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I'm beginning to notice some improvement - Cellist Pablo Casals, when asked why, at the age of 93, he is still devoting 3 hrs a day for practicing

Author Topic: Ma Rainey & the String Players  (Read 5588 times)

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Offline CF

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Ma Rainey & the String Players
« on: October 15, 2007, 04:46:47 AM »
Ma mostly recorded with jazz bands where the sole string accompaniment would be a banjo but she did record with some great guitarists & banjoists in smaller settings including Tampa Red, Blind Blake & Papa Charlie Jackson. In circa March 1924 she did two recordings with Miles & Milas Pruitt, 'Lost Wondering Blues' & 'Dream Blues'.
'Lost Wondering Blues' is played in the key of 'F' which seems to have been a favoured key/position by the bros. & is a great key for vocalists. Milas, the guitarist, seems to be playing out of an uncapoed F position. Besides Ma the real star of the song though is Miles & his great single-string banjo playing & his periodic flailing/flaying & strumming. The arrangement is fun too with the bros. periodically jumping into double-time jaunts between the lines of the first & fourth verses & on the break & their use of stop-time in the 3rd & 5th/final verse. The stop-time gives Ma's final verse a kind of declamatory feel & really propels the song into it's climax. 'Lost Wondering' begins on the II chord (G) & the progression seems to be, loosely, F/Bb/F . . . Bb/'B'/F . . . G/C/F & on the break they seem to be slightly confused & lapse into a I IV V, &, as I said, in double time.
'Dream Blues' is a beautiful ballad blues in the key of 'B'. Milas is playing open-tuned & using a slide, sounding kinda hawaiian & slightly out of tune at times. Miles is doing more great single-string accompaniment on the banjo. The progression is standard I IV & V. There is no break at all in the song with the twins providing solid backing to what I think is one of Ma's most interesting vocals. On these earlier sessions her voice is not quite as deep as it would become, but on 'Dream Blues' especially she sounds quite youthful & even vulnerable. This is an interesting song that I could hear in Jimmie Rodgers' repertoire.
« Last Edit: December 02, 2007, 10:05:39 AM by cheapfeet »
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Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #1 on: October 15, 2007, 11:13:25 AM »
As an aside for those unaware, the release was advertised in the Chicago Defender of 7 June 1924 as a "souvenir record" followed by the legend:

"The famous Mother of the Blues doesn't want you to ever forget her?that's how much she loves her friends! So we put her picture on her latest record, 'Dream Blues.' On the other side is 'Lost Wandering Blues' by 'Ma.' Accompaniments by Pruitt Twins on those guitars that made Kansas City famous.... This is the first time, to our knowledge, that any artist's picture has ever appeared on a record. Paramount is always first with the features."

Ah, they don't write 'em like that anymore! ;D

Offline CF

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #2 on: October 16, 2007, 11:23:55 AM »
That's great Bunker, thanks for that. I may have seen that label somewhere . . .

In circa August 1924 Ma recorded two songs with guitar accompaniment. Who these guitarists might be is unknown but one of the two on the first song of the session, 'Shave 'Em Dry', is assumed to be Milas Pruitt. To me the playing on these two tunes is very reminiscent of Leadbelly's style, in fact it may even be a 12 string 'Milas' is using. I say Leadbelly because that is my reference to this earlier style of guitar playing which is rather like piano accompaniment, & even like banjo-style in the attack of the notes. It is a very busy & exciting style & I almost wonder if a pick as opposed to fingers or finger-picks were used . . .? 
'Shave 'Em Dry' is in the key of 'Eb', the guitar tuned down a whole step to 'D' with 'Milas' playing out of an F chord I believe. The second guitarist is barely audible but if tuned down to 'D' & capoed up to the 5th fret playing out of a 'C' position is doing a lot bending on the 'B' string . . . or possibly capoed on the first fret & doing octave bends out of an 'E' position (a la' Patton in 'Pony' & etc.) & the same if tuned down to 'Eb' & uncapoed. The progression is I . . . I/VI/II/V/I/VI/II/V or (in chord position) F . . . F/D/G/C/F/D/G/C . . . (the VI or the 'D' sometimes not being played) with 'Milas' doing great runs out of that 'F' position. There is a descending note over the first chord, in the key of 'Eb' . . . C#/C/B (or, out the 'F' position, F. . .Eb/D/C#) & the second guitarist seems to be playing them as chords with 'Milas' picking the introductory riff under them. Ma is in her usual fine form with what is an uncharacteristically brisk pace for her recorded work. 'Milas' ends the song on the C# note (first fret G string) much like Leadbelly ended songs like 'Roberta' (also in 'F' position). 
 
