Living Country Blues

Various performers 3-CD set

Evidence ECD 26105-2

Expressing the Blues

Various performers

Cello MMKCD 701

We're fortunate that what might loosely be described as non-commercial field recordings (i.e.  motivated at least as much by a desire to document styles and traditions, as by a desire to sell records) exist from every one of the decades that have given us recorded blues.  There is a good, comprehensive account of non-commercial field recordings up to 1960 written by John Cowley in Lawrence Cohn's Nothing But the Blues (Abbeville Press, 1993), which pays tribute to the men - of whom John Lomax and his son Alan are by far the most significant - and women who travelled the Southern States with primitive and unwieldy equipment, capturing so much wonderful music, and frequently discovering musicians who later made a successful career for themselves.  1960 was something of a watershed, not least because it was in that year that Chris Strachwitz, with Paul Oliver, made the recordings which would form some of the earliest releases on the former's Arhoolie label, which would become (and remains today) one of the most important for making available large areas of American music which otherwise might have gone largely unheard.

Partly because of the influence and example of these pioneers, some hugely successful field recording trips continued through the '60s and early '70s, with people like George Mitchell, David Evans, Pete Lowry, Bruce Bastin and Bengt Olsson among the important researchers active at the time.  Some magnificent music was recorded, but by the late '70s, interest was clearly in decline.  It appears that few field trips were made during this period, which was one of the factors that encouraged German blues fans Axel Kustner and Siegfried 'Ziggy' Christmann to persuade the owners of the L&R record label (Lippmann and Rau) to subsidise a trip to the USA to record enough material for a major series of releases under the banner Living Country Blues.  The trip took place in October and November 1980, many hours of recordings were made, and fourteen LPs-worth of the resulting material were released in the ensuing three years.  It has to be said that the records do not appear to have sold very well.  It didn't help that they were pretty well ignored by the specialist press, at least in the English language - Blues Unlimited in the UK reviewed only one of them, while in the US, Living Blues didn't even bother to do that (one review did appear in Musical Traditions No.2, though).  Within a few years they were out of print - I don't know when exactly, but in a Red Lick list I have from 1987, the list of L&R LPs available includes not one from the Living Country Blues series.

This three-CD set presents a selection from the original 14 LPs.  Most of them were anthologies, but there were whole LPs devoted to Flora Molton, Cephas & Wiggins and Archie Edwards.  There was also an album devoted to James 'Son' Thomas, not in the series (I think), which combined material from this trip, with tracks recorded on other occasions.  All of these individual artist albums, except the Molton, are now available on separate CDs from Evidence.

The first thing to say is that the three discs are well-presented in a box, with a 48-page booklet, giving the background to the field trip, biographical information about every musician featured, and plenty of Axel Kustner's magnificent photographs.  Kustner must be one of the very finest photographers to have turned his talents to capturing images of Southern blues musicians in their own environments - as unromantic and desperate as that frequently has been.  Cover pictureDisc One focuses on Mississippi, Disc Two on the Southeastern States and Disc Three mixes recordings from Tennessee and Arkansas with overspill from the previous two.  For convenience, below, I'll cover it all in three sections - Mississippi, Southeast and the rest, regardless of which disc the tracks are on.

In Mississippi the team recorded both well-known and more obscure figures.  It's no surprise that they included Sam Chatmon.  Still living in Hollandale, Mississippi, where Paul Oliver and Chris Strachwitz had found him twenty years earlier, he was also still well able to sing and play in the style he had learnt forty years before that, and that he had put on record with the Mississippi Sheiks in the 1920s and 30s.  Predictably, he provides the old Sheiks hit Sitting on Top of the World, and Stop and Listen Blues a song by Tommy Johnson, perhaps the most influential musician from that part of the state, but there's also an excellent risque blues My Daddy Was a Jockey (... and he taught me how to ride ...) and a guitar version of the barrelhouse piano standard Vicksburg Blues - his guitar playing is hardly any less strong or as skillful than on previous recordings.

