MATCHBOX BLUESMASTER SERIES –
SOME FULL REVIEWS OF SETS 1 AND 2
Blues News from Early Blues.com
Snippets from the blues world
This major release from Saydisc Records is an extremely well produced and comprehensive compilation from across the whole blues music genre. The original recordings were sourced from rare 78 rpm records of well-respected specialist blues music collectors, the discographical details are from the ‘Blues Bible’ Blues & Gospel Records (1895–1943) by Dixon, Godrich & Rye and the liner notes are from the writings of Paul Oliver, a world authority on the blues.
It just doesn’t get any better!
The Matchbox Bluesmaster series will be of great interest to all blues enthusiasts and collectors, but also to those who are curious about the origins of most forms of popular music today from modern blues to rhythm & blues, rock’n’ roll, soul and reggae – A very coherent introduction to early blues for the newcomer. The producers hope this series will attract the attention of younger people to the power and importance of this music and I applaud this vision as well as recommending this as a great resource and listening for us older people too.
EarlyBlues.com, EarlyGospel.com and EarlyRnB.com
Blues and Gospel Researcher, Historian and Archivist
THE JAZZ RAG
HENRY’S BLUES LETTER
MASTERS OF BLUES
Back in the 1980s Saydisc Records in Gloucestershire embarked on the ambitious task of collecting together original 78s to document the early days of blues, ragtime, hokum and gospel music that were classified as Race Records, that is, recordings by black performers aimed specifically at black audiences. Many of the race labels were in fact subsidiaries of major record
companies which had spotted the opportunity to develop an additional market. In the early and mid-1920s the record industry was fighting off the challenge of radio, then came the dark days of the Depression when the record industry suffered like everyone else - the yearly figures for record sales plummeted from 100 million in 1929 to just 6 million in 1932.
The heroes of the time wer the talent scouts who went through the Southern states searching out the often raw and primitive talent who had almost certainly never considered the prospect of going into a recording studio, although it should be noted that many of the recordings were made on location, in hotel lobbies, bars or musicians' homes.
The musicians who got to record were often singing for nickels on street corners or entertaining in bars or at picnics, but the music that was recorded formed the backbone of the later Urban Blues, Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll and was the root of much popular music for very nearly the next
Saydisc boss Get Lucena already had form where the blues was concerned, with his influential 1968 album, Blues Like Showers of Rain, featuring musicians at the heart of the emerging UK country blues movement, such people as Ian Anderson, Jo-Ann Kelly, Dave Kelly, and the Missouri Compromise. Gef fondly refers to that time as Blues from the Avon Delta, the album being recorded in Bristol on Sunday afternoons before performances at Ian Anderson's Folk Blues Bristol and West club.
Noted Austrian collector Johnny Parth was tasked with locating the original 78s which he did through his Europewide network of contacts. The remastered recordings culminated in the Saydisc Matchbox Bluesmaster series of 42 LP albums of blues music originally recorded between 1924 and 1934, with a few tracks from 1950. The series was ground-breaking, exposing the work of largely unknown blues performers, work which otherwise might
have been permanently lost.
Last summer, taking the opportunity to investigate the dark corners of the Saydisc archive, they stumbled across all the test pressings for the 1980s Bluesmaster releases in pristine condition. Nimbus archivist Norman White was put in charge of restoration and remastering and the result is a series of seven releases on CD and online, each consisting of six CDs with the
original 1980s liner notes by one of the most respected of all UK blues writers, Paul Oliver.
Competitively priced at £29.99 for each six-CD box-set, the first two sets are now on release. Three more sets will see the light of day during 2021, with the remaining two set for Spring and Summer next year.
The first two sets include nine CDs featuring one musician or band: Buddy Boy Hawkins, Bo Weavil Jackson, Peg Leg Howell and Texas Alexander on MSESET 1, Skip James, Coley Jones & the Dallas String Band, Leroy Carr, Tommie Bradley/James Cole and Charlie Lincoln on MSESET 2. The remaining three CDs are compilations of the work of various bluesmen, many of whom recorded only the handful of tracks included here. In fact the Bluesmaster series gives a comprehensive picture of the recording careers of most of the performers.
