J.W. Warren - Life Ain't Worth Livin'
Written by John MillerJ.W. Warren - Life Ain't Worth Livin', Fat Possum Records FP1024-2
This recent Fat Possum release features the music of J.W. Warren, a musician from Ariton, in southeast Alabama, who was recorded by George Mitchell in 1981 and 1982. Warren, who died in 2003, was born in 1921, so he is on the older side of an "in-between" generation of musicians that includes Frank Hovington, John Jackson, Jimmy Lee Williams, and on the younger side, John Cephas and John Dee Holman. Like these other musicians, Warren's music sounds to have been greatly influenced by recorded Blues, and much of what is most interesting about his music has to do with the way he personalized the music he picked up from recordings.
The program opens with one of Warren's more individualistic pieces, "Hoboing Into Hollywood", a 16-bar blues in dropped-D tuning that shares some of its sound with William Moore's "Old Country Rock" and "One Way Gal", though in this instance, I do not believe Warren learned from Moore's recordings, for their senses of time are quite different. Rather, I think they were both speaking a similar dropped-D "language" and taking what the guitar gives you in that position. Warren's pleasant deep voice really sets the song off well.
"Sundown Blues" is an 8-bar cover of Blind Boy Fuller in A, standard tuning. The more I listen to country blues players who were born in the teens and 20s, the more impressed I am with what an enormously influential and popular musician Blind Boy Fuller was. What's interesting, too, is how far Fuller's influence extended beyond his own stomping grounds of Winston-Salem and central North Carolina. Warren's playing does not show any trace of the style of Ed Bell, who came from much closer to where Warren grew up than Fuller did. "Trucking Little Woman" is another Fuller cover, and is probably the weakest cut in the program. Warren's guitar is out of tune in a way that is a bit tough to reconcile, his singing sounds distracted, and he loses his place, though the way that he cracks up laughing at his difficulties is pretty winning. "Little Louise", though, is sensational. Warren plays the song as a one-chord slide piece in Vastapol, and his playing shows a real relish for the dramatic possibilities of the slide style. This is a great version of this oft-recorded song, and can take its place alongside Robert Pete Williams's as a particularly stellar cover of "Louise, Louise Blues". "When Your Gal Packs Up and Leaves" is similarly in Vastapol, though Warren does not use a slide to play it. His playing shows lots of interesting and individual touches here, and it supports his singing very well.
"My Mind Gets to Wandering" finds Warren playing slide in Vastapol again, and like "Little Louise", it is a particularly strong number. "Careless Love" is a cover of Blind Boy Fuller's version of that song, and is particularly interesting in how it diverges from Fuller's. Fuller played "Careless Love" out of A position in standard tuning, but Warren places it in Spanish, giving the song a more open and drony character, and making the song his own in the process. "Rabbit on a Log" is terrific, my favorite cut on the CD. Warren plays it with a thumb-lead picking style out of Vastapol, employing a banjo technique on the guitar, much as Furry Lewis did in his version of "Old Blue". "Rabbit on a Log" is definitely a pre-blues song, and has been recorded as "Georgia Buck" in versions by Elizabeth Cotton, Etta Baker (and possibly Algia Mae Hinton) on the banjo. Warren's version is beautiful, and he shows great facility playing in this style. "The Escape of Corrina" is a long folk tale that Warren accompanies on slide in Vastapol, employing the slide for a variety of programatic effects, imitating the hounds chasing Corrina and the like.
"Hwy 51" is a version of Tommy McClennan's "New Highway 51 Blues", that Warren personalizes by playing in E rather than the G position that McClennan employed. "A Long Old Lane" is Warren's version of "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean", and he gives it the same accompaniment in Spanish tuning that he used for "Careless Love". The closing number, "You're Gonna Miss Me", takes its lyrics, I believe, from Blind Boy Fuller, though Warren's accompaniment in E, standard tuning, is his own, and really bears more similarity to Ishmon Bracey's "Saturday Blues", with lots of interesting syncopations. Warren's singing throughout the program is quite good.
I like this CD a lot, though I would not say I found it to be as exceptionally strong as the Jimmy Lee Williams CD that George Mitchell also recorded. In a way, all the discussion of Warren's playing of covers may create the impression that his music is more like his models than it actually turns out to be. Even in his closest covers of recorded blues he never approaches or appears to care to approach a meticulous, note-for-note recreation, and musically, I think that is all to the good. He was, after all, his own man and I'm glad Fat Possum has made his music available for us. PROGRAM: Hoboing Into Hollywood; Sundown Blues; Trucking Little Woman; Little Louise; When Your Gal Packs Up and Leaves; My Mind Gets to Wandering; Careless Love; The Escape of Corrina; Hwy 51; A Long Old Lane; You're Gonna Miss Me