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Preserving Country Blues through Education, Performance and Technology
November 17, 2011, 06:35:25 PM by Slack
Views: 4222 | Comments: 2

Robert Nighthawk - Prowling with the Nighthawk
Written by John Miller

Robert Nighthawk - Prowling with the Nighthawk, Document DOCD-32-20-6       

I recently picked up this re-release of an earlier Document CD, and have been pleased with what an excellent job Document has done with the re-issue.  The program is generous, with 26 performances by Robert Nighthawk, recorded in the years 1937--1952 for six different record labels, and in a variety of ensemble settings.  The notes accompanying the CD share a wealth of biographical and discographical information on Robert Nighthawk, and I refer interested parties to them for that kind of information.  I will confine the discussion here to his music.

The earliest recordings presented here feature Robert Nighthawk working with Big Joe Williams seconding him on guitar and on several tracks, Sonny Boy Williamson 1 (John Lee Williamson) on harmonica.  With two exceptions, "Don't Mistreat Your Woman" and "G-Man", for which Nighthawk played slide in Vastapol, these cuts find Nighthawk flat-picking out of G position in standard tuning, while Big Joe and Sonny Boy riff more or less non-stop.  It is not what you would call a nifty sound, and there doesn't appear to have been a notable amount of listening going on between the players but it is strongly played and forcefully expressed.  Apropos of this, I congratulate Document for choosing NOT to simply list the songs on the program in chronological order, as is most often done on their re-issues.  Such an order would exacerbate the sense of sameness you would get on these tracks by hearing them consecutively.  Nighthawk's playing and singing on these cuts is excellent, as it is throughout the program.

The next session, recorded six months later in November of 1937, finds Nighthawk joined by Henry Townsend and Walter Davis (on some numbers), in addition to Big Joe and Sonny Boy.  Tracks from this session include the Davis-less "Take It Easy Baby", which bears a marked similarity to "Bottle Up And Go", the also Davis-less "CNA Blues", which features a great horde of three guitarists and Sonny Boy playing high straight harp, and "Mamie Lee Blues", with Nighthawk flat-picking in C, and Walter Davis having a tough time hitting the chord changes with the band.

Speckled Red joined Nighthawk and Sonny Boy for the next session, which yielded "Ol Mose", "Every Day And Night", and "Freight Train Blues".  "Ol Mose" is a riotous party number, recorded elsewhere as "Oh Red", with Robert Nighthawk doing some really expert Swing-style flat-picking in C, utilizing a four-to-the-bar back-up style rather than the more country boom-chang back-up.  Speckled Red does fine backing Nighthawk's vocals, but gets the rhythm flipped so that he and Nighthawk are out of sequence in their timing every time Nighthawk solos.  The last pass through the form is kind of a shambles and is the sort of thing that would never make it onto a recording nowadays; I don't know that that's altogether a good thing, because despite the differences in their understanding of the phrasing, there's a great feel to the take.  "Every Day and Night" is superlative, one of the strongest tracks on the CD.  It has an unusual form:  it starts with a 16-bar break over the I chord that is then followed by what would be the last three lines of a normal 16-bar blues, going to the IV chord twice.  Nighthawk flat-picks expertly in G, sings outstandingly, and the piece rocks along with a great Boogie feel.  "Freight Train Blues", for which Nighthawk flat-picks out of C reprises Speckled Red's phrasing problems with "Ol Mose", but to a lesser degree.

Robert Nighthawk's next session yielded but one track, the solo Vastapol slide number "Friar's Point Blues", and it is stellar, showing Nighthawk to have been very near the top of the heap for slide players working at that time.  His tone, timing, intonation and touch are impeccable, and his singing is really fine, too.  He shows a Tampa Red influence in his tone and the way he makes his notes, but his sound is not slavish imitation, by any means.  In the first four bars he plays a descending bass line against his vocal.  When he gets to the IV chord in the fifth bar, he hits the bass note needed to suggest it while keeping the I chord going in the treble.  He adopts the same strategy for the V chord in the ninth bar.  Hearing this track made me feel that it is a real tragedy that Nighthawk did not record more solo numbers.

Excellent sessions with pianist Ernest Lane and Willie Dixon on bass folowed in 1948 and 1949.  These cuts, "Return Mail Blues", "Black Angel" and "My Sweet Lovin' Woman", feature Nighthawk playing electric slde in Vastapol, and his tone is sumptuous, really beautiful.  Lane is also a really nice player and particularly shines on "Return Mail Blues".

