Jim Dickinson

Field Recordings: Delta Experimental Project vol. 3

Birdman BMR 047

1.  My Babe - Otha Turner & the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band.  2.  Old Blue Jumped a Rabbit - Mose Vinson.  3.  Furry's Blues - Furry Lewis.  4.  Broke & Hungry - Sleepy John Estes.  5.  Roll Me Over Slow - Alec Teal & Butter Biscuit.  6.  So Many Cold Mornings - Johnny Woods.  7.  Turkey in the Straw - Furry Lewis.  8.  Floating Bridge - Sleepy John Estes.  9.  Lonesome Feelin' - Johnny Woods.  10.  Barrel House Blues / Cryin' Won't Make Me Stay - Mose Vinson.  11.  Race that You Don't Run - Sleepy John Estes & Hammy Nixon.  12.  Jesus is on the Mainline - Tate County Singers.

Project n.  1.  A plan or scheme or undertaking.  2.  A task set as an educational exercise, requiring students to do their own research and present the results.

Wow!  A 'Delta Blues Experimental Project'.  And volume 3 to boot!  (Funny how I missed vols.  1 & 2).  Over the years there has been so much honourable, and superb, field work in the Delta that surely,Cover picture I thought, any new work such as this could only be of similar high quality.  Well, it just shows how wrong you can be.  Forget about the definition of the word 'project' given above.  This undertaking is a shoddy mishmash of studio 'out-takes' and substandard performances by people long past their best.

For a start, the title is a load of twaddle masquerading as scholarship and, although the sound quality of the recordings is high, the CD production is tacky to say the least.  Tracks are not in the order shown on the sleeve (they are in the order shown above, though), photographs are poorly reproduced, and the notes are so brief as to be of little value.  (I really love the one that says, 'Once I turned down a gig with Sleepy in what I assumed was Moscow, Tennessee.  It was the other Moscow.')  Jim Dickinson, who, in attempting to provide erudite and meaningful insights into the blues and the people who live this music, has a knack of producing vague and pretentious phrases such as, 'The fleeting nature of the present creates in man the desire to capture the moment', 'The record becomes a totem, a pageant with a potential for recurring cultural impact, a sacrament between artist and audience', or 'Otha's music contains a complete belief system of philosophy and religion that was embodied in the man himself.'  All of which makes me think that Mr Dickinson's next 'project' will probably be titled 'Zen and the Art of Fife Maintenance' or even 'Satori on Route 66'.  And, speaking of Otha Turner, we are not even told that Otha passed away in February of this year.  It's just as though the producers didn't give a damn.

No recording dates are given, though Sleepy John Estes died in 1977 and Furry Lewis in 1981, so their tacks must stem from the '60s/'70s I guess.  And Mose Vinson's tracks are probably left-overs from his 1997 CD Mose Vinson: Piano Man (Center for Southern Folklore), as we are told that the tracks were cut in the same Memphis studio that was used for the solo CD.

As to the tracks themselves, the two best-known performers, Furry Lewis and Sleepy John Estes are, sadly, well past their sell-by date.  Sleepy John first recorded Broke and Hungry in 1929 and Floating Bridge in 1935, and these are the recordings that show him at his best.  Likewise, give me Furry Lewis's 1927 - 29 corpus anytime.  True, Turkey in the Straw does contain some interesting minstrel show verses, but, as they are sung to an out of tune guitar backing , the effect is less than spectacular.

Otha Turner's fife and drum band track, My Babe, is up to scratch, but, do we really need yet another recording of Willie Dixon's well-known piece?  For those in search of Mississippi Fife and Drum music I would suggest that a visit to the Testament CD Traveling Through the Jungle (TCD 5017) would be a far better bet.  Otha can also be heard as part of the Tate County Singers, singing Jesus is on the Mainline, which includes a sub-standard slide guitar, a la Fred McDowell, played by the producer, Jim Dickinson.  In fact, a number of white musicians manage to get in on the act, and you can almost see the thought bubble rising from old Mose Vinson's head in the photo of Mose and a white guitarist on page 7 of the booklet - 'Lucky me.  All these honkies showing me how to play the blues'.  Actually, the two tracks performed by Mose are quite good and do indicate that there are still some performers left in Mississippi who can play the blues.

As to the other tracks - well, the word 'mediocre' sadly comes to mind.  I know, I know.  I should have ignored this one!  After all, it breaks my first rule of CD purchase (namely that if the producer's name appears in larger type than the performer's names - ignore it!).  So, be warned.  Unless you are a blues anorak who wants a copy of everything ever recorded, or likewise a Ry Cooder completeist (he's backing on a couple of tracks), forget this, and seek out some of the many, many, excellent blues CDs that are currently available elsewhere.

Mike Yates - 8.12.03

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