Friday, September 21, 2012

Smithsonian Folkways' Classic Appalachian Blues

As Jeff Place, who with Barry Lee Pearson compiled Classic Appalachian Blues (Smithsonian-Folkways) states, the ‘Classic’ series on Smithsonian Folkways aims to draw attention to significant recordings from the Folkways and Smithsonian collections. Classic Appalachian Blues “features musicians from the region known as the Southern Appalachians. It includes musicians from deep in the mountains as well as from the foothills leading up to them.” The Folkways label had a number of fine recordings in its catalog of performers in this tradition by the likes of Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry and Pink Anderson and adding recordings from the Folklife Festival collection by John Jackson, Big Chief Ellis and others makes this a particularly valuable collection.

Tracks by Stick McGhee, whose voice and guitar is joined by the harmonica of Sonny Terry and J.C. Burris, open and close this CD. McGhee is heard on the upbeat My Baby’s Gone, as well as a spirited reprise of his hit recording Wine Blues (Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee). There is a fine performance by Stick’s brother, Brownie McGhee, on a 1945 recording Pawnshop Blues, an adaptation of a Blind Boy Fuller number. At the time of these recordings both had relocated to New York as had Reverend Gary Davis, certainly amongst the greatest acoustic blues guitarists, he is represented here by a stunning 1957 instrumental rendition of Hesitation Blues. Another Piedmont legend who established himself was Josh White who had gone from a singing evangelist and Piedmont Tom to Cafe Society by the time he performed the solid Move to the Outskirts of Town heard here.

Not all of the Appalachian masters moved to New York. Pink Anderson stayed in South Carolina and is heard on a fine You Don’t Know My Mind. Sonny Terry’s nephew, J.C. Burris moved to California . He is heard on Blues Around My Bed, with just his harp (sounding like his uncle) accompanying his strong vocal. Arhoolie issued a full album of his music. The lovely One Dime Blues is from a 1992 Barns of Wolf Trap performance by Etta Baker who charmed so many with her agile guitar picking and warm manner. Baby Tate, who was friends with Pink Anderson, was another artist influenced by Blind Boy Fuller, and his rendition of See What You Done Done, echoes Red River Blues and Crow Jane, in its accompaniment that is part of a first-rate performance.

The Washington DC area was a destination for many folks. Phil Wiggins and the late John Cephas met through Alabama pianist Big Chief Ellis who formed the Barrelhouse Rockers and back backing pianist Big Chief Ellis on Louise Blues, from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 1976 with Wiggins driving harp accompaniment contrasting with Ellis’ understated boogie piano. John Jackson was prominent in the Washington DC area for the last four decades of his life and is heard on a fine rendition of the bad-man ballad Railroad Bill. The late Archie Edwards was another Washington DC area treasure, and is represented by a 1978 Folklife Festival rendition of his signature song, My Road Is Rough and Rocky, his tribute to Mississippi John Hurt, his boyhood idol and later good friend. It is a performance with an affable vocal and wonderful rolling guitar.

The Appalachian area was one where there was considerable interaction between Black and White musicians despite the fact of segregation and Doc Watson is heard on a lively Sitting On Top of the World, taken at a bit brisker tempo than usual. I have fond memories of Watson and John Jackson playing at Folklife Festivals. Another performance crossing racial lines is Roscoe Holcomb who brings a mountain guitar approach to Mississippi Heavy Water Blues, originally recorded by Atlanta bluesman Barbecue Bob. Then there is E.C. Ball from Rugby, Virginia and mentor of guitarist (and luthier) Wayne Henderson. Ball is a marvelous player and heard on Blues in the Morning His cited influences include Riley Puckett, Chet Atkins, Sam McGee and Maybelle Carter.

John Jackson was among the greatest of the finger style guitarists along with Blind Blake and Reverend Gary Davis. Another on that level was Bill Williams, born in Richmond, Virginia but who moved to Kentucky and who actually teamed up with Blind Blake in Bristol, Tennessee. Williams was briefly ‘rediscovered’ and made some recordings (some for Yazoo’s Blue Goose subsidiary). His 1971 Folklife Festival, performance Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down, is a song that crossed racial lines, with Williams providing a driving accompaniment here. In contrast to many solo performances here, is a fine string band performance by Martin, Bogan and Armstrong with Carl Martin’s mandolin and vocal and Howard Armstrong’s violin standing out in their string band blues, Hoodoo Blues

Others heard on this include Leslie Riddle, who is best known as having been a friend of the Carter Family (Mother Maybelle Carter learned her guitar style from him). He is heard from 1976 on the Appalachian blues standard Red River Blues, with steady guitar and vocal. Also from 1976, was the veteran medicine show performer Peg Leg Jackson with just his vocal and harmonica on a spirited Walking Cane. The Foddrell Brothers, Marvin and Turner, were from Stuart, Virginia and were wonderful traditional blues performers as illustrated by their 1977 Folklife Festival rendition of I Got a Woman. Also from 1977 comes a nice performance from John Tinsley, Girl Dressed in Green

With twenty-one performances and about 66 minutes of music, Classic Appalachian Blues offers considerable value as well much excellent music. Inclusion of many artists who made few recordings which are often hard-to-find as well as a generous selection of performances from the Smithsonian’s Folklife Archives adds to the value as does the excellent and informative booklet by compilers Jeff Place and Barry Lee Pearson.

I was provided a download of a review copy from Smithsonian-Folkways from whom one can purchase this (as well as the booklet I refer to).

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