The spirit of Tommy Johnson also hangs over the contributions of Arzo Youngblood and Boogie Bill Webb.  Webb's two songs are known from Johnson's originals, and Youngblood's are also associated that great figure, although one Swing, Swing was never recorded by him (so the association is on Youngblood's evidence).  Both bring other elements to the basic Johnson model, though - the snapping guitar in Youngblood's Bye Bye Blues reminds me very strongly of Henry Spaulding, an obscure figure, apparently from Mississippi, who made only one record, but who was remembered by St Louis residents, including Henry Townsend.

James 'Son' Thomas was one of those blues singers whose function seems to have been as something of a human jukebox - most of his contributions follows a familiar model, whether Elmore James, Lightning Hopkins or whatever - but it's his extended and riotously salacious version of Catfish Blues that attracts most attention.  Lonnie Pitchford also follows well-known models, Elmore James again, and with a home made one-string guitar, John Lee Hooker.  There's a single track each from Eddie Cusic, a fairly original country blues with guitar, Stonewall Mays, ditto, and Napoleon Strickland, a solo harmonica instrumental, each of which leave you wishing for more.  Othar Turner plays a cane fife, both solo (on a rather interesting modal rendition of Little Walter's My Babe) and with the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, where he is joined by two snare drummers.  The band give us a traditional dance tune Granny Will Your Dog Bite, and two sacred numbers, and it is good to have these examples of this characteristically Mississippi tradition included.  It's also good to have the unaccompanied singing of Walter Brown and Joe Savage - powerful, even chilling, examples of a music that predates the blues and that evokes the horrors of life in the segregated Deep South.

I can't quite make up my mind about Boyd Rivers.  On the one hand there are similarities with Reverend Charlie Jackson, who made a handful of stunning solo vocal and electric guitar downhome gospel records on singles in the 1970s; Rivers, too, plays bold, unconventional, solo electric guitar and sings with intensity and power.  But I can't help feeling that he sometimes crosses that tricky line that separates fervour from bluster.  More interesting, to me, if far less flamboyant, is Cora Fluker, who sings and plays guitar on two sacred songs that are reminiscent of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but with something distinctly more primitive about them.  I never thought I d enjoy a version of Dem Bones, but Fluker strips it down, knocks it about and delivers it in a raw, urgent form that is quite irresistible.  The guitar is pretty basic, but it works, and the voice is strong, with a slight hoarseness that adds to the appeal.

The second disc Lonesome Road Blues features what is described as 'East Coast blues' (i.e. the states in which the recordings were made all border on the South-eastern seaboard of the US - Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina and Washington DC), and to me this is the most consistently satisfying of the three.  Guitar Frank (real name Frank Hovington, under which name he recorded an LP in the early 1970s, released on Flyright and Rounder) was a songster from Delaware, not normally thought of as a blues-producing state.  But he was a very substantial discovery - his repertoire was varied and interesting, and fortunately five good examples are offered here.  Representing his older material there is a traditional dance tune, played with great skill as a guitar instrumental, Chimney Hill Breakdown, and a decent version of the 19th century ballad Railroad Bill.  Showing how he adapted new material to his own purposes, there are two adaptations of popular pre-war blues songs, Digging My Potatoes and Jelly Roll Baker, the latter with a strong dash of Lightning Hopkins about it, but still distinctively his own style.  Best of the lot, though, is a terrific variant on the traditional Long, Lonesome Road theme, with beautiful singing and accompaniment that drives the song along excitingly, while allowing plenty of space for flourishes of technique.  The similarly nicknamed Guitar Slim (James Stephens) also had an album on Flyright in the 1970s, and again there is plenty of variety in his three offerings a version of Robert Johnson's Come On in My Kitchen, clearly learned from the record, a more individual blues I'm Feelin' Lonesome also with bottleneck guitar, and one on which he plays some accomplished piano.  Excellent stuff, marred only slightly by the nagging wish that there could be a track or two more by an evidently interesting and individual artist.

