A Richer Tradition CD A

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A Richer Tradition - CD:A 1923 - 1937
Country Blues And String Band Music 1923 - 1942

JSP7798 4 CD box set released Nov 6 2007. Selections and liner notes (reprinted below) by Neil Slaven, artwork by aitkendesign@mac.com
This compilation had its germination in the opening of the notes for Mississippi Blues (JSP7781). It was observed how the variety and originality that country blues artists brought to the recording studio during the 1920s were successively compromised and stifled by the Depression-induced economies record companies applied to their businesses. Diversity was sacrificed to standardisation, choice disappeared. The mass migration of black families to the Northern conurbations contributed to the manipulation of taste. New arrivals in Chicago and Detroit readily adapted to the urban sophistication they encountered, which encouraged them to discard the country way of life.

Old habits never completely die, of course, and in the 1930s artists like Big Joe Williams and Tommy McClennan provided a riotous reminder of the way things had been. But their raucous individuality beat ineffectually at the doors of the haunts in which Lonnie Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie held sway. Country habits were still reflected in their songs, too, but they were portrayed as a nostalgia for old ways that both artist and audience congratulated themselves for having put behind them. As harsh and oppressive as they were, those country ways still drew significant numbers back south, where living under a familiar yoke was preferable to the uncertain freedoms vaguely promised in the north.

Until they realised there was profit in marketing blues music to black communities, record companies approached the task with tepid enthusiasm. Then OKeh released Mamie Smith's That Thing Called Love and its successor, Crazy Blues, in July and November 1920, and it was obvious they were on the threshold of a potentially vast market. Other companies joined in the melee and within a couple of years, Smith had been joined by the likes of Lucille Hegamin, Daisy Martin, Esther Bigeou, Lizzie Miles and Alberta Hunter. Then in February 1923, Bessie Smith cut her first session and demand for her material and the other 'Classic' blues singers expanded once again.

A few months later, OKeh visited Atlanta to record Lucille Bogan. Three months on, they were in St. Louis to record Ada Brown and Mary Bradford. Ironically, what are regarded as the first 'country blues' recordings took place in New York on November 2, 1923. Guitarist Sylvester Weaver, from Louisville, KY, had travelled to New York with singer Sara Martin, also from Louisville, who'd cut her first record a year earlier. Guitar Blues and Guitar Rag were slide instrumentals - guitarist Leon McAuliffe cut Guitar Rag as Steel Guitar Rag, with no credit, of course. Weaver was twenty-six at the time of debut and may have already been the chauffeur he would be later in life, so 'country' may be stretching it a little.
There was nothing refined about Ed Andrews, who made his only record in Atlanta in the spring of 1924. Time Ain't Gonna Make Me Stay was a true country blues and the first in a long line of inaccurate song titles, for what he sings (after clearing his throat) to the simplest guitar chording is plainly, 'Crying won't make me stay'. Johnny Watson worked the medicine shows for decades as Daddy Stovepipe, after the stovepipe hat he wore. Sundown Blues was the first song he recorded in May 1924, his lyrical harmonica playing evoking his professional milieu. Papa Charlie Jackson, wielding a six-string banjo, made his debut a few months later; Salt Lake City Blues was his second release.

For the next several years, the floodgates opened. Anyone with the slightest blues skills auditioned for a talent scout or found a field recording session. While the Jeffersons, Blakes and Johnsons established themselves as market leaders, in their wake followed the broadest spectrum of musical influence. Medicine show veterans and songsters such as Stovepipe No. 1, Pink Anderson, and Richard 'Rabbit' Brown, though equally adept at blues, had repertoires that reflected black folk music before 8-and 12-bar metric schemes predominated. Brown could serve as an epitome, a middle-aged musician of unknown ancestry and influences with a repertoire of pop songs, folk ballads and original blues. James Alley Blues sets op a series of contradictions, ending with the chilling, 'Sometimes I think that you too sweet to die, and another time I think you oughta be buried alive'.

The vigour and freshness of these men's lyrics and the power of their performance, viz. Jaybird Coleman's Man Trouble Blues, is a reminder that theirs is music tested in public performance, not composed for the studio. Emery Glen, Lewis Black and Charlie Kyle cut just one session but their music is dramatic and arresting, even when Black mashes his lyrics beyond comprehension. His Spanish Blues is largely hummed, one of very few such performances caught on record. Coleman is one of three harmonica players featured here, the others being George 'Bullet' Williams and Alfred Lewis; each is recorded solo, underlining an openness to musical individuality that record companies would quickly lose. Quill Blues, a syrinx solo by Big Boy Cleveland would not have been possible a mere three years hence.