Walter 'Buddy Boy' Hawkins, for instance, is so obscure that almost nothing is known of his life except for the 12 tracks he recorded from 1927 to 1929, tracks so rare that the originals sell for between $500 and $1500. His default
position tends to an intense, somewhat monotone vocal delivery at dirge-like tempos backed by accomplished guitar work, but on some of the later tracks there's a jaunty vaudeville feeling, with sprightly ragtime guitar on Raggin' the Blues and A Rag Blues, hints of a double act on Snatch It and Grab It and a bizarre pseudo-vent act on Voice Throwin' Blues. Paul Oliver surmises that it's likely that Hawkins was an entertainer on a medicine show - I'll go along with that!
Obscure doesn't necessarily mean lacking in influence. A CD of Ragtime Blues Guitar includes William Moore, whose songs have been covered by a host of later performers including Stefan Grossman and even The Notting Hillbillies, and Blind Willie Walker, described by Josh White as the best
guitarist he ever heard ('like Art Tatum') and reputed to be the composer of songs attributed to Reverend Gary Davis - for all that, Walker's issued recordings consist of two takes of one song and one take of another. Moore is a most engaging performer, with his ragtime dance rhythms on his guitar, laconic spoken blues and drolly catchy songs such as Ragtime Millionaire.
Walker is something else, a darkly brooding Dupree Blues followed by guitar
pyrotechnics on two takes of South Carolina Rag.
A hefty proportion of the tracks in the first set feature a single singer/guitarist, but the second set takes us into the world of string and jug bands. Coley Jones is a one-man variety bill, delivering droll monologues to his own guitar accompaniment, duetting with Bobbie Cadillac ('a Dallas woman of some reputation', according to Paul Oliver) and heading up the Dallas String
Band with his mandolin – an exhilarating Dallas Rag a highlight. Jones also connects with the mainstream music scene with show tunes such as Ford Dabney's Shine and scatting on Sugar Blues. James Cole's violin features
in a number of bright little groups with guitarist Tommie Bradley, washboards, jugs and kazoos in attendance -there's no lack of variety in the collection!
Many of the singers here lived their lives in parallel with better known names – Charley Lincoln or Hicks, brother of Barbecue Bob, was so derailed by his brother's early death that he ended his days in prison in Cairo, Georgia, for murder - but three of the biggest names in country blues have a CD apiece – and they don't disappoint.
Leroy Carr is heard on 1928 sessions with his long-time musical partner, subtle guitarist Scrapper Blackwell. Carr's singing and piano playing have a sophistication and control that clearly point the way to a later generation of performers. Though he sticks to the basic 12-bar blues (or 8 bars, as in the case of his iconic How Long, How Long Blues, repeated several times in this collection}, he is anything but primitive. After his comeback in the 1960s Skip James needs no introduction to blues fans. Here we have 18 tracks from 1931, his highpitched, often plaintive singing accompanied either by his guitar or his distinctive brand of barrelhouse piano. A few of the tracks suffer from the poor sound quality of the originals (surprisingly rare on these albums} but the impact is undiminished. Texas Alexander was so prolific compared to many of the others that this is just Volume 1: Volumes 2 and 3 come later in the Bluesmaster series. Paul Oliver stresses that Alexander's titles were 'blues of the most rural kind', yet he often worked with surprisingly sophisticated accompanists: here mostly the great Lonnie Johnson (consistently brilliant) and, on four tracks, jazz pianist Eddie Heywood. Oliver claims Alexander and Heywood were ill-matched, but it doesn't really show - and it's an unexpected treat to find Mama, I Heard You Brought it Right Back Home sounding like Old Fashioned Love.
Such is the range of this collection that it's impossible to cover all the performers, so, with apologies to those we omitted, let's give one of them, New Orleans singer/ guitarist Rabbit Brown, the last word: 'I done seen better
days, but I'm putting up with these.'
A fair summary of the blues!
Henry’s Bluesletter – Master Of Blues (The Jazz Rag)
Blues In Britain Apr 21 sets 1+2
The Matchbox Bluesmaster Series
Tracing the Origins of Black American Blues Music.