« Last Edit: October 16, 2007, 11:25:06 AM by Cheapfeet »
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Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #3 on: October 16, 2007, 11:42:39 AM »
That's great Bunker, thanks for that. I may have seen that label somewhere .
Lord knows how this is gonna reproduce but here goes...

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #4 on: October 16, 2007, 12:20:42 PM »
Im not much of a Ma Rainey fan personally, though I've not listened to much but what I have listened to is her work with Papa Charlie jackson and I wasn't that fond of it overall.

Offline CF

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #5 on: October 16, 2007, 12:52:01 PM »
Thanks again Bunker . . . not a great likeness is it? CJ, Ma's stuff is certainly not for everyone but I would suggest you try some of her better sides with a full band. Obviously, this is some 'old-fashioned' stuff that not a lot of prewar fans, especially guitar-centric listeners, warm up to, part of the reason being there hasn't been as much celebratory material written about them & partly for aesthetic reasons. Also, Ma wasn't recorded especially well so I think you have to be a sympathetic & curious listener to hear what's great in her recordings. My intiation into prewar blues included men-with-guitars blues & classic female blues & I was a fan of both right off the bat. Perhaps not your cup of tea . . . bully for you  ;D

'Farewell Daddy Blues' was recorded circa August 1924 with possibly Milas Pruitt on sole guitar accompaniment again & is in the key of 'Ab'. Again, he may be playing a 12 string . . . 'Milas' is probably tuned down half a step & playing an 'A' chord with a I/V/I/I/IV/IV/I/VI#/II/V/I progression or A/E/A/A/D/D/A/F#/B/E/A/A [See Frankie response below that song is played in 'D' position & video demonstration]. The licks are centered on the bass strings & are pretty tricky & as I said earlier this is definitely an older style of guitar playing that has not caught on with revivalists so much. I am not very knowledgable about post-war country blues playing but I can't think of anybody who rejuvinated this approach to the guitar . . . the closest assimilations would be Leadbelly's style & even his feel & drive are different, certainly more 'bluesy' & less 'vaudeville' sounding than this, if that's the right description. As I said earlier this type of playing has a single-string banjo style to it. There are no breaks in the tune & 'Milas' seems caught off guard by the ending & kinda stumbles to a finish. Ma is great as usual.

  
« Last Edit: August 01, 2011, 01:11:47 PM by cheapfeet »
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Offline Chezztone

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #6 on: October 17, 2007, 06:12:26 PM »
Aw, sure, Ma Rainey is "for everybody" if anybody ever was! She is one of the all-time greats of American music. Among her many other talents (singing, performing, bandleading, songwriting etc.), she fronted one of the greatest, weirdest-but-best jug bands ever on some of her material. At least check that out, if you have any interest in jug bands, even if you think you are not a fan of this superb artist. Cheers, SC

