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Author Topic: Robert Nighthawk--"Prowling With The Nighthawk", Document DOCD-32-20-6  (Read 2888 times)

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Online Johnm

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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

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.
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: February 14, 2006, 06:21:01 PM by Johnm »

Offline blueshome

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Re: Robert Nighthawk--"Prowling With The Nighthawk", Document DOCD-32-20-6
« Reply #1 on: February 14, 2006, 12:59:42 AM »
John,

Thanks for the great review, I've always been crazy about Nighthawk's slide playing as well as work behind Sonny Boy.

I think his post-war electric slide playing is in standard tuning, based around a "long A" shape at the 7th or 9th fret - this is how I've always tried and also how Louisiana Red demonstrated Robert's style.

Phil

Online Johnm

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Re: Robert Nighthawk--"Prowling With The Nighthawk", Document DOCD-32-20-6
« Reply #2 on: February 14, 2006, 09:57:09 AM »
Hi Phil,
Thanks for the tip on Nighthawk's post-War slide playing.  I know that Muddy Waters also played slide in standard tuning quite a lot in the same period.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Robert Nighthawk--"Prowling With The Nighthawk", Document DOCD-32-20-6
« Reply #3 on: February 14, 2006, 11:45:01 AM »
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. 
Trust me, you'd know it if you heard her. Her track from that Chess session is called Good News. It remained unissued until Mike Leadbitter included it (and the other three unissued) on a UK Chess 4LP box set in 1972. A reviewer of the time noted that the only "good news" about her sides was that Chess were astute enough to leave them buried in the vaults unlike the compiler!

Is the Document CD compiled and annotated by Jeff Harris? If so he has a rather remarkable McCoy/Nighthawk website.

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Robert Nighthawk--"Prowling With The Nighthawk", Document DOCD-32-20-6
« Reply #4 on: February 14, 2006, 11:54:01 AM »
That website is here, http://www.baddogblues.com/nighthawk/, and it is indeed excellent. It also mentions that Jeff Harris did indeed do the notes.

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Robert Nighthawk--"Prowling With The Nighthawk", Document DOCD-32-20-6
« Reply #5 on: February 14, 2006, 02:44:39 PM »
"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.

Going and listening to this song, I have answered one of my own questions that appeared in the 28-bar Blues thread. Simon had been talking about Blues Around Midnight by Paul Geremia. I mentioned Willie McTell did it on his Atlantic sessions, and asked if it was a cover or McTell original, as it somehow sounded familiar to me in a non-McTell context. Well, it's a cover of "Every Day and Night" as it turns out.
« Last Edit: February 14, 2006, 02:49:28 PM by uncle bud »

Online Johnm

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Re: Robert Nighthawk--"Prowling With The Nighthawk", Document DOCD-32-20-6
« Reply #6 on: February 14, 2006, 04:37:26 PM »
Hi all,
I should add that Bunker Hill is specifically thanked on the new Document Robert Nighthawk release, not by his "Nom de Net", Bunker Hill, but by his given name.  Congratulations, Bunker Hill!
All best,
Johnm

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Robert Nighthawk--"Prowling With The Nighthawk", Document DOCD-32-20-6
« Reply #7 on: February 14, 2006, 11:47:33 PM »
I should add that Bunker Hill is specifically thanked on the new Document Robert Nighthawk release, not by his "Nom de Net", Bunker Hill, but by his given name.  Congratulations, Bunker Hill!
Spare my blushes, please.;D

Seriously, that was nice of him. As I recall my only participation was to supply him with as many 'long forgotten' pieces of writing on Nighthawk as I could muster.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Robert Nighthawk--"Prowling With The Nighthawk", Document DOCD-32-20-6
« Reply #8 on: February 15, 2006, 10:17:53 AM »
John's post concerning this CD has prompted my to trawl my email archive to see his reason for contacting me.
On a point of information it might interest folk to know that in September 2002 the project was to be a complete recorded works in two volumes. Each volume was to have a separate booklet of 2000 words each, drafts of these were sent to me my Jeff Harris. As to why it took Document so long to release it or, indeed, why the compilations were truncated, I guess only they or Jeff can tell us. :(

Offline Gumbo

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Re: Robert Nighthawk--"Prowling With The Nighthawk", Document DOCD-32-20-6
« Reply #9 on: February 09, 2014, 10:40:35 AM »
Here are Jeff's comments on the CD.
http://weeniecampbell.com/yabbse/index.php?topic=2105.0

Unfortunately the website seems to be discontinued? ... or more likely relocated to http://www.nighthawk.sundayblues.org/
« Last Edit: February 09, 2014, 11:23:54 AM by Gumbo »

 


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