Smithsonian Institution’s acquisition of the legendary Folkways catalog served music lovers well by preserving and keeping available the rich trove of music that label had recorded. it also has served as a vehicle for the Smithsonian to issue new recordings of diverse musical traditions from around the world including live performances recorded at Smithsonian Folklife Festivals and programs. Included is the production of compilations drawn from the thousands of recordings in their catalog and in their archive. One such compilation is Classic Piano Blues that brings together recordings by Memphis Slim, Speckled Red, Victoria Spivey, Meade Lux Lewis, Roosevelt Sykes, Little Brother Montgomery, Lead Belly, and James P. Johnson from Folkways albums with efforts by Booker T. Laury from the 1990s “Folk Masters” series of concerts and radio broadcasts and a 1976 Folklife Festival performance of Dices Blues by Big ‘Chief’ Ellis (with John Cephas and Phil Wiggins accompanying him).
Jeff Place has compiled an interesting mix of material that is a credible introduction to the piano blues tradition although some might suggest that there are some curious choices of material. The opening Memphis Slim Tribute to Pete Johnson,” is a rousing boogie woogie as is Meade Lux Lewis’ Medium Blues, a strong medium tempo variation on Yancey Special, with a strong left hand bass. Booker T. Laury was heavily influenced by Roosevelt Sykes as his vigorous rendition of Early in the Morning,” that some may be more familiar from Junior Wells’ recordings of this Walter Roland number. I am surprised that a rendition of The Dirty Dozens by Speckled Red was not included, but this barrelhouse player is heard on a solid How Long, attributed by Red to St. Louis pianist Walter Davis. Red’s barrelhouse rendition of Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie, follows the more ragtime-tinged rendition by Little Brother Montgomery, and the contrasts in style is fascinating. Little Brother is good here and on his own No Special Rider Blues, but this listener has heard stronger recordings by him.
Champion Jack Dupree’s Black Wolf Blues, is a European small group recording of Texas guitarist-vocalist, J.T. ‘Funny Paper’ Smith’s Howling Wolf. Big Chief Ellis (he was part Black Creek Indian) originally recorded Dices Blues for a small New York label, and reprised it here displaying the influence of the afore-mentioned Walter Davis in his bittersweet approach. Lead Belly’s Big Fat Woman is more interesting for his mix of traditional lyrics than his unusual piano style. Sam Price’s instrumental, Parlour Blues, is another performance from the Folk Masters series and captures the famed pianist and talent scout in one of his last performances. While the booklet credits this to a performance at the Barns of Wolf Trap, I wonder if this was from the first season of Folk masters which I believe was held at Carnegie Hall.
Little Drops of Water, bring together the Deep Morgan (St. Louis piano of Henry Brown with vocalist Edith Johnson, both of whom recorded in the heyday of blues recordings in the twenties. Another St. Louis pianist is Henry Townsend who does a sober rendition of Roosevelt Sykes All My Money Gone” in an approach that suggest Walter Davis’ influence (Townsend played guitar on many Davis recordings). Sykes is represented by a solo version of Sweet Old Chicago, which he had recorded in New Orleans for Imperial. This is a variant of Sweet Home Chicago, but in any case Robert johnson’s recording itself is derived from Kokomo Blues and Sykes includes a verse not in Johnson’s recording. Sykes takes a boogie solo here, unlike his Imperial recording that featured a hot guitar solo, but was wondering why one of his more famous numbers were not included. Stride pianist James P. Johnson is heard with a small group for Hesitation Blues, as well as backs Katherine Handy Lewis on her father’s Yellow Dog Blues, where she wonders where her “easy rider has gone.” These are fine performances, although I am not sure they are classic piano blues.
As indicated, this serves as an introduction of the piano blues that can be heard on Smithsonian Folkways. There is some marvelous music here and even what I might consider curious selections is entertaining. It comes with a booklet that includes Jeff Place’s overview on piano blues and a discussion of the tracks as well as a biography and a list of pertinent Smithsonian piano blues releases. You can access the Smithsonian/Folkways catalog through the Smithsonian’s website, www.si.edu. The Folkways link is http://www.folkways.si.edu/index.aspx, and you can order or purchase as downloads there.
I purchased this CD.