Offline CF

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #7 on: October 23, 2007, 08:24:22 AM »
Hey Chezz, I of course agree with your assessment of Ma's music but there would be a lot of people, even Blues fans, who do not find her so impressive. Their loss I say.
The pairing of Ma Rainey with Blind Blake is a kind of prewar blues nerd's dream. Too bad Paramount had to be the company that recorded these momentus ocassions. In circa November 1926 Ma recorded 'Morning Hour Blues' with Jimmy Blythe on piano & Mr. Blake on guitar. Blake is basically inaudible on the entire track with only his characteristic bass popping out of the mix every so often. Blake is probably playing out of a G position, tuned down a half step in the key of F#.
Their next meeting in circa December 1926 was better miced with Blake's guitar more in the forefront. Ma & Blake are joined by a violinist, possibly Leroy Pickett who played & recorded with pianist-bandleader-arranger (& Canadian!) Tiny Parham. 'Little low Mama Blues' is in C standard with Blake playing in C position. There is a nice interplay between Blake's punchy & inventive rhythm & 'Pickett's' languid violin lines. 'Pickett' was no bluesman but his sentimental style works against Blake's solid rhythm & Ma's dirge

'I'm gonna build me a scaffold, papa to hang myself (2)
Can't get the man I love, don't want nobody else'

At one point Blake unisons 'Pickett's' long lines with a fast treble run played on the E & B strings, sounding much like a violin himself.
'Grievin' Hearted Blues' begins almost like a pop ballad, reminiscent of say 'Harbour Lights' & then turns into a kind of I/V/I/IV/II/V/I blues in the key of G# (Blake in G position capoed at first fret). Blake employs several of his tricks, double-time & syncopation between Ma's vocal lines, with 'Pickett' swimming anonymously but effectively in the background. Ma is uniformly great if a bit, well, uniform. She doesn't seem to be as inspired by this accompaniment as she seems to have been with the Pruitts . . . or perhaps it's the material. Those interested in hearing Blake accompany a vocalist should hear his great sides with Leola Wilson.     
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Offline Richard

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #8 on: October 25, 2007, 03:06:50 PM »
I have always liked Ma and the like, they must have had heap big powerful voices to do a tent show with no amplification.

I started looking her up in the jazzers bible ( Rust ) and was intrigued to see that on three tracks somebody plays musical saw   :P "Down inthe basement",  "Sissy Blues" or "Broken Soul Blues" ... I don't think I have them so it anybody does lets hear that saw!
(That's enough of that. Ed)

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #9 on: October 26, 2007, 11:33:26 AM »
"Sissy Blues" is about her man leaving her for another man. The lyric I've transcribed below but would probably fall foul of the 21 century politically correct brigade but I think it's a hoot. As for the musical saw, it insinuates itself everywhere and gives me a pain in the ear but I'm usually in the minority in this matter  ;D :

I shimmied last night, the night before,
I'm going home tonight, I won't shimmy no more, ah

Chorus:
Hello, Central, it's 'bout to run me wild,
Can I get that number, or will I have to wait awhile?

I dreamed last night I was far from harm,
Woke up and found my man in a sissy's arms;

Chorus.

Some are young, some are old,
My man says sissies got good jelly roll;

Chorus.

My man's got a sissy, his name is Miss Kate,
He shook that thing like jelly on a plate;

Chorus.

Now all the people ask me why I'm all alone,
A sissy shook that thing and took my man from home;

Chorus.

The other titles with saw (sore?) accompaniment are more "run-of-the-mill".

Offline Richard

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #10 on: October 26, 2007, 01:52:56 PM »
BH  ... is an mp3 a bit advanced !!

Do you think it's meant to be another man? I know Sissy man was a term used, but all the lyrics seem to refer to a female...?
(That's enough of that. Ed)

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #11 on: October 26, 2007, 11:57:56 PM »
BH  ... is an mp3 a bit advanced !!
He, he. It is in my case. 99.9% of all my blues is vinyl and I haven't the inclination to acquire said technology to create such. mp3s are not a problem with the limited number of CDs I own (1,000ish) but they are mainly gap filling the vinyl and rarely get played!  Antediluvian? Me? Nah! ;D

Offline dj

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #12 on: October 27, 2007, 05:58:25 AM »
Quote
Do you think it's meant to be another man? I know Sissy man was a term used, but all the lyrics seem to refer to a female...?

"My man's got a sissy, his name is Miss Kate,
He shook that thing like jelly on a plate"

Sounds like a transvestite to me.

