Snooks Eaglin - New Orleans Street Singer
Written by John MillerSnooks Eaglin - New Orleans Street Singer, Smithsonian Folkways SFW CD 40165
It was with great excitement that I discovered this CD in a record store a couple of months ago. I will never forget the shock and amazement I felt upon first hearing this music in its first incarnation, as a Folkways album. Snooks's mastery of the guitar was so far beyond anything else I had heard that there didn't seem to be any basis for comparison; it was almost as though he existed as the sole inhabitant of a musical universe of his own creation.
Smithsonian Folkways is to be congratulated for doing this re-issue project up right, including 5 previously un-released and 3 alternate takes (most instructive) and getting Elijah Wald to write the notes, which are excellent. Wald's discussion of sources for Snooks' program is so complete, in fact, that I won't discuss sources here, but instead will refer interested parties to his liner notes for that information. I would like to indulge in some guitar-centricity, because there is not much point in talking about Snooks without obsessing on his playing.
Snooks was 22 years old when he recorded this music and already possessed of one of the most remarkable technical mechanisms any guitarist has ever had. If Blind Blake was the man who played "piano-style" guitar, Snooks played an entire band's function on his guitar. His repertoire of grooves seems unbounded here, and his approach to harmony has a wonderful freshness, often surprising, but then inevitable after the fact. His utilization of hammers and pull-offs in his runs shows a super-human degree of control and like many of the great Celtic singers, he often executes his most hair-raising flourishes on the verge of silence.
Snooks opens the program with the mambo, "Looking for a Woman", and immediately demonstrates that as a native of the Crescent City, he has in spades what Jellyroll Morton referred to as "the Spanish tinge", utilizing flamenco-ey strumming against a moving bass line. The solos have to be heard to be believed.
"Walking Blues", played in A standard, sounds to be a cover of "Drifting Blues". Snooks seemed to favor A standard for his bluest blues, and he uses it here for "I Got My Questionnaire", Mama, Don't Tear My Clothes", "Trouble In Mind", Who's Been Fooling You", Sophisticated Blues", "Come Back, Baby", "Rock Island Line", "See See Rider", "Mean Old Frisco", and "Every Day I Have The Blues". "Trouble In Mind" and "See See Rider" are relatively plainly played and are sung beautifully by Snooks; "See See Rider" is my favorite cut on the record. For "Who's Been Fooling You" and "Rock Island Line", Snooks utilizes strumming agains powerfully popped notes in the bass.
"Careless Love" is given a very sunny, upbeat interpretation in G standard. The alternate take of "Careless Love" is a real ear-opener, for he plays it in a different meter, 12/8, than the originally issued take's 4/4. This leads one to conclude that Snooks didn't have "a way" of playing a tune, but rather chose in the moment whatever way of playing the tune struck his fancy. Like Rev. Davis, Snooks seems to have preferred the closed voicing of the G position for playing in G, and he employs it on "One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer", as well.
Snooks plays "St. James Infirmary" in D minor and manages to breath some new life into that very tired number with some nifty harmonic colors. "High Society", played in C standard, has been much-celebrated, and rightfully so, for Snooks reduces an entire Dixieland band arrangement into a solo guitar piece. He has some little fluffs, but who cares? The rendition is nonetheless perfectly amazing, and I have always felt that if you never screw up, you are playing things a little too close to the vest.
"Let Me Go Home, Whiskey" is Snooks' first number in the program played in F standard, which seems to have been his favorite position for "uptown" blues. Snooks returns to F for "The Lonesome Road", "Helping Hand", and the previously unreleased take of "Drifting Blues". "The Lonesome Road" features a walking bass Ray Price type of shuffle against chords strummed on the off-beats. "Helping Hand" is Snooks' version of Jimmie Rodgers' "Waiting for A Train", and it is one of the prettiest songs on the record, with a beatifully conceived arrangement featuring a 12/8 feel and moving bassline, much like Fat's Domino's "Blueberry Hill". The previously unreleased take of "Drifting Blues" is a shocker, with Snooks drifting into previously unhinted at harmonic waters and ripping off a tremendously exciting solo in which he worries the 9 note as though he had a grudge against it.
Snooks goes to E standard for "One Room Country Shack", Mean Old World" and the previously released take of "Drifting Blues". And while Snooks certainly is every bit as expert in his execution here as on the other tunes, he does sound less distinctively himself in E, as though the key did not particularly appeal to him.
I realize that I have given Snooks's singing short shrift here; in fact, I like it quite a lot, especially on the slower numbers. I think most blues musicians mature as players before they mature as singers, though, and Snooks was already so far along instrumentally at the point these recordings were made that it would be completely unreasonable to expect vocal development to an equal degree. He sang really well then, and I'd venture to say I would like his singing from recent years even more.
If you play guitar yourself or simply enjoy great guitar-playing, you owe it to yourself to hear this recording, because it captures in time a point in the development of one of America's great musicians when he was at the top of his game, revelling in what he could do. It's really exhilarating to hear someone make music like this.
PROGRAM: Looking for a Woman; Walking Blues*; Careless Love; St. James Infirmary; High Society; I Got My Questionnaire; Let Me Go Home, Whiskey; Mama, Don't Tear My Clothes*; Trouble In Mind; The Lonesome Road; Helping Hand; One Room Country Shack*; Who's Been Foolin' You*; Drifting Blues*; Sophisticated Blues; Come Back Baby; Rock Island Line; See See Rider; One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer; Mean Old World; Mean Old Frisco; Every Day I Have The Blues; Careless Love 2*; Drifting Blues 2; The Lonesome Road Blues 2: (asterisked tunes previously unreleased)