Released on CD and digital for the first time ever, the Matchbox Bluesmaster series is the most comprehensive survey tracing the origins of Black American Blues Music offering a rare insight into the world of black musicians of the day. The first two 6CD sets (1926-32) are out now, with further sets released later in 2021 and spring 2022. All the releases are tied together by the erudite notes of Paul Oliver, a leading authority and researcher on jazz and blues music. Fascinating for blues enthusiasts and collectors, this series will bring to the attention of younger people, the power and importance of this music. It is clear that 'black music matters' and that it has been the back-bone of almost all popular music forms, from rhythm and blues, to reggae, rock and roll, Motown and gospel.
Various Artists: Matchbox Blues Series
Set 1 : Country Blues and Ragtime Blues
Set 2: Country Blues and Great Harp Players 1927-32
These are the first two sets in this series with more to come over the coming months. Though the recordings range from 1926 through to the 1930s, one disc is more recent, from 1950. What is unique though is that none of the tracks have ever been released here before on CD or even digital download. With a whole range of different styles of music from ragtime, hokum and gospel music, plus
of course the blues itself, this is an amazing thing to hear the way that black music was first released on record. Race record companies such as OKEH sent out talent scouts to track down these artists and record them, often found on street corners singing for nickels, so what you have in these sets is an absolute gold mine of early blues. Some sides were taken from the only copies of the originals left, so the sound quality might not be state of the art, even a bit scratchy at times, but the music is what's it's all about.
There are certainly names here you may well have never heard before, others
a little better known. There are single artist collections, others such as Ragtime Blues Guitar feature several, some being the only known recording by an artist. Set one features Papa Harvey Hull & Long Cleve Band recorded in 1927 in Chicago. Then there are sides from Richard 'Rabbit' Brown from the same year
but recorded in New Orleans. On the second disc, there's Walter 'Buddy Boy' Hawkins from Chicago and Richmond, just one man and his guitar. Moving on to disc three and we meet up with Bo Weavil Jackson (Sam Butler) on a session from September 1926. The fourth set features ragtime blues guitar sessions from
1928/29 from the likes of Bill Moore, Stephen Tarter, Harry Gray, the wonderfully named Bayless Rose and Willie Walker.
Disc five brings us Peg Leg Howell recorded down in Atlanta in 1928.
This first set closes with one by Alger 'Texas· Alexander featuring no less than the guitar of Lonnie Johnson (who B. B. King said was the best of them all) all recorded in New York in 1927. None made it to vinyl until the early 80s. Set two has another six discs under the overall title of Country Blues And Great Harp
Players. Two of the artists here are very well known to most ardent blues fans, especially Skip James and among his tracks is the original version of 'l'm So Glad' from 1931, later made famous by Cream, but here is the solo version by Skip featuring some stunning acoustic guitar playing by him. The other well known name is Leroy Carr, recorded way back in 1928, joined by Scrapper Blackwell on guitar. The way Leroy played piano still makes him one of the true greats of the instrument. Most of the fifteen tracks here were recorded in Chicago, along
with a couple in Indianapolis. Others in this set might not be quite so well known, like the 1927/28 tracks by Coley Jones & The Dallas String Band. Then from
Atlanta circa 1927/1930 comes Charley Lincoln, still worth hearing though one or two suffer from poor sound quality, but a real bonus on this set is Nellie Florence with Lincoln and Barbeque Bob (one of whose songs Eric Clapton recorded). From Richmond in 1930 we come across Tommie Bradley along with
the James Cole Groups, with a nice assortment of musicians involved on the various sessions. Then to round off the set is a great collection of harmonica blues by great harp players from the late twenties. Names here include William
Francis, Richard Sowell, El Watson. Charlie Johnson, Palmer McAbee, Freeman Showers, James Simons. Blues Birdhead (now that's a name!) and Alfred Lewis, each one bringing their unique brand of blues to the party.
These fantastic albums suggest those following during the year will be well worth waiting for. For any follower of country blues guitar these are an absolute must. Even allowing for the background noise because of their age, the blues here is timeless.