There are two tracks by Flora Molton, but I can't muster much enthusiasm for these, so will pass on quickly to Archie Edwards.  Edwards was a splendid guitarist, whose style mixed the bouncy, rag-tinged techniques of the Eastern states, with elements he picked up from records in the pre-war years.  One of his favourites on record was Mississippi John Hurt, whom he later befriended when Hurt was 'rediscovered' and playing the folk club and festival circuit in the early 1960s.  As Hurt's style also had an innate bounciness, from his characteristic alternating-bass finger picking style, Edwards was able to synthesise the two elements very neatly, and the result can be heard on his own composition My Road is Rough and Rocky.  The sacred Do Lord Remember Me is straight out of Hurt's repertoire and Baby Please Give Me a Break is in the popular contemporary (of Edwards's young days) blues style of the region, as put on record by the likes of Blind Boy Fuller and Buddy Moss, very effectively executed.  My Old Schoolmates is also in this style, but has distinctive, wistful lyrics by Edwards.

Finally on Disc Two, there are two tracks featuring John Cephas.  First is a lovely instrumental solo on guitar, Chicken Can't Roost Too High for Me, which he introduces by reminiscing about the days when such tunes were the staples of the country dances of his youth, played on guitars, fiddles and harmonicas.  The second is a duet with the young harmonica player Phil Wiggins.  In the time since their recordings for the Living Country Blues series - their first as a duet - Cephas and Wiggins have developed an accomplished double act which has proved consistently successful in concerts and festivals (they are still releasing records today) helped by the fact that African Americans playing blues and old time dance music on acoustic instruments have been pretty thin on the ground.  Their polished duet style is demonstrated well on Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.  My only carp is that it uses almost the same chord sequence as Cephas's solo, which just seems like bad planning on the part of the compilers.

Of the Tennessee artists, the most interesting is Lottie Murrell (whose name has been rendered as variously as Lattie Muriel and Lottie Merle on previous releases), although unfortunately it's quite clear that on the day these recordings were made, he was considerably the worse for the effects of drinking moonshine; the notes even acknowledge this quite openly.  He could still play, and offers some beautiful slide guitar, but his vocals are slurred and incoherent - a pity, as on form, it seems as if he had a lot to offer (I think the only other place he is to be heard is on Flyright CD 58 On the Road Again, a highly recommended selection of Bengt Olsson's field recordings from the 1970s).

I can understand why the producers wanted to record Hammie Nixon; he was an important figure in the history of the harmonica blues, with a recording history stretching back to the early 1930s.  But he has had plenty of exposure on record, right up to an LP in the early '80s, and these tracks do his reputation no favours (if you want to hear him at his not inconsiderable best, try the 1999 CD on Delmark Sleepy John Estes in Europe; Nixon plays beautifully on every one of these 1964 recordings).  Corrine, Corrina where he sings unaccompanied, interspersing blows on harmonia, jug and kazoo between the lines, is just plain awful.  The jug only makes sense played in an ensemble - used like Hammie uses it here, it sounds absurd.  Soon One Mornin', the only one of his three tracks with guitar accompaniment, is a version of a familiar gospel theme, in which he sings and plays both harmonica and kazoo - pity he didn't stick with the former.  Only Viola Lee really works - an enjoyable combination of vocal and harmonica, and a frustrating intimation of what might have been.

Meanwhile, over the river in Arkansas, CeDell Davis was pretty obscure at the time of these recordings, but he is well known now, having released three CDs on the excellent Fat Possum label in the 1990s.  Davis's blues are like nobody else's, as he has developed a slide guitar technique to compensate for his severely crippled fingers.  The effect is odd, occasionally discordant and even uncomfortable, but once you are attuned to it (which admittedly, some listeners never quite manage) it can be potent and exciting.  The two tracks here are typical of his music, but they use virtually the same tune, rhythm and tempo - a misjudgment on the part of the compiler rather than the artist, who has demonstrated elsewhere that he can handle a reasonably broad range material within the limitations of his unique style.

