Sam Collins - Jailhouse Blues
Written by John MillerSam Collins - Jailhouse Blues Yazoo 1079
This is not a new CD, but it is a great one, collecting most of the strongest titles of the under-appreciated Mississippi singer and guitarist, Sam Collins, in one place. According to the CD's liner notes, Sam Collins was born in 1887 in Louisiana, but raised across the border in McComb, Mississippi. This is in the southern portion of the state, in an area that did not produce many Country Blues musicians who were recorded in the first wave of Country Blues, in the 20s and 30s. If Sam was indeed born at the time reported, he would be placed in the company of such relative oldsters as Frank Stokes, Henry Thomas, and Gus Cannon, all of whom appear to have been in at least their forties when first recorded.
As represented in this CD's program, Sam's music appears to have had two primary strains: slide blues and sacred numbers played in Vastapol tuning and raggy and pre-blues numbers played in C, standard tuning. Whether playing in Vastapol or C, though, Sam Collins's magnificent vocals grab your attention and won't let go. Sam had an incredibly good voice, really one of the most beautiful in the history of the Blues. He knew what to do with it, too; sometimes his vocal rendition out-does the expressive content of the lyric. In "Dark Cloudy Blues" when he sings the line, "I'd rather be in Atlanta than any place I know", he delivers it so wrenchingly I find myself thinking, "Man, he REALLY wants to be in Atlanta!" Sam's approach as a slide player kind of sneaks up on you. He seems a good candidate for having played slide in the lap position, because when he goes to a IV chord he gets the full barre all the way across the neck at the fifth fret and hits the low root of the IV chord on the sixth string, a move that is much more easily accessible in lap position than with the guitar held conventionally. Moreover, with one exception, he plays none of the two or three-finger fretted chords commonly played at the base of the neck by slide players working in Vastapol. Sam's approach to slide playing is much more melodic than chordal. He most often treats what the guitar is playing as another voice, hitting response lines to his vocals. And when playing fills or response lines, he keeps playing until he has said what he has to say. As a result, he is quite often "long" in his phrasing. His tone, and inflection and accuracy of pitch in his playing are outstanding. Like Blind Willie Johnson, Sam particularly favored dramatic register changes in his phrases--he might start a phrase between the 7th and 12th frets on the first string and conclude it coming down from the third fret of the 6th string to the open sixth string. He plays IV chords sporadically on the songs that have them and never plays a V chord. It may be said that while Sam's pitch on the notes he plays with his slide is exemplary, he has more of a problem with tuning open strings; on several of the songs played here, the pitch on the open third and fourth strings is a bit out. With repeated listenings, though, any sense I might have of "wrongness" around that begins to recede, and I find myself just easing back into his sound.
Sam's picking in C has an altogether different sound. It has some similarities with Lemon Jefferson's playing in C, though it doesn't really sound derivative of him. Sam sounds as though he had a heavy reliance on a thumbpick for his work in C. He favors a lot of syncopated bass runs, and has an unusual mannerism of phrasing melody in the bass right under the vocal, hitting the same notes at the same time in the voice and guitar, with the emphasis matched up to a T. I do not recall having heard any other musician in the genre do this the way Sam does it. His raggy playing is rough in the best possible way--he would never be accused of being slick, but in fact, a lot of what he is doing is really difficult and he hits some extreme bends at high speed that would be very tough to equal, let alone surpass. He is a great riffer, too. His kind of hot wildness on this kind of material is unfortunately nowhere to be found nowadays--as I get older I find it more and more appealing than a slick "every note in its place" approach.
What of the songs themselves? "Devil In the Lion's Den", in Vastapol, shows all the characteristics discussed above, whereas "Slow Mama Slow" sounds more close to the style of Sam's neighbor, Joe Holmes, who recorded as King Solomon Hill. "Jailhouse Blues", similarly in Vastapol, has a line where Sam says he is going to "take morphine and die", a line later used by Leadbelly in "Irene, Goodnight". "Riverside Blues" is arguably Sam's hottest number in C, with enough musical ideas for three or four normal songs--it's also vaguely reminiscent of the work of fellow Mississippian Jimmie Rodgers. "New Salty Dog" is what I would characterize as great hot Ragtime, really wild, and with unusually racy lyrics. "Yellow Dog Blues" is one of Sam's most freely phrased numbers in Vastapol; the lyrics sound like he is making them up as he goes along, and sometimes he will begin a new verse in the middle of the form. It's almost as though he is not settled on his own understanding of the form yet, and it is really Country-sounding. "Pork Chop Blues", in C, sounds like it had its roots in minstrelsy or the Pop music of the turn of the century. "Dark Cloudy Blues", in C, has a tremendous signature lick that starts in the bass and is answered in the treble. "Hesitation Blues" showcases Sam's jumpy touch in C, and shares its melody with Charlie Poole's "If the River Was Whiskey" rather than Rev. Gary Davis's version of "Hesitation Blues". "It Won't Be Long" is a real oddity. It has a weird "interior monologue" sort of quality to it, and on a couple of occasions Sam sounds like he is grinding to a halt, only to start up again. He hits some supernatural, eerie notes in the vocal, too. "Do That Thing" is probably his quickest number in Vastapol--at times it almost has the sound of Kokomo Arnold. "I Want To Be Like Jesus In My Heart" is just beautiful, and on it, Sam uses the register-changing device he so often employs on the guitar in his vocal. "Loving Lady Blues" fits Sam's mold in Vastapol. His recording of "Midnight Special Blues" is the earliest of that song, and on it he engages in some unusual harmonization of the melody. For more discussion of it visit the Hearing Chord Changes thread in the Main Forum. "Lead Me All The Way" is a sacred number in which the melody as played dovetails with the sung melody much more closely than usual. The program concludes with "Graveyard Digger's Blues", a real odd man out, for it is played in A standard tuning. It is quite similar to Blind Boy Fuller's later-recorded "Lost Lover Blues", and Sam does a nifty job of it, with some interesting harmonization, not at all giving you the feeling that he was working in an unfamiliar position.
Sam Collins unfortunately had a large number of titles recorded that were never released, 14 from one session alone! I suppose we should be thankful for what we do have, though. It is enough to put together a pretty rich aural picture of one of the greatest blues singers and exciting guitarists in the style. Thanks to Yazoo for making this music available.
PROGRAM: Devil In The Lion's Den; Slow Mama Slow; The Jailhouse Blues; Riverside Blues; New Salty Dog; Yellow Dog Blues; Pork Chop Blues; Dark Cloudy Blues; Hesitation Blues; It Won't Be Long; Do That Thing; I Want To Be Like Jesus In My Heart; Loving Lady Blues; Midnight Special Blues; Lead Me All The Way; Graveyard Digger's Blues