One of the best of the few women working in country blues was Lottie Kimbrough, a rather plain woman with the nickname of 'the Kansas City Butter-Ball'. Her beauty was in her voice, one critic confessed her singing chilled his spine. Rolling Log Blues begins with a long mood-inducing introduction from guitarist Miles Pruitt before Lottie compares her situation to a log jammed on a river bank. Elizabeth Johnson's voice was coarser but full of personality. Her other record had King Oliver on the cornet but it's unlikely to be him on Sobbin' Woman Blues. Alec Johnson was no relative and the insouciance of his backing band's play softens the message of Miss Meal Cramp Blues, which is crop failure and starvation, 'right now I could eat more than a whole car-load of tramps'.
Note: The track listing published in the CD liner notes and elsewhere does not reflect the running order of the CD for five tracks. Where they differ the track number on the disc is shown in parentheses and colored red.
CD:A1923 - 1927
1Guitar BluesSylvester WeaverSylvester Weaver - g. SoloNov 2 1923New York City 3:08
2Time Ain't Gonna Make Me StayEd AndrewsEd Andrews - v, gMar/Apr 1924Atlanta GA 2:48
3Sundown bluesDaddy StovepipeDaddy Stovepipe (Johnny Watson) - v, h, gMay 10 1924Richmond IN 3:12
4Salt Lake City BluesPapa Charlie JacksonCharlie Jackson - v, bjc. Sep 1924Chicago 2:51
5Whiskey & Gin BluesSouth Street TrioRobert Cooksey - v, h, Bobby Leecan - bj, Alfred Martin - gNov 22 1926Camden NJ 3:06
6James Alley BluesRichard "Rabbit" BrownRichard 'Rabbit' Brown - v, gMar 11 1927New Orleans LA 3:07
7Goin' To Leave You BluesBig Boy ClevelandBig Boy Cleveland - v, gApr 12 1927Chicago or Richmond IN 2:52
8Hey Lawdy Mama - The France BluesLong "Cleve" ReedPapa Harvey Hull - v, Long 'Cleve' Reed - v, g, Sunny Wilson - gc. Apr 8 1937Chicago 3:01
9A Chicken Can Waltz The Gravy AroundDavid CrockettStovepipe No. 1 (Sam Jones) - v, g, stovepipe, David Crockett - v, gApr 26 1927St. Louis MO 3:07
10Bamalong BluesAndrew & Jim BaxterJim Baxter - v, g, Andrew Baxter - vnAug 9 1927Charlotte NC 3:10
11Man Trouble BluesJaybird ColemanBurl (Jaybird) Coleman - v, hAug 3 1927Birmingham AL 3:05
12 (16)Blue Coat BluesBlue Coat Tom Nelson'Blue Coat' Tom Nelson - v, vn, T.C. Johnson - gFeb 17 1928Memphis 2:48
13 (12)Frisco Whistle BluesEd BellEd Bell - v, gc. Sep 1927Chicago 3:03
14 (13)Two Ways To TexasEmery GlenEmery Glen - v, gNov 7 1927Atlanta 2:59
15 (14)Gravel Camp BluesLewis BlackLewis Black - v, gDec 10 1927Memphis 3:13
16 (15)T&T BluesMooch Richardson'Mooch' Richardson - v, gFeb 13 1928Memphis 3:06
17Death Bell BluesTom DicksonTom Dickson - v, gFeb 27 1928Memphis 3:12
18C.C. & O BluesPink AndersonPink Anderson - v, g, Simmie Dooley - v, gApr 14 1928Atlanta 3:06
19Middlin' BluesGeorge "Bullet" WilliamsGeorge 'Bullet' Williams - h, spc. May 1928Chicago 2:47
20Rolling Log BluesLottie KimbroughLottie Kimbrough - v, Miles Pruitt - gAug 21 1928Richmond IN 3:21
21Kyle's Worried BluesCarlie KyleCharlie Kyle - v, gSep 1 1928Memphis 3:26
22Bull Frog BluesWilliam HarrisWilliam Harris - v, gOct 10 1928Richmond 3:09
23Sobbin' Woman BluesElizabeth JohnsonE.J. & Her Turpentine Tree-O: Elizabeth Johnson - v, unknown - c, g, percOct 30 1928New York City 3:18
24Miss Meal Cramp BluesAlec JohnsonAlec Johnson - v, unknown - p, Joe McCoy - g, Charlie McCoy - md, Bo Chatman - vnNov 2 1928Atlanta 3:00
25Unknown BluesTarter & GayStephen Tarter - v, g, Harry Gay - gNov 2 1928Bristol TN 3:05