There are three other artists recorded in Tennessee Charlie Sangster, Sam 'Stretch' Shields and Memphis Piano Red, each of whom who is allowed only the one opportunity to impress us with their blues.  Both do impress - Sangster with a Hopkins-influenced downhome blues, Red with a competent piano song and Shields with a version of the traditional harmonica showcase where the instrument is intended to suggest the barking of hounds on a hunt.  Again, these single tracks are enough to make the listener feel a little disappointed at not having something more to assess the artists by.

It will be clear from what I ve written above that I can't help feeling that this package could have been better.  There's only one or two tracks that I would describe as just plain bad, and maybe a few more that aren't really that interesting (this is, of course, a personal view).  I ve also indicated a few occasions where you feel that a bit more thought on the part of the compilers would have helped.  Also, there is a real frustration about the fact that several singers who sound particularly interesting, feature only briefly.  Stonewall Mays, Sam Shields, Eddie Cusic, Charlie Sangster, Memphis Piano Red all give the impression that they would have had much more to offer than just the one track they are allocated here, while three tracks are two too many from a couple of the other contributors.  The frustration increases when it becomes apparent that, despite a bold upper-case statement on the inlay card that there is 'almost 4 hours of music', the truth is that there's really only about 3 hours 25 minutes - what happened to the other half an hour?  It's enough time, for example, for each of the above to have had one more track each.

Notwithstanding these reservations I do have to recommend this package.  If the purpose of recording in the field is to capture the music of people who wouldn't be recorded - who would be ignored by commercial recording operations, and to document local and regional styles that might otherwise get overlooked, to catch them while they still exist, then Kustner and Christmann's trip has to be judged a success.  The patchy, even rather messy character of the set as a whole does probably offer a fairly true impression of the state of downhome blues in 1980.  Without generalising, it is clear from these discs that there were still some definite survivals of old, distinctive traditions to be recorded, and good musicians who deserved to be heard.  Cover pictureFor all my gripes, there is plenty here to enjoy.  Finally, collections of blues field recordings are comparatively few these days, so anybody who's prepared to put one out deserves some support.

In that context, it's more extraordinary that another recent release should feature blues field recordings made in the 1990s.  Expressing the Blues is a sampler from a series being produced from recordings made by Timothy Duffy, featuring 21 tracks, each by a different singer or musician.  The intention is that complete CDs will be released of at least some of them - some, indeed, have already appeared, by Guitar Gabriel, Cootie Stark, Neal Pattman, Etta Baker, Algia Mae Hinton and John Dee Holeman.  On the evidence of a single track, it is difficult to assess some of these artists, but a number of individuals certainly stand out.  Robert 'Wolfman' Belfour sings and plays guitar in an old Mississippi hill country style, and does it so well that I hope that we get a whole CD from him before too long.  Preston Fulp sounds interesting, with a charming and quite distinctive take on Careless Love, and so does Essie Mae Brooks, one of six women included, while Macavine Hayes sounds at least like he may have been a force to be reckoned with in days gone by.  There are other good things here, too, and even a couple of old timey singers - Carl Rutherford (see my review of an earlier CD of his, elsewhere on this site) and Samuel Turner Stevens.

Best of all, though, is John Lee Ziegler, an astonishing musician - his music is unlike any other blues you've ever heard - ethereal in atmosphere, modal in character, and yet still unmistakably the blues.  It amazes me that so little by this remarkable artist has been released.  The only other tracks by him that I know are on another album of field recordings issued round about the same time as the Living Country Blues series, entitled Georgia Blues Today (Flyright LP 576, a terrific album - if you see it, grab it).  The notes state that 'His music has direct links to the music of West Africa'; I doubt it, and in fact I think it looks forward rather than back - a tantalising glimpse of one of the directions that country blues might have taken, had it not been headed towards its decline.  Whatever, I'm glad to have this other sample of it.

There is a connection between these two releases, in that Axel Kustner, one of the two men behind the 1980 field trip, has also been a supporter of Tim Duffy's work in the 1990s.  He contributes some of his remarkable photographs to the substantial accompanying booklets with Expressing the Blues as well - another good reason to buy it.

Ray Templeton - 21.4.00

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