LIVING BLUES MAGAZINE, USA
Matchbox - MSESET2
The on-going digital and CD reissue of the Matchbox series continues with
reproductions of six albums released on LP during the first nine months of 1983.
Annotated and likely programmed in large part by British blues scholar Paul
Oliver, the Matchbox releases reflect his inclination to champion outliers
shunned by pre-war blues orthodoxy. Even more than Oliver's picks for the first
set in this revived series, this second lot sheds light on kindred yet distinct
traditions sharing musical space with blues during its early days on record.
Skip James 1931: Complete Recordings in Chronological Order, the seventh
album in the original series and the first here, reproduces what was surely the
most newsworthy release in the Matchbox series when it made its early 1983
debut. It brought together all 18 of his Paramount recordings on one disc for the
first time. Even with near unlistenable sound on a couple of tracks, this was then
a Very Big Deal to devotees of this singular artist. There was simply no one else
like James in the pantheon of early blues greats. His intricate guitar lines,
rhythmically idiosyncratic piano playing, haunted sounding falsetto vocals and
lyrically dark vision were unique. In a 1984 New York Times review of the initial
Matchbox vinyl releases, Robert Palmer wrote: "His arcane minor-modal tunings
and eerie high-pitched singing create a strange, hushed atmosphere that is by
turns mystically enraptured and profoundly unsettling." Beyond the uniquely
Jamesian dirges (Devil Got My Woman, Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues) lie hidden
surprises: Drunken Spree is a variant of Uncle Dave Macon's Last Night When My
Willie Came Home with sunny fingerpicking of the John Hurt variety: How Long
"Buck" deconstructs Leroy Carr’s hit How Long, How Long Blues with the sort of
piano accompaniment Palmer tagged “angular and unpredictable." There have
since been reissues of James' Paramount sides with better sound, but here for
the first time in one place was the whole pre-war lot by an artist Oliver called a
"uniquely talented composer."
Matchbox followed in May 1983 with an album that could not have been more
different, reflecting Oliver's penchant for musical chameleons comfortably
crossing musical genres and seemingly eras. Oliver writes of the universal
popularity of string bands "throughout the South during the period when the
blues was emerging and maturing" while citing the relative paucity of
commercial "race records" reflecting that popularity. Coley Jones & the Dallas
String Band 1927-1929 offered 16 selections spanning minstrelsy, rag-time,
pop songs, and blues. Jones’ recordings are a near textbook reflection of what a
"jack of all trades" entertainer (and group) would have offered in the 1920s:
minstrel songs (Traveling Man) from the prior century, then new pop tunes (So
Tired, the song that inspired James’ I'm So Glad), ragtime (the DSB ‘s oftanthologized Dallas Rag), and newly popular hokum blues Jones’ four recordings
with vocalist Bobbie Cadillac are all riffs on the Tampa Red / Georgia Tom hit It’s
Tight Like That), Jones sang and played passable guitar and first-rate mandolin.
He was joined on the eight Dallas String Band sides by guitarist Sam Harris, a
second mandolinist, and Marco Washington on a bowed string bass that often
sounds like a jug. The DSB ‘s varied repertoire and rowdy dance hall energy
suggest a kinship with the western swing bands soon to emerge in Dallas-Ft.
Worth. Oliver rightly regrets the DSB not recording in the 1930s when it was still
evolving, occasionally including trumpet and clarinet players.
If the string band tradition was little represented on early commercial blues
recordings and virtually non-existent on later ones, the same can't be said of the
humble harmonica. It became more prominent on blues recordings after the
mid-1930s thanks to the popularity of Jazz Gillum and Sonny Boy Williamson.
For them, the harp was an ensemble instrument that offered punctuation to
lyrics. It was a soloist on some remarkable early sides that might fairly be called
“novelty" records, but that doesn't detract from the virtuosity of the performers.
Great Harp Players 1921-30 offered 18 performances by six early harp
virtuosi. Most had a single two-sided recording session. Little is known about
any of them except the one who rated two sessions, El Watson. His first was in
Bristol, Tennessee in 1927 where he was the sole Black performer among the
talent that turned up for the legendary location recording session that yielded
the first sides by country music pioneers Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.