Nighthawk returned to the studio a year later with Pinetop Perkins on piano, Willie Dixon on bass, and Ethel Mae listed on vocals, though I could not hear her.  Nighthawk once again excels in his slide playing.  An interesting feature of "Six Three O" is his intermittently "short" phrasing, and the fact that it doesn't seem to faze his accompanists one bit.  "Jackson Town Girl" is a re-working of Leroy Carr's "Shady Lane Blues", and features Pinetop to great advantage.  "Annie Lee Blues" is just a great track.

1951 found Nighthawk recording with Roosevelt Sykes or Bob Call on piano, Ransom Knowling on bass and probably Jump Jackson on drums.  Their version of "Kansas City Blues" features a great groove and some hair-raising slap bass playing by Knowlings.  "Crying Won't Help You" offers yet another reminder of Nighthawk's mastery of tone production with a slide.  "Take It Easy Baby" has a great boogie feel and "Feel So Bad" features some really bad drumming.  Listening to the tracks from this session made me feel that a lot of the roughness attributed to ensemble blues of this period is a function of the recording engineers of the time not knowing how to record the bands.  To be fair to the engineers, the ensembles were tricky, most often with vocals, electric guitars, acoustic bass and piano, and drums.  The combination of acoustic and electric elements resulted in wildly disparate amounts of sustain and decay times on the different instruments.  That having been said, a lot of the ensemble recordings from this period of the blues sound like crap, and it is not for a want of good musicianship.  The music is not the problem--the sound is.

The last session on the CD, from 1952, finds Nighthawk joined by Ransom Knowlings and an unidentified drummer and second guitarist.  Their recording of "The Moon Is Rising" is excellent, with great ensemble playing, singing and lyrics.  A surprising cover of Tommy Johnson's "Maggie Campbell Blues" follows with this same line-up, and the expert drumming gives it a very funky groove.  Nighthawk plays the song out of Spanish tuning, as did Tommy Johnson, and it is the only song on the CD for which Nighthawk used Spanish tuning.  The track ends with a fade, which was pretty unusual at the time, I think, at least on blues recordings.

What impressions linger after listening to this CD, especially after hearing other recordings of Robert Nighthawk backing Sleepy John Estes and Joe Williams on their records?  Nighthawk sounds to have been a consummate professional in his playing and singing, with an interesting sort of "compartmentalized" quality to his playing, so that he tended to have a characteristic sound for each tuning/position in which he played the guitar that didn't necessarily manifest itself as being part of a thoroughgoing musical vision or "sound".  In other words, rather than sounding like one musician playing occasionally in different keys or tunings, he really sounded like a different musician depending on which key/position he was playing.  It is a quality that makes you wonder how much Robert Nighthawk could do that never made it onto a record.  His singing more than anything else created the unity in his sound, and it was very strong.  Like any other musician, he benefitted from distinctive material, and in the instances on the CD when he had that type of song, as on "Friar's Point Blues" and "Every Day And Night", you can feel everything go up a couple of notches.  I really admire the musicianship of Robert Nighthawk, who came up in an acoustic era, and had to re-figure how to make his music when the Blues shifted to an electric sound.  It is good to have all these songs by him collected in one place by Document, and they are to be congratulated for an outstanding re-issue CD here.

PROGRAM:  Tough Luck;  Six Three O; Take It Easy Baby; Lonesome World; Friar's Point Blues; Ol Mose; Sweet Pepper Mama; Return Mail Blues; My Friend Has Forsaken Me; G-Man; Every Day And Night; The Moon Is Rising; Kansas City Blues; Crying Won't Help You; CNA; Black Angel Blues; My Sweet Lovin' Woman; Don't Mistreat Your Woman; Maggie Campbell-1; Prowling Nighthawk; Jackson Town Girl; Feel So Bad; Mamie Lee; Freight Train Blues; Take It Easy Baby; Annie Lee Blues
November 17, 2011, 06:34:24 PM by Slack
Views: 2900 | Comments: 2

The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
Written by John Miller

The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
I have been thinking about pre-Blues material for a long time (years and years) and figured out a long time ago that I particularly like it.  I suppose the question comes up then, what makes a song pre-Blues, as opposed to Blues?  I think two chordal/harmonic characteristics most strongly define pre-Blues songs:

   * Absence of the "blue" IV chord.  Blues have a dominant 7 chord with a flat 7 note relative to the IV chord of the scale.  Pre-Blues material has either a straight major triad for the IV chord or a telescoped major 7 chord off of the IV note of the scale.