Quote
...the limited number of CDs I own (1,000ish)...

Gee, and I thought my CD collection was pathetically small!   :P

Offline CF

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #13 on: October 27, 2007, 06:37:48 AM »
Richard I've been trying to upload 'Down In The Basement' which features the mystery sawist & is, I think, more interesting musically than the other 2 saw songs but for some reason it ain't working . . . taking too long or the file is too large & I've got it as small as I can . . . sorry
« Last Edit: October 27, 2007, 07:08:43 AM by cheapfeet »
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Offline Richard

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #14 on: October 27, 2007, 01:02:55 PM »
dj - Well the thought was there, thanks for the try, I've only got her on LP.

Sorry my fault about the (Tranny !) I misread the lyrics earlier, very unlike me  ::)

And BH all those CDs and LPs good for you :)  an old friend who collects jazz 78 has had to have the floors of his house reinforced  both up and downstairs to take the weight of the shellac .. what a way to go  :P   
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Offline CF

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #15 on: December 02, 2007, 10:26:38 AM »
Hey Richard . . . finally learned how to condense music files so here's Ma Rainey's 'Down In the Basement' featuring the mystery sawist.
Sounds like a theremin.

[attachment deleted by admin]
« Last Edit: December 02, 2007, 05:06:06 PM by cheapfeet »
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Offline CF

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #16 on: December 02, 2007, 12:15:57 PM »
Ma recorded with Georgia Tom & Tampa Red at two different sessions in Chicago circa September 1928. The first song from the first session is 'Daddy Goodbye Blues' in the key of 'F' & is, musically, a version of Leroy Carr's recent hit 'How Long Blues'. There are two takes of 'Sleep Talking Blues' in the key of 'E' although slightly sharp. 'Tough Luck Blues' is in 'F' & is again slightly sharp. 'Blame It On the Blues' is in the key of 'B'. 'Sweet Rough Man' is in the key of 'G' & slightly sharp. 'Runaway Blues' is in the key of 'F'. [Anyone here at Weenie with a knowledge of open tuning feel welcome to offer ideas as to how Tampa was tuned, & thanks]. All these tunes pretty much follow a I IV V arrangement & although they may not be outstanding records they are uniformly solid & strong. Tampa's tone & melodic grasp are as admirable as usual. The songs are lyrically & thematically strong as well, ripe for some present day interpretations. Why there are not more Ma songs in contemporary repertoires is beyond me. Very few of her songs are lyrically weak & are musically either open or chordally interesting enough for adaptation. Coming from a vaudeville, tin pan alley type background I would say that Ma's material was song-centric & song-strong, instrumental aspects often being incidental & icing on the cake. 'Blame It on the Blues' has a nice interplay between Tampa & Ma as she lists the people in her life that she can't blame her troubles on. 'Runaway Blues' features the only break by Tampa from the session.

The second session in Sept 1928 between the trio yielded 'Leaving This Morning' & two takes of the great 'Black Eye Blues'. 'Morning' jumps out of the gates with

'See me reeling & rockin', drunk as I can be, man I love tryin' to make a fool of me . . .'

& follows a I IV I V II V progression in the key of 'G'. Tampa does a spirited solo break, one of the few with Ma. Probably someone suggested that the Guitar Wizard be given a chance to stretch his legs!
'Black Eye Blues' is in fact no blues but rather more of a lowdown pop tune, perhaps with vaudeville roots. It is a violent lyric in which Ma overhears a couple fighting & Miss Nancy promises her abuser

           'You lowdown alligator just watch me soon or later
            gonna catch you with your britches down'