Watson's two-sided harp solo 78 r.p.m. sold well enough for him to be called to
New York the following year to wax four sides, among them a lovely little waltz
(Sweet Bunch of Daisies) and a twin harmonica tour de force in the company of
Robert Cooksey, El Watsons Fox Chase. Vocal effects imitative of baying hounds
were typical of this and other "fox chase" harp recordings, but Freeman Stowers
took that to another level on the B-sides of his two harmonica solos. Texas Wild
Cat Chase and Sunrise on the Farm are stunning examples of expert vocal
mimicry of beasts both domesticated and feral. If you think nearly an hour of
solo harmonica, augmented by occasional outbursts of wild vocalization, may be
dull or repetitive, think again: this is surely one of the most entertaining and
varied compilations in the Matchbox series.
The next entry offered the first 15 issued recordings by one of the most
enduringly influential blues artists. Pianist-vocalist-composer Leroy Carr was
just 23 when he and guitarist Scrapper Blackwell recorded How Long, How Long
Blues at their debut session. It reportedly sold a million copies and the duo was
called back six months later to rerecord it when Vocalion wore out the master.
Carr's introspective lyrics, expressive vocals, and subdued yet effective
accompaniments were ground breaking. Blues was still evolving on multiple
tracks: Charley Patton and a host of fellow "rustics" had yet to record. Carr
provided the blueprint for a far different school, the moody, urbane after-hours
blues Charles Brown exemplified in the 1940s (I’m just drifting like a ship without
a sail, Carr sang in How Long How Long Blues Part 3), though his impact was
voiced earlier by the likes of Robert Johnson, some of whose songs were deeply
influenced by Carr. Arguably the first "modern” blues artist in the Matchbox
series, that modernity can be both positive and problematic: some of the song
settings on Leroy Carr 1928 quickly sound formulaic, yet his engaging lyrics
keep them from becoming trite.
Variety was in no shortage on the first LP Matchbox released in September 1983.
Tommie Bradley-James Cole Groups, 1930-32. Bradley delivered the
vaudeville blues standby When You’re Down and Out with a winning vocal
demeanor while James Cole's Washboard Four made a sprightly string band
shuffle of the 20’s pop hit Runnin’ Wild. Some tracks are straight blues (Pack Up
Her Trunk Blues) accompanied by two guitars, while others are pop and ragtime
(Adam and Eve) with varied accompaniment (violin, mandolin, piano,
washboard, kazoo, jug; unclassifiable, these 15 sides are just fun. Oliver lamented
a dearth of info on the musicians while speculating they were from the southern
fringes of the Midwest, Kentucky, or Ohio. Hearing Cole’s fiddle keening against a
mandolin backing on Window Pane Blues, it’s easy to imagine such a group
influencing what would later emerge in that region as bluegrass.
The final entry in this set, and the twelfth Matchbox release as of September
1983, is Charley Lincoln 1921-1930. The elder brother of Robert Hicks
(Barbecue Bob) sang so as to be clearly understood and, like some other
Atlantans, accompanied himself on 12-string guitar. The sound quality here on
the 14 Lincoln tracks is generally excellent, though musically he tends to be
deemed less interesting than his younger brother. Oliver may have given Lincoln
priority for a song like Chain Gang Trouble, which opens with lyrics associated
with In the Pines (a.k.a. Black Girl) and later, as Oliver notes. "includes a ‘captain'
verse suggesting a link with work song." Texas Alexander recorded a very similar
verse three months prior on Section Gang Blues, heard on Matchbox
Bluesmaster Series-Set I. Was that a ''floating verse" common in Texas and
Georgia or an example of one blues singer borrowing from another's new record
(both waxed for Columbia)? As with much else of that era, we can only guess, and
those mysteries remain part of the music's appeal.
