Building a Blues Library, Part 1 of 3: Rural Blues

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Skip James playing guitar offstage at a 1960s folk festival, as Mississippi John Hurt looks on.

By Bradley Bambarger <2007>

The blues is the soul of American popular music, a key ingredient in jazz, the backbone of rock’n’roll, a spiritual antecedent of hip-hop. Both a 12-bar form and just a feeling, the blues was created by the descendants of African slaves in the rural South as the 19th century turned into the 20th. Simple but wondrously pliable, the blues not only provided a community with a cathartic outlet for lament; it also served as a soundtrack for people of all stripes who needed to laugh to keep from crying.

Many listeners have been clued into the blues by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton or Led Zeppelin, who covered old blues tunes and incorporated the feel into their own songs. When these musicians were young, it could be difficult to find old blues records. Even before Keith Richards had written a single song with Mick Jagger, he knew his future fellow Rolling Stone was cool — he was carrying an import Muddy Waters LP under his arm.

In the late CD reissue era, it’s far easier to wade back through the gene pool from rock to the deepest blues. It can be like a treasure hunt to hear versions of “Sittin’ on Top of the World” by Jack White or Cream and go back to Howlin’ Wolf and then Bob Wills, thinking their ’50s versions were first — only to find that the Mississippi Sheiks recorded the song in 1930. And the Sheiks only put new words to a tune that had been recorded by Charley Patton in the ’20s and was passed along orally long before that.

To follow the thread of the blues is to realize that even as our culture has changed enormously, the fears and hopes driving it haven’t all that much. In the oldest country blues, there are songs about sex and money, about racism, war and natural disasters, about love and its loss. It’s not hard to hear the echoes of a prewar bluesman in the yowl of a band down the street.

One can listen to the blues like an ever-unfolding story. So, this first installment in a multi-part series starts at the beginning, suggesting 10 CDs of the music in its formative, rural style as the cornerstone for building a blues library. This series will trace the blues from Deep South plantations and small-town juke joints to big-city clubs and concert halls. The next chapter will follow the blues up north to Chicago and beyond.

Blind Lemon Jefferson: Black Snake Moan (Snapper)

Born in Texas in the 1890s, Blind Lemon Jefferson was one of the first popular male blues singers on records, his high, expressive wail ideal for bending a listener’s ear. Jefferson also had a wide repertoire, from jazzy party tunes and revival-tent singalongs to the sexual double-entendre of “Black Snake Moan.” Hit records couldn’t save Jefferson from freezing to death in a 1929 Chicago snowstorm, but his spirit lived on through covers of his groovy “Matchbox Blues” by Leadbelly and The Beatles. There are many Jefferson compilations, but this inexpensive Snapper disc is a good starting point, with 20 well-chosen tracks and surprisingly decent sound.

Mississippi Sheiks: Stop and Listen (Yazoo)

A Delta-area family band led by fiddler Lonnie Chatmon, the Mississippi Sheiks were stars between the world wars. Muddy Waters “walked 10 miles to see them play,” he recalled. “They was high time through there, making them good records, man.” The Sheiks scored a smash hit with “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” which became a timeless standard for blues, country and rock artists alike. The group holds special appeal for Bob Dylan, whose several Sheik covers include the puzzled, plaintive “World’s Gone Wrong.” Like Magnolia State country pioneer Jimmie Rodgers, the Sheiks had an easy tunefulness that drew both white and black audiences. The group was funny, too. One of its most entertaining songs skewers a philandering minister — “He calls that religion/ But I know he’s going to hell when he dies.”

Skip James: Complete Early Recordings (Yazoo)

From Bentonia, Miss., Skip James possessed one of the most haunted voices in the blues, a high-tenor cry that can touch a listener to the marrow even through the mist of time. He was also rare in his ability to accompany his singing with oddly tuned, intricately finger-picked guitar or eerily funky piano playing. Duality was part of his personality; like so many Southern musicians, James was torn between the Lord’s call and the Devil’s music. His 1931 recordings for Paramount are some of the most magical in the blues canon, including such totems as the slow-tolling “Devil Got My Woman” and manically spiritualized “I’m So Glad” (covered by Cream). Rediscovered in the ’60s, James was able to benefit from a second career during the folk boom, playing the Newport Folk Festival and reinventing many of his songs on record for Vanguard.

Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings (Columbia/Legacy)

Robert Johnson (1911–38) is the most iconic early bluesman for a couple reasons. One is the ever-resonant legend that the singer/guitarist went down to the crossroads, selling his soul to the devil in order to be able to play the blues better than anyone else. Then there’s the fact that Johnson, although influenced by such older Delta neighbors as Charley Patton, was a singular songwriter. His music grabs each succeeding generation anew with its rhythmic pull and lyrical poetry. A listener may know covers by the Stones (“Love in Vain”) and Clapton (“Ramblin’ on My Mind”) or Cassandra Wilson (“Come on in My Kitchen”) and even Sting (“Hellhound on My Trail”), but to listen to the 29 songs of this definitive two-CD set is to realize that every one has been covered myriad times — and for good reason. Johnson is the Bach of the blues, maybe its Shakespeare.

