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Here she comes! The Black Diamond Express to Hell with Sin the Engineer holding the throttle wide open; Pleasure is the headlight, and the devil is the conductor. You can feel the roaring of the express and the moanin' of the drunkards, liars, gamblers and other folk who have got aboard. They are hell-bound and they don't want to go. The train makes eleven stops but nobody can get off - Vocalion advertisement for Rev. A.W. Nix's 1927 recording Black Diamond Express to Hell

Author Topic: Henry Townsend--The Real St. Louis Blues Arcola Records A CD 1002  (Read 1794 times)

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Offline Johnm

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PROGRAM:? Can't You See; Mercy; Can't Help Myself; So Long, So Long; Pleasin' Myself; My Babe; Crying Won't Make Me Stay; Sad Story; I've Got To Go; Long Ago; Bye Bye St. Louis; Room And Board; What's On Your Mind; Let Her Go; I Regret; Every Once In A While; Going Back Home
 
This CD presents recordings made of the great St. Louis bluesman Henry Townsend by Arcola founder Bob West in August of 1979, just a couple of months before Henry's 70th birthday.? The 17 song program divides evenly, with 8 guitar numbers, 8 on piano, and the odd tune out played by Henry on harpsichord (!?).? The CD is a particularly strong and exciting release, indeed, I would say one of the strongest recordings I have heard by a rediscovered bluesman of the early generation.? It offers a great sketch of Henry's music at that time of his life, and makes you realize how terribly under-recorded he has been, relative to his musical stature.

Henry Townsend first recorded in 1929, either 20 years old or slightly short of it, and demonstrated a fully evolved style at that precocious age, playing extremely complex one-chord numbers in Open E minor (cross-note) tuning.? Even on his earliest recordings, Henry was unusual for a musician of his generation in that there was not an ounce of the songster in him; he played no pre-Blues, Pop or Ragtime material, confining himself strictly to Blues.? On this CD, we find that his predeliction for Blues had held up down through the years, for the program here is Blues and nothing but.? On this recording, Henry plays his guitar exclusively out of E position in standard tuning (though he may be pitched at different places on the neck to sound in different keys), and the complexity of his guitar style and the personalized right-hand technique he has evolved come through loud and clear.? As a guitarist, Henry may be fairly classified with musicians like Skip James and Joseph Spence, whose playing, while not having a lot of breadth, being pretty well confined to one key/position, nonetheless shows incredible depth, mining the favored key or position for every bit of musical information and expressive nuance it contained.? Listening to Henry's playing here, I found myself thinking about what a difference it makes for a musician to have an unmistakeably personal style, one that is like a musical fingerprint.? Henry's style involves primarily the index finger and thumb in the right hand, with an extremely varied use of the thumb encompassing brush strokes of partial chords, flashy runs and the like, while the index finger often operates like a drum on the open first string, snapping it in such a way that you feel as though you never realized an open string could be played so expressively.? Henry's touch, as recorded here, emphasizes the treble side of the guitar's sound rather than the bass, resulting in a bright, sometimes brittle sound.

Henry's piano playing is excellent, too, though perhaps not quite as distinctive as his guitar-playing.? Henry has claimed in interviews to have taught the great St. Louis pianist Walter Davis, and based simply on their comparative sounds and ways of getting around on the instrument, the claim seems entirely possible.? While not a technical wizard in the Roosevelt Sykes mold, Henry keeps good time and is able to play florid runs out of time in the treble while maintaining the pulse in the bass.? Moreover, he accompanies his own singing exceptionally well, which seems the most important skill for any blues pianist.

What of the program here?? It is uniformly excellent, alternating between guitar and piano tracks until the concluding track, "Going Back Home", which Henry plays on a harpsichord that was at the showroom where the piano tracks were recorded (Henry comments after the track, "Well, that's a switch!").? High points abound, and special mention must be made of Henry's lyrics.? Based on the sampling here, it looks like for Henry the blues are about leaving, either the man or the woman.? His blues are of the sad, lowdown type, too, not the exuberant, partying variety.? They are exceptionally strong, and place him in the highest echelon of blues lyricists along with people like J.T. Smith, Clifford Gibson and Walter Davis.? A sampling of his lines includes:

?* from "Mercy"--I'm sad, because that was really all I had (2)
Well, think of how you would feel if it happened to you, man, you would have to feel so bad.?
?* from "Please Myself"--Well I done all I can, and now there ain't nothing ever left (2)
I got to please somebody, it may as well be myself.
?* from "Long Ago"--Why don't you, why don't you stop and turn short around? (2)
And quit making me look like an ass in the public, nothing but your doggone clown.
?* from "What's On Your Mind?"--Please tell me what is on your mind (2)
Well, you don't sleep well at midnight and you wake up hollerin' and cryin'.

"Mercy" is a sad piano blues in which his wife has left him, taking the kids.? "Can't Help Myself" is an up-tempo shuffle? that Henry plays on an electric and gets very much a one-man-band type of feel.? "Please Myself" features some exceptionally gymnastic thumb-work and exciting bass runs.? "Crying Won't Make Me Stay" is an exciting one-chord duet with Arcola's Bob West seconding Henry.? "I've Got To Go" has a jagged rhythmic feel somewhat like the Robert Johnson tune "Stones In My Passway", and sounds more like Henry's numbers from the '20s.? "Long Ago", a slowish piano blues, is probably the centerpiece of the program, with Henry's soulful vocal outlining a progressively deteriorating relationship. "What's On Your Mind?" is another powerful number centering on man/woman woes, concluding with a shocker--being sent to prison for stealing to get money to feed a child.
 
The playing, singing and material shine throughout the program.? I have listened to this CD a lot, probably over 25 times, and paradoxically, considering that the guitar pieces are all played in the same position, the more I listen, the more varied the material sounds and feels.? Based on the distinctiveness of his musical style and ways of expressing himself in the Blues, I think Henry Townsend is a bona fide genius, a term that I know suffers from over-use nowadays.? Perhaps most amazing of all, he is still with us.? Let's do what we can to honor him and his contribution to this musical style while he is here to enjoy the recognition.? Thanks to Bob West and Arcola Records for putting out this wonderful CD.

All best,
Johnm?

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« Last Edit: April 06, 2005, 12:12:55 PM by Johnm »