MATCHBOX BLUESMASTER SERIES – SET 1; Country Blues and Ragtime Blues Guitar 1926-30
Gef Lucena’s Saydisc label is well-known for its folk records, amongst other specialisms, but back in the 1980s it released 42 LPs that formed the Matchbox Bluesmaster Series. Most featured chronologically complete runs of artists’ recordings, the series editor was Johnny Parth and the notes were written by none other than Paul Oliver. Now thirty years after the last LP was released the whole catalogue is being issued on CDs grouped together in seven 6-CD boxes. It is an immense undertaking, with the necessary digitizing being undertaken from the LPs (the original master tapes no longer exist) by Norman White, and one that has an expected completion date of May 2022 when the final, seventh set is due to be issued. Lucena is the series producer.
The Bluesmaster series offered and still offers a very special panorama of blues roots, sourced from largely excellent copies which have been finely transferred. The discs are laced with those top of the range booklet notes and full discographical information. The price per set is extremely competitive and it’s invigorating to see this pioneering series back in the marketplace. It represents a primary go-to resource for Blues and roots aficionados everywhere…These Bluesmasters have been adroitly selected and make for excellent boxes. Competitively priced, there’s much more to come from this source so keep scanning the reviews.
MATCHBOX BLUESMASTER SERIES – SET 2; Country Blues and Great Harp Players 1927-32
MATCHBOX MSESET2 [6CDs: 293:35]
For those who haven’t seen my review of the first volume in this sequence of reissues I am reprising my opening comments here, as they apply to the series as a whole. Gef Lucena’s Saydisc label is well-known for its folk records, amongst other specialisms, but back in the 1980s it released 42 LPs that formed the Matchbox Bluesmaster Series. Most featured chronologically complete runs of artists’ recordings, the series editor was Johnny Parth and the notes were written by none other than Paul Oliver. Now thirty years after the last LP was released the whole catalogue is being issued on CDs grouped together in seven 6-CD boxes. It is an immense undertaking, with the necessary digitizing being undertaken from the LPs (the original master tapes no longer exist) by Norman White, and one that has an expected completion date of May 2022 when the final, seventh set is due to be issued. Lucena is the series producer.
The second set is devoted to Country Blues and Harp (harmonica) players, 1927-32. As each CD is a faithful reproduction of the original vinyl you will expect LP timings, all six CDs running in total to just under five hours in length. Whilst it might have been possible to utilize fewer CDs, the result would have been to destroy the integrity of the original artist-led LPs – thus one LP for one CD.
This set begins with 53 minutes of Skip James, who lived long enough to record in the Revival years of the 1960s and is therefore one of the better-known musicians in this particular box. James had an unusual, ethereally high voice that proves expressive, especially in repeated refrains over the rhythmic guitar lines of Devil Got My Woman – though elsewhere you will experience a creative tension between the high vocal line and the more tenorial guitar pitch in such as Cherry Ball Bounce. A number of these 1931 James sides were rare at the time of this LP compilation and are just as rare now, so one must expect some wear – the poor quality 78 copies used are duly noted in the booklet but even so the surface noise in 4 O’clock Blues and Hard-Luck Child is often louder than the musical signal and you’ll struggle to extract much satisfaction from them. They were found just prior to inclusion in the 1983 LP but much better copies have since emerged in the marketplace. James’ voice in the Gospel numbers is much lower in pitch than in the Blues sides. His ballad pickin’ in Drunken Spree is really superb, the guitar licks that reinforce his eager refrain in I’m So Glad just as fine. For the last five tracks of the 18 he sings accompanied by his own piano playing. How Long ‘Buck’ is really Leroy Carr’s How Long Blues and played with vigour, breaks included. His piano style is predicated on breakdown, blues and boogie but with whimsical elements, all shown to prime effect on Little Cow And Calf Is Gonna Die Blues, a long-winded titled but a satisfying blend of vocal and accompaniment. His piano playing is ingenious on 22-20 Blues notably for its displacements, and his foot tapping, which acts as a metrical percussive instrument, generates propulsion even as the right hand glides nonchalantly at will in the blues milieu.