   * Absence of the "blue" I chord.  Blues most often have a dominant 7 chord (major triad with a flat 7) off of the I chord of the scale.  Pre-Blues material has a straight major triad off of I, or, as with the IV chord, a telescoped major 7 chord.

What separates Blues chordally from the various western musics that preceded it, is that it has dominant 7 chords off of I, IV and V.  Neither the major scale nor any of the Greek modes conforms to this chordal configuration.  As a result, Blues has both a structure and a sound that does not have commonly known precedents prior to its appearance. Blues is most often described by persons living at the time as having first made an appearance in the first decade of the 20th century.  I can remember Sam Chatmon saying that he could recall the first Blues he ever heard, and when it happened (around 1908).  What is really interesting is that pre-Blues material, which must have had origins prior to that, was still being recorded by musicians in the 1960s and '70s.  What would be examples of Pre-Blues songs recorded either in the first wave of Country Blues recording or in later years?

   * Henry Thomas--"Run, Mollie, Run", "Bob McKinney", "Shanty Blues"
   * Blind Lemon Jefferson--"Beggin' Back", "Prison Cell Blues"
   * Robert Wilkins--"Police Sergeant Blues", "Alabama Blues"
   * Sam Collins"--"Lonesome Road Blues", "My Road Is Rough And Rocky"
   * Ed Bell--"She's a Fool Gal"
   * Jim Jackson--"Old Dog Blue"
   * Charley Jordan--"Keep It Clean"
   * Bo Carter--"Pussy Cat Blues", "Twist It, Babe"
   * Mance Lipscomb--"Willie, Poor Boy", "Sugar Babe"
   * Shirley Griffith--"Take Me Back To Mama"
   * John Jackson--"Boat's Up The River", "Going Down In Georgia On A Horn"
   * John Hurt--"Boys You're Welcome", "Don't Want Me, Baby"

One of the interesting things about Pre-blues material is that as you listen, you encounter hybrid material, or perhaps more correctly, transitional material, that has some Pre-Blues qualities and some Blues qualities.  A couple of songs come to mind that would fall into this category:

   * Henry Thomas's "Bull Doze Blues"--The lyrics and phrasing adhere to the 12-bar structure of the Blues, but Henry Thomas's melodic vocabulary for the song is strongly pre-Blues, a major pentatonic scale with no flat 7 for either the I or the IV chord.

   * Mance Lipscomb's "Sugar Babe"--This song, though having an 8-bar structure, does not conform to any of the commonly encountered 8-bar blues structures, and does not have flat 7 notes in the melody either over the I or the IV chord.  However, when Mance solos, he plays flat 7 notes over both the I and IV chords.  Conclusion:  The song, as sung, has pronounced pre-Blues characteristics.  As soloed on, however, "Sugar Babe" would more aptly be termed a Blues.

One of the most interesting things about Pre-Blues material is that it seems to coincide with an historical period in which there was even more than usual cross-over between African-American and white American music. This comes through loud and clear if you listen consecutively to the recordings of Henry Thomas and those of the early Grand Ole Opry star Uncle Dave Macon. 
You may want to seek out some of the Pre-Blues material if you have not been conscious of it before.  It is great stuff, quite often with beautiful melodies that don't even require chords to make their impact felt.
November 17, 2011, 06:33:15 PM by Slack
Views: 2825 | Comments: 6

Sam Collins - Jailhouse Blues
Written by John Miller

Sam 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
November 17, 2011, 06:31:40 PM by Slack
Views: 3104 | Comments: 1

Johnny Temple - The Essential Classic Blues   
Written by John Miller      

Johnny Temple - The Essential Classic Blues, , CBL 200038   

This 2-CD set collects a large roster of the greatest hits of Johnny Temple (1906-1968), a transplanted Mississippi blues singer (to Chicago), who enjoyed a great deal of popularity in the period between his initial recording in 1935, and the early Post-War period.  There are 36 songs included in the set, so you really get a hefty sampling of what Johnny had to offer. 

Johnny's first recorded number, "Lead Pencil Blues", was very forward-looking number--a shuffle with duet guitar accompaniment in which the guitar laying down the time was employing the classic riff associated with Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago" and countless blues since then.  Also anticipating the future in the cut is the flat-picked lead guitar, something encountered with great frequency on Johnny's later recordings.  Two early recordings, similarly duets, "Big Boat Whistle" and "The Evil Devil Blues", are terrific.  The interplay of the two guitars, one of which was Johnny's and the other, I believe, Charlie McCoy's, is excellent, as was Johnny's singing.  "The Evil Devil Blues" is a bona fide oddity--a cover of Skip James's "Devil Got My Woman" that shows you can really end up with good things occasionally by NOT copying someone too carefully.  Unfortunately, these two songs were the last time that Johnny was to participate so prominently in his own accompaniments.  From this point onward he operated almost exclusively as a vocal soloist with various instrumental ensemble types backing him.

The remainder of the material on the set does a great job of showcasing both the strengths and the weaknesses of the '30s studio system for recording blues singers who were not self-accompanied.  On the strength side, you have:
   * Some pretty stellar musicianship from the sidemen.  On these cuts you encounter players like Joshua Altheimer and Sammy Price on piano, Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson, Charlie and Joe McCoy, and Jazzers Teddy Bunn and Al Casey on guitar, and the entire Harlem Hamfats group, including in addition to the McCoy Brothers, Odell Rand on clarinet, Horace Malcolm on piano, John Lindsay on bass and Fred Flynn on drums.  With line-ups like this, you end up with some great playing.
   * Freed up from having to accompany himself, Johnny delivers some tremendous singing.  He always sang really well, though.
On the weakness side, you have the following:
   * This is definitely blues as Pop music, and as a result you encounter a good bit of both repetition and music by formula.  For a working professional musician it is a good thing to sell records, but popularity breeds covers of hits and covers of the covers.  A certain sameness of sound creeps in when you listen to multiple cuts recorded with this approach.

That having been said, there are many high points in the program after the earlier, more "Country" tunes have played.  Johnny does a great job on "New Vicksburg Blues", where he is joined by Joshua Altheimer and Bill Broonzy.  The silly "Gimme Some of that Yum Yum Yum"has great piano and exciting clarinet, played in the mold of Sidney Bechet.  The much-copied "Louise, Louise Blues" was a well-deserved hit--what a vocal!  Lonnie Johnson walks away with the accompanist honors on "Jellyroll Bert", playing with tremendous spontaneity and skill in C (!).  There is a great contrast between Johnny's country approach to singing and tone production with his sophisticated backing ensemble on "Bowleg Woman" and "My Pony".  My favorite cut on the whole collection is "Good Suzie".  Johnny's vocal here is sensational, and he has a mannerism of ending each line in the first four bars with a falsetto catch in his voice that merges into a buzzy head tone a la Rubin Lacy or Ishmon Bracey--whew, is it great!  Johnny covers another Skip James tune with "Cherry Ball", on which he is joined by an excellent clarinet.  On "Sundown Blues" and Jinxlee Blues" Johnny is accompanied by a guitarist (Teddy Bunn or Al Casey?) strumming away at a straight four beats to the measure like a Swing rhythm guitarist.  "Better Not Let My Good Gal Catch You Here" is Johnny's cover of Ishmon Bracey's "Saturday Blues", and "Rooming House Blues" introduces an interesting note of paranoia when Johnny sees his girlfriend coming out of a rooming house.

I would not rate this CD set as highly as my favorite Country Blues recordings of the '20s, but that is just my own taste.  The execution on the program here can not be faulted, and if you like occasional Jazzy types of progressions, nifty ensemble work, and are looking to expand your repertoire with Blues that have pretty much stayed beneath the radar of the current generation of Country Blues fans,  you will find much to admire here.  And it must be said:  Johnny Temple sold a lot of records for a reason--he was a great singer.

PROGRAM:  Disc One:  Lead Pencil Blues; New Vicksburg Blues; When The Breath Bids Your Girlfriend's Body Goodbye; Big Boat Whistle; The Evil Devil Blues; Gimme Some of That Yum Yum Yum; Stick-up Woman; Louise, Louise Blues; Snapping Cat; Jellyroll Bert; Bowleg Woman; Peepin' Through The Keyhole; Good Suzie; My Pony; Corrina, Corrina; Evil Bad Woman; Baby Don't You Love Me No More; Every Dog Must Have His Day
Disc Two:  Mama's Bad Luck Child; What Is That Smells Like Gravy; Big Leg Woman; Big Woman Blues; Up Today, Down Tomorrow; The Sun Goes Down In Blood; Cherry Ball; Sundown Blues; Jinxlee Blues; Yum Yum Yum; Better Not Let My Good Gal Catch You Here; Streamline Blues; Fix It Up And Go; Jive Me, Baby; Let's Get Together; Roomin' House Blues; Sit Right On It; Lovin' Woman Blues
November 17, 2011, 06:30:17 PM by Slack
Views: 3242 | Comments: 2

Snooks Eaglin - New Orleans Street Singer
Written by John Miller

Snooks 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)
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