The song is in the key of 'G' & the progression varies. The intro is a I VI II V I V (G/E/A/D/G/D) (an incomplete F# is probably sometimes being played between the 'G' & 'E' chords) with the verse played I II V (G/A/D) played twice into a I III7 VIminor II V (G/B7/Em/A/D) & repeated & then into the bridge & chorus which is the intro chords (G/E/A/D/G) played twice into a I I7 IV IV7 (G/G7/C/C7) & back to the turnaround again (G/E/A/D/G/E/A/D/G). Tampa plays a long break on the chorus chords. His execution is so clean & crisp, probably the most distinctive slide style ever recorded.
Here's another Ma tune ripe for the pickin'. Although it is certainly not PC it is presented as a narrative, with Ma or the narrator telling what they heard in Hogan's Alley & is not gender specific. The Carolina Chocolate Drops cover it but I don't know of anyone else who does . . .
This is the type of tune & chord progression which virtually disappeared in the post war blues era &, for me, makes these old tunes so fresh-sounding & relevant today.
« Last Edit: December 02, 2007, 12:24:55 PM by cheapfeet »
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Offline frankie

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #17 on: December 02, 2007, 02:20:41 PM »
'Farewell Daddy Blues' was recorded circa August 1924 with possibly Milas Pruitt on sole guitar accompaniment again & is in the key of 'Ab'. Again, he may be playing a 12 string . . . 'Milas' is probably tuned down half a step & playing an 'A' chord with a I/V/I/I/IV/IV/I/VI#/II/V/I progression or A/E/A/A/D/D/A/F#/B/E/A/A. The licks are centered on the bass strings & are pretty tricky & as I said earlier this is definately an older style of guitar playing that has not caught on with revivalists so much.

I was fooling around with this tune a little while back.  Sounds to me like Milas is playing a 12-string, tuned to about B-flat and playing out of D position - that'd put him at A-flat in terms of absolute pitch.  After the VI chord, he doesn't go to the II chord, but directly to the V chord...  similar to Lemon's way of playing blues in C...  peculiar, but sounds (imho) good, even if most people wouldn't go there.

Offline CF

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #18 on: December 02, 2007, 05:05:31 PM »
Hi Frankie, you could be right about the B-flat tuning & D position. I tuned my 6 string down to B flat & it doesn't sound good at all but the runs could be working out of a D position for sure. I would probably have to have a 12 set up right to know definitely. The II chord is hit approximately 3-4 times in a total of 7-8 verses tho', but you're right that he doesn't always & goes straight to the V chord about half the time. I'm going to tune my other guitar down to Eb & check it out in 'A' position again & will get back. Anyone else have an opinion of the possible tuning & position of this or any of the other songs? Thanks

[Never got to this but Frankie & wife Kim have since done a great version of this tune & his tuning and chord position sure do sound right]

« Last Edit: August 01, 2011, 01:17:54 PM by cheapfeet »
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Offline CF

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #19 on: December 03, 2007, 06:57:23 AM »
On Ma's final recording session in circa October 1928 she was paired with the famous banjoist Papa Charlie Jackson. Their sole record was 'Ma & Pa Poorhouse Blues'/'Big Feeling Blues'. Jackson's banjo is the only accompaniment & both share vocal duties. Jackson is playing in the key of 'E' for both songs which share the same tempo & chord progression [in the 'F Position' thread over at Licks & Lessons JohnM reveals that Charlie is playing out of an F position]: I/IV/I/VI#/II#/V/I or E/A/E/C#/F#/B/E (a Bb note is sometimes played over the IV/A chord). 'Poorhouse' is a recasting of Victoria Spivey's hit from the previous year, 'T. B. Blues'. Ma & Papa Charlie begin the song with this exchange:

'Hello there Charlie'
'Hello Ma'
'Charlie, where's that big banjo you had?
'Ma, that big banjo's in pawn'
'In pawn?'
'Yes ma'am'
'Too bad Jim'
'Hello Ma'
'Alright Charlie . . .'
'What become of that great big bus you
had?'

