Friday, December 07, 2007

Trix Stopped Walking

The Trix label was started by Peter Lowry in the 1970s and included field and studio recordings of a number of blues artists who unfortunately are no longer with us. Included were two marvelous Robert Lockwood albums that I believe are in print on Savoy Jazz as The Complete Trix Recordings. Also were equally good recordings, many in the Piedmont tradition and by lesser known but by no means lesser blues performers. The November 1994 Jazz & Blues Report ran my review of three of these albums that were reissued on Muse in the early 1990s but probably only available on ebay or some select mail order specialists such as Here is my review from 1994:

Muse Records has released several new Trix reissues on compact disc, as they continue to make available the label’s important documentation of East Coast bluesmen. Like the original four releases, these include reproductions of the original covers and liner notes with an addendum from producer Peter Lowry.

The Guitar Shorty of Alone In His Field (Trix 3306) is a different individual than David “Guitar Shorty” Kearney, who currently records for Black Top. Born John Henry Fontescue, he was a North Carolina native when Lowry located him there in Elm City. While he recorded for Savoy in 1952, his recordings (as Hootin’ Owl) were not released. When discovered in Elm City, he was living in pretty poor conditions, but little of that could be heard in his ebullient recordings, which show influences including Blind Boy Fuller and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Like Bukka White he could create blues spontaneously with unusual twists, occasionally scatting as on Boogie, Now. A limited, and not completely apt reference point would be describing Guitar Shorty as an East Coast Jesse Thomas, but that only partially suggests his wonderful and totally unique music which employs his own unique tuning. Lowry mentions that there is more material from this gentleman who died in 1975. This is an album that anybody seriously interested in acoustic or older blues must get.

Compared to Guitar Shorty, Henry Johnson may come across as conventional on his album, Union County Flash (Trix 3304), but that doesn’t take away from the fact he was an excellent artist. On an album of originals, and his own unique adaptations of traditional blues, Johnson emerges as a facile fingerpicker (his playing on Crow Jane stands up well to Carl Martin’s classic 78), as well as a capable player of bottleneck using a knife on the exhilarating John Henry. Peg Leg Sam adds his rough-edged country blues harp on the house party number Boogie, Baby and My Dog’s Blues, a slow blues. Rufe’s Impromptu Rag is a delightful instrumental which mixes a bit of blues, gospel, ragtime and country. Playing in a variety of settings and tunings, Henry Johnson remains another long gone master of the Carolina blues tradition, and it is hard to believe it’s been two decades since he passed away. Acoustic blues of this level is far rarer to find today.

Rufe appears on a couple of tracks on Peg Leg Sam’s Medicine Show Man (Trix 3302). His real name was Arthur Jackson and he lost his right leg below the knee while riding the freights. As the album title states, Peg Leg Sam played medicine shows. Sonny Terry provides an obvious reference point as Sam comes out of the same basic musical tradition, plays in a similar, but not derivative, fashion, and sings in a similar husky style. In addition to Henry Johnson’s two accompaniments, four tracks feature’s Baby Tate’s nimble guitar, while Ode to Bad Bill and Born in Hard Luck are narratives, adding diversity to a mix of folk songs and Piedmont blues from the Blind Boy Fuller school. In addition to an unusual treatment of the old folk song Reuben, Sam has two spectacular features for his vocals and harp playing, his treatment of Lost John, and Peg’s Fox Chase. His harmonica pyrotechnics certainly will impress the most jaded listener. Certainly this is a must for those who enjoy rural blues harmonica playing.

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