Eleanor Ellis is a local DC treasure being perhaps the most gifted female purveyor of old time blues in the area. She has championed the likes of the late Flora Molton and Archie Edwards, helped found the DC Blues Society and similarly helped with the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation after Archie passed. She has recorded infrequently, often in a supporting role, so when long-unavailable recordings of her with Bill Ellis (no relation) and Andy Cohen became available, it was cause for celebration.
The CD is Preachin’ in the Wilderness, Country Blues Classics on Cohen’s Riverlark label was made possible after the widow of Larry McBride of Merimack (who issued these originally on cassette) provided the DAT source tapes. There are twenty two performances included with all three taking vocals. Cohen gets to display his mastery of Rev. Gary Davis’ fingerstyle guitar and other pre-war blues styles. Bill Ellis takes the lead on several as well as contributes originals. Eleanor handles Memphis Minnie’s In My Girlish Days, duets with Bill Ellis on Leroy Carr’s Midnight Hour Blues, and handles Sleepy John Estes’ Leaving Trunk.
Other performances on this derive from recordings by Casey Bill Weldon, Washington Phillips, Ragtime Texas Henry Thomas, Simmie Dooley & Pink Anderson, Larry Johnson, Brownie McGhee, Gus Cannon and the wonderful Hungry Blues, words by Langston Hughes and music from James P. Johnson and wonderfully sung by Eleanor with Bill on guitar and Andy on piano. The level of the musicianship is marvelous and perhaps the best known of these songs may be Spoonful, taken from Mance Lipscomb’s Arhoolie recording although it is familiar from renditions by John Hurt and Charlie Patton. Amazingly, or thankfully, there were no covers of Robert Johnson tunes although I suspect any could do one that would actually be worth hearing.
Cohen has other recordings on Riverlark while William Lee Ellis has a new release on Yellow Dog. Eleanor is still criminally underrepresented on disc, but alas we have this marvelous disc to savor.
Since writing this review, which appeared in the July-August 2006 DC Blues Calendar, then the Dc Blues Society’s newsletter. Eleanor finally has a terrific CD on Patuxent and Andy had a terrific CD in 2010 on Earwig. I have linked my reviews of those. I purchased this CD from cdbaby.com.