Coley Jones dominates disc two, either solo or as member of the Dallas String Band. String bands are sometimes overlooked by Blues enthusiasts, much to their loss, because these bands offer pluralist musical inspirations, a side dish of hokum and plenty of vibrant musicianship. They’re not representative of the gutbucket earthier element of the music but that’s hardly a reason to overlook them. Jones is often a purveyor of parlando narrative, as in Army Mule in No Man’s Land, an example
of a familiar theme, the First World War trope, flourishing a decade after the war’s end. The instrumental Dallas String Band sides do exude Blues elements. There’s plenty of hokum and a three voice chorus on So Tired, classic vaudeville or tent show crosstalk on Hokum Blues. Jones teamed up with the marvelously named female singer Bobbie Cadillac in December 1929. Over two days they made and remade in essence a single piece of music – It’s Tight Like That, a familiar piece - but called
it four different titles, all with different lyrics. Quite what buyers of these two discs thought after they’d shelled out their hard-earned cash is best left to the imagination. Far more interesting, stylistically and in terms of the lineage of the music, is Drunkard’s Special, an eighteenth-century English folk piece, an Anglo-Country survival well into the twentieth century. The final two pieces in this 16 track CD
belong to the DSB once again and show just how capable they were. They probably picked up Shine from Louis Armstrong’s recording of it and in the coupling, Sugar Blues, Jones throws in plenty of scat singing showing precisely how influential Armstrong was beyond the immediate Jazz milieu
The third disc offers a variety of harp players (or harmonica – or mouth harp as Americans properly term it) recorded variously in NYC, Atlanta, Chicago and Richmond, Va. Richard Sowell accompanies William Francis in a couple of rather unadventurous, mainstream titles but El Watson, with guitarist Charles Johnson, is cut from a more vigorous cloth. He has plenty of ideas, with a rich complement of colour supported by a fine and idiomatically based technique. Try the virtuosic train ride in blues-drenched style on Narrow Gauge Blues, for instance, or the rather infectious zydeco-sounding Bay Rum Blues. Watson is a perfect example of a musician with a wide range of enthusiasms and the confidence to put them across – the polar opposite of Bobbie Cadillac’s one-song-fits-all approach – and his inclusion of the White ballad Sweet Bunch of Daisies followed immediately by the straight-ahead
One Sock Blues shows his versatility and excellence. Palmer McAbee’s efforts exemplify the powers of the harp solo and his whoosh effects and incremental speed shows his self-hymning McAbee’s Railroad Piece in all its heightened excitement. For excitement, indeed, you could hardly do better than McAbee. But if it’s animal impersonations that you want, turn instead to Freeman Stowers who mixes a blues track with a farmyard impersonation one. He, like McAbee, was adept at railroad
rhythms as Railroad Blues, complete with many a whistle, ably demonstrates, but his most distinctive tracks are vocal impersonations and have nothing to do with the harp. That said, if you fancy a menagerie of animal noises, already a well tilled furrow on discs by 1929, then Stowers is a real virtuoso of his craft. James Simons aka Blues Birdhead is a fine player, accompanied by an unknown pianist and the high-voiced moaning of Alfred Lewis brings this disc to a satisfying conclusion.
Leroy Carr is everyone’s favourite and his 1928 sides deserve their place in any respectable collection, as critics of yore used to note, with just a hint of superiority. His barrelhouse style, his mining oftopical blues, constant revisiting of his own How Long, How Long Blues in ever more magnificent style, the perfect accommodation of his vocal and piano playing, would make him a figure of singular accomplishment but his lyrics, which could on occasion take on a heightened and strangely poetic edge, are as remarkable as any of these skills. So you’ll find these great fifteen sides spanning June to December 1928 in CD4. Thereafter I’m afraid I can’t commend the disc. Some of the originals used in the vinyl LP were not good and a number have very rough starts and blasting, with blights and scrunches, and one 78 sounds off-centre. There’s only a limited amount the restorer can do about this. You’d need to go to Document or JSP or another label to find Carr’s sides here done justice.
The Tommie Bradley and James Cole sides on CD5 are in much healthier estate. Bradley sang and played guitar, Cole played violin and they had various colleagues, known and unknown, with them in the Gennett recording studios in Richmond, Indiana between 1930-32. Bradley was another to sing in a relatively high tessitura and there are vaudevillian elements to his performances, as in Everybody Got
Somebody, where you’ll hear an unfortunate skipped groove, but you’ll also hear his stylistic versatility which embraces Country influence. The personnel booklet listