recorded early (1927) and whose driving slide guitar showpieces "Nappy Head Blues" and "Lonesome Atlanta Blues" denote a possible Mississippi background, the title of the latter notwithstanding. Regarding the haunting "Hard Time Blues" and "California Desert Blues," I can't help but wonder if Lane Harden was actually a hillbilly performer whose lone 78 from 1935 was marketed as a race record. While his compelling guitar playing comes off as legitimately bluesy, his vocals could very well be that of white singer. Then again, Mississippi John Hurt and Sleepy John Estes don't sound very "black" on some of their vintage sides, thus proving that one can never be too sure about racial identity on certain obscure recordings from the prewar era.
1. Pistol Blues - Bo Weavil Jackson
2. Some Scream High Yellow - Bo Weavil Jackson
3. You Can't Keep No Brown - Bo Weavil Jackson
4. When the Saints Come Marching Home - Bo Weavil Jackson
5. I'm on My Way to the Kingdom Land - Bo Weavil Jackson
6. Why Do You Moan? - Bo Weavil Jackson
7. Devil and My Brown Blues (test) - Sam Butler (Bo Weavil Jackson)
8. Poor Boy Blues - Sam Butler (Bo Weavil Jackson)
9. Jefferson County Blues - Sam Butler (Bo Weavil Jackson)
10. Jefferson County Blues (alt. take) - Sam Butler (Bo Weavil Jackson)
11. You Can't Keep No Brown (test) - Sam Butler (Bo Weavil Jackson)
12. Christians Fight On, Your Time Ain't Long - Sam Butler (Bo Weavil Jackson)
13. Heaven Is My View - Sam Butler (Bo Weavil Jackson)
14. Nappy Head Blues - Bobby Grant
15. Lonesome Atlanta Blues - Bobby Grant
16. Whoopee Blues (first take) - King Solomon Hill
17. Whoopee Blues (second take) - King Solomon Hill
18. Down on My Bended Knee (first take) - King Solomon Hill
19. Down on My Bended Knee (second take) - King Solomon Hill
20. The Gone Dead Train - King Solomon Hill
21. Tell Me Baby - King Solomon Hill
22. Hard Time Blues - Lane Hardin
23. California Desert Blues - Lane Hardin