'Charlie/child somebody stole that bus'
'Stole it?'
'Yeah'
'Mmmmm . . .'
'Charlie, do you know I'm broke?'
'Ma, don't you know I'm broke too?'
'I tell you what let's do'
'What we gonna do?'
'Let's both go to the poorhouse together'
'Alright let's go'

One has to wonder if Ma would have tried more of this kind of accompaniment & hokum type material had she kept recording. This is a great record but a bit of a quiet note for the exit of the 'Mother of the Blues'. I'm still listening to Ma, digesting her 100+ recorded songs but I would have to say that her work with the jazz & jug bands is her best & most compelling. Some of the string accompaniment suffers from an 'appropriateness', Blake & Tampa Red especially seemed to have been fulfilling their role as session musicians & certainly their best work is to be found elsewhere, but it is still high quality, if not 'stock', material. For me, the highlights of her work with string players would be the sessions with the Pruitt Twins & the two takes of 'Black Eye Blues' although I would also single out the two sides with Papa Charlie as  worthy of attention. Ma is the real star of all her recordings though. Her mastery of the Blues form is driven home on all the different settings she was recorded in. She was an artist of rare soulfulness & depth.
« Last Edit: December 03, 2007, 01:29:52 PM by cheapfeet »
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Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #20 on: December 28, 2007, 11:22:54 AM »
Rather than start a new topic thought I'd tack on to this a link to a review of the JSP Ma Rainey set as written by member Jeff Harris (large cheques only Jeff, ok?) ;D

http://sundayblues.org/

Offline jharris

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #21 on: December 28, 2007, 04:31:32 PM »
Rather than start a new topic thought I'd tack on to this a link to a review of the JSP Ma Rainey set as written by member Jeff Harris (large cheques only Jeff, ok?) ;D

http://sundayblues.org/

As they say, the check is in the mail.  :)

Actually Cheapfeet emailed me pointing to an error in my review. The set is not complete as it misses a few alternate takes which appear on Document's "Too Late, Too Late" Vol. 11 & 13. As I mention there's a definite improvement in sound on a number of tracks. This is the best I've heard these songs and I was wondering if there's any other Rainey collections that folks think has better sound?

-Jeff H.

Offline CF

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #22 on: December 28, 2007, 08:47:04 PM »
Hi guys. I'd be surprised if Yahoo's Ma CD did not have better sound than the JSP set. But Jeff is right in that the JSP box is probably the best sounding 'completish' set out there . . . I only know of this & the Documents . . .
If the Yahoo set does not sound better then the couple tunes I have on the volume 4 & 5 Blues Images 1920s compilations certainly do to my ears . . . they are mastered by Richard Nevins. In an A-B comparison I found 'Deep Moaning Blues (1)' sounded much more open & lively on the BI CD . . . the JSP was very bassy & the surface noise greatly reduced. I've gone from praising JSP's sound to criticizing it lately due to some A-Bing of same songs/different CDs & mastering. Still great & cheap & etc tho.
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Offline uncle bud

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Re: Ma Rainey & the String Players
« Reply #23 on: January 10, 2008, 08:53:08 AM »
I picked up the JSP Ma Rainey set recently. As with many comparisons between JSP and Yazoo (several of which I've done over the past couple days for other artists as well), Yazoo's CD, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom has better sound, IMO. This is not to say the JSP is poor. These are mostly rough quality recordings to start with, and a couple A/B comparisons with the couple Ma discs I have on Document suggest JSP has improved things. I didn't check every track on the Yazoo but the 8 or 9 I did A/B were either better quality or "different" quality, meaning equally crappy sound from a crappy source and EQ'd differently. Mostly better. But in one case there was a pretty dramatic difference: "Booze and Blues", the song that was the model for Charley Patton's "Tom Rushen", is 7 seconds shorter and a semi-tone higher in pitch on the JSP set. The Yazoo copy clocks in at 3:18 and the JSP at 3:11. Ma sounds more like Ma to me on the Yazoo for sure. Alas, like some other early Yazoo CDs, this compilation only offers 14 tracks. But for Ma fans, it would be a worthwhile purchase, definitely.

Cheapfeet, I haven't explored this thread much yet but wanted to thank you for starting it. Great idea.
« Last Edit: January 10, 2008, 08:54:39 AM by andrew »

 


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