Blind Willie McTell: The Best of Blind Willie McTell (Yazoo)

Bob Dylan named one of his greatest latter-day songs after a prewar Georgia singer/guitar slinger, with a chorus of, “No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.” The Allman Brothers felt it, too, turning McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” into an epic jam. But McTell was a songster, as adept at singing pop ditties in his shivery voice or chiming ragtime on a 12-string guitar as he was playing the blues. This lovingly remastered compilation of his Victor and Columbia recordings surveys his repertoire from “Statesboro Blues” to the virtuoso novelty “Atlanta Strut.”

Sonny Boy Williamson I: Bluebird Blues (Bluebird/RCA)

This Sonny Boy Williamson is the Tennessee-born John Lee Williamson — not to be confused with the later Aleck “Rice” Miller, who famously assumed the Sonny Boy Williamson brand name and would record for Chess. Sonny Boy I’s soulful vocal slurs and windblown harmonica made him an original Chicago star before he was murdered at age 34 in 1948. His stylish versions of such country-blues staples as “Good Morning Little School Girl,” “Early in the Morning” and “Sugar Mama” became templates for later hits. Like all the reissues in Bluebird’s “When the Sun Goes Down: Secret History of Rock’n’Roll” line, this disc boasts state-of-the-art remastering and meticulous annotation.

Son House: The Original Delta Blues (Columbia/Legacy)

An influence on Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, Son House started recording in 1930, but the Clarksdale, Miss., native’s career was derailed by the Depression and World War II. But, like Skip James, House was brought out of anonymity by ’60s blues aficionados, his bottleneck guitar style intact, his voice more commanding than ever. This bargain-priced disc draws from his 1965 studio sessions, which yielded classic versions of his “Preachin’ Blues” and “Death Letter” (which the White Stripes covered 35 years later). He also gives a soul-shaking a cappella rendition of the gospel traditional “John the Revelator,” a performance by which all others are measured.

Muddy Waters: Folk Singer (Chess/Universal)

Muddy Waters practically invented rock’n’roll in ’50s Chicago with his supercharged electric blues. But the former McKinley Morganfield also made one of the first — and best ever — unplugged records, spurred by a record company out to capitalize on the mid-’60s folk-music craze. It was a bright idea after all, as Waters was born on a Delta plantation (and had been recorded there as a young man by the Library of Congress). Going back to his acoustic, country-boy roots made for sublime art. Accompanied by Willie Dixon on double-bass and a young Buddy Guy on guitar, Waters delivers deeply felt, beautifully recorded versions of his most profound songs, including “Feel Like Going Home” and “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had.”

Staples Singers: Freedom Highway (Columbia/Legacy)

Southern performers often sang both gospel and blues — one being the flipside of the other in black life. With the Staples Singers, the lonely ring of Pop Staples’ Delta-bred guitar underscores the gospel/blues relationship, as do the indigo notes in the country-church voices of Mavis and her siblings. Recorded during the Civil Rights movement, this disc has an urgency that goes beyond any camp meeting. The Staples hear new life in the old blues “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” (as Led Zeppelin would later), and “Move Along Train” carries the weight of the world — one definition of the blues.

Junior Kimbrough: You Better Run: The Essential Junior Kimbrough (Fat Possum)

The late Junior Kimbrough may have played his electric juke-joint drones at punk-rock volume, but his north Mississippi hill-country blues is so raw and rural that it harks back to Africa like little else in American music. Whether his songs are filled with breast-beating lust or lost-in-the-night despair, the tone is archetypal, the circular grooves endless. It’s as if the tunes have always been sung, and Kimbrough just pulled them out of the dark. Ever his own man, he didn’t make a record until age 62, dying five years later, in 1998. Fat Possum did the Lord’s own work documenting Kimbrough and such peers as R.L. Burnside (who died in 2005). The label also commissioned a tribute album to Kimbrough, Sunday Nights, with alt-rockers from Iggy Pop to The Black Keys paying homage to a man who channeled the source of everything they’re about.

Further listening: The ghost of raw-voiced Delta-blues progenitor Charley Patton lives in a super-deluxe, seven-CD boxed set that’s as entertaining as it is scholarly (Screamin’ & Hollerin’ the Blues, Revenant). Prolific Texan Lightnin’ Hopkins specialized in laconic guitar grooves that led from country to city (Mojo Hand, Rhino). In the ’50s, Big Bill Broonzy revisited his prewar Southern roots for the Folkways label (scrupulously reissued as Trouble in Mind, Smithsonian Folkways). And in the ’60s, J.B. Lenoir traded Chicago electric for rural acoustic as he addressed the hard times of Vietnam and the Civil Rights struggle (the Alabama Blues and Down in Mississippi LPs now on one CD, from Evidence).

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The Staples Singers circa late 1950s/early 1960s.

(Originally published in 2007 as a part one of a three-part series in The Star-Ledger of New Jersey.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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