I don’t know why you listen to country blues (or even if you do), but I listen to them because sometimes nothing else will help. Country blues is therapeutic music, last-ditch life savers and misery soothers; when I feel like I’m going over the edge, Robert Johnson or Skip James can pull me back. This is a transcendent criterion — aesthetics has very little to do with it; if I put on a record and it doesn’t make me feel better I take if off and put on something else.
That’s the functional overview — blues with a feeling — and the heart of this review. But the Columbia blues package is the most important blues release in years, so we’ll go over it record by record.
In the material which accompanies the Bessie Smith albums. Columbia admits to having altered their earlier blues reissues (including the first Robert Johnson album, and the four original Bessie Smith albums) by adding electronic echo to the original masters to give them that “hi-fi” sound. This practice has been discontinued, and if you compare matching tracks on the old Bessie Smith albums and the new ones you’ll notice that the new albums sound immeasurably liver, clearer and finer. The new Robert Johnson album, too, is a delight fidelity-wise.
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Otis Spann was a Mississippi bluesman, Muddy Waters’ half-brother, and the finest blues pianist that ever lived. Spann’s singing was sometimes a little too stylized, but his rolling, driving piano was always gloriously right. This was his first album; out of print for many years, it’s been blessedly reissued on Barnaby (a Columbia subsidiary). Spann was somewhat over-recorded (like Lightnin’ Hopkins), and as a result there is a large body of albums with material that probably felt good at the time, but doesn’t hold up too well. This one is beautiful — not an unnecessary note nor a dull track from the beginning of side one to the last tinkle on side two. Spann was a Chicago musician, but the Mississippi roots were always strong in his music; the stuff works.
Robert Lockwood Jr. (a worthy blues musician in his own right) backs Spann on guitar, and sings on a couple of tracks where Spann backs him. Actually, I like Lockwood’s singing better than Spa+J207nn’s, but the piano-guitar duets on “Take A Little Walk With Me” and “Rambling On My Mind” are so fine that the vocals are almost beside the point — Spann and Lockwood are just as together as Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, but where Scrapper went in for jazzy up-the-neck pyrotechnics, Lockwood digs down for the slow, dirty blues; and where Carr played regulation boogie-woogie, Spann rips off rolling Chicago left-hand basement back-up — sometimes sounding like Robert Johnson, and never letting you forget that the blues grow out of deep pain.
When Spann steps out front, his piano sings — high, sliding runs, so fluid they suggest bottleneck guitar; Spann knew how to play in between the cracks. Other times he keeps the piano simple — still driving like a maniac but letting his voice carry the weight of the song. His mastery of his instrument was so complete that he could effortlessly tailor his accompaniment to the mood he wanted — it’s always Spann, but it’s always different.
Muddy Waters’ band was never the same without Spann; now that Spann is gone the world of the blues will never be the same either. This album is only a small part of his legacy, but it’s as fine an album as he ever recorded. Recommended without reservation.
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Leadbelly has been dreadfully over-recorded; almost every song he ever sang has been recorded three, four or five times, and appears on as many records. This album offers nothing new in the way of material (except, possibly, for “Bull Cow,” which I don’t recall hearing before), and unfortunately the performances here are mostly inferior to those available elsewhere. The sound quality is poor — the worst of the blues package, in fact — and so thin that it’s hard to tell if Leadbelly is playing 12-string or six-string on a lot of tracks.
Folkways still has the best Leadbelly around, with the exception of a great record on Capitol (DT-1821), featuring “Western Plains.” As for the Columbia release, Leadbelly freaks may want it for historical value (there are versions of songs on it that have never been released before), but I found it disappointing.
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Sometimes Bessie Smith seems so fine that the greatness of her music is beyond question. Other times, she seems a little too Tin-Pan-Alley-commercial a product to be sold with a kernel of beauty somewhere inside. To a certain extent, both positions have some validity: Bessie was certainly a great singer (although I wonder if the term “blues singer” really applies; maybe “city blues singer” covers it), but she was certainly packaged and sold for most of her career. The parallel with Janis Joplin (who clearly saw herself as a latter-day reincarnation of Bessie) works both ways — the sexy oversell and the deep ringing truth mixed up together in a Pirandello-like now you see it/now you don’t paradox.
The early recordings were almost pure blues; the last recordings were almost pure show business. Both the first and last sessions, however, evidence a power that transcends the material and the hard sell; Bessie Smith was one of the greatest singers that ever lived, and given half a chance her magnificent voice cuts through everything else to touch us with the rock-bottom “thatness” of her soul. Frequently, though, her records were just “product.” In the middle period (the transition from blues to show-biz) the magic was diluted — although there are exceptions, the recordings from that period are less wonderful than the first and last ones.
Columbia has arranged their new Bessie Smith series to start at both ends of the spectrum and work toward the middle: thus the first double album (The World’s Greatest Blues Singer) presents the first 16 and last 16 sides. The second double album (Any Woman’s Blues) continues the two-pronged drive toward the center. Eventually, there will be three more double albums, programmed in the same way, and virtually the entire Bessie Smith canon (160 songs; she recorded 180, but 20 are lost) will be available again.
I much prefer the first album to the second one; and curiously enough, my favorite songs on the first album are among her most commercial efforts from some of the last sessions (in 1930). “On Revival Day” (originally subtitled “A Rhythmic Spiritual”) is the stereotyped image of black people a-moanin’ and a-praying’ in church — but it’s a delight anyway. Bessie tears it apart; her phrasing and melodic improvisations are nothing short of incredible. Likewise, “Black Mountain Blues” (which we can finally hear properly), “In the House Blues,” “Do Your Duty,” “Down In The Dumps,” and the immortal “Gimme A Pigfoot” (with one of my all-time favorite lines: “Gimme a reefer and a gang of gin/Blame me ’cause I’m in my sin”) are all late recordings, but they’ve got what it takes.
The second album is less remarkable. The songs sound so much alike that I find it hard to separate them; I’ve tried to listen to this set a number of times, but my attention keeps wandering. I guess it’s of inestimable historical value, or something, but on a purely subjective level I can live without it.
In a sense, I think the Bessie Smith sides suffer from their present juxtaposition with the Mississippi blues of Johnson, White and Spann. Bessie was different, and shouldn’t be judged on the same basis; nonetheless, there’s a certain gutlevel solidity that the Mississippi singers have that Bessie misses. Like I said, it isn’t fair to fault her for it, but there it is.
I think a woman should review these albums, anyway. My lady tells me that a lot of times Bessie can do it for her when male blues singers can’t. That should be looked into.
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“‘Trouble Blues,'” says Lightnin’, “which Lightnin’ Hopkins is havin at the present, which I hope it don’t last al-ways.” A few guitar notes, one of his standard figures, and the dark Texas blues start rolling down.
Lightnin’ is one of the most powerful bluesmen going, and this is probably his finest album. It was originally released in the early Sixties, and promptly went out of print. Of all Lightnin’ Hopkins’ albums it’s the one I play the most.
Lightnin’s records have always tended to be a little too homogeneous — he has a slow blues and a fast blues, and although they are intense they sound very much alike. This record, too, suffers from a certain similarity in tone from one track to the next, but it fares better than most for several reasons. For one thing, there are a couple of piano tracks which set off the guitar tracks beautifully; also, Lightnin’ seems to be pulling his vocals up from some depth of smoldering emotion that makes even standard blues (like “I’ve Had My Fun”) unusually moving. Finally, there are two extraordinary tracks: “Mister Charlie,” and “Mighty Crazy.”
“Mister Charlie” starts with a spoken introduction, kind of a short story about a kid who stutters when he gets excited. He runs to tell Mr. Charlie that his rolling mill is burning down, but he stutters so badly that he can’t get the information across. Mr. Charlie is annoyed at first, but finally tells the kid to sing if he can’t talk. Lightnin’ hits a single note on the guitar, and begins singing with a rush of released tension that sustains at the same incredible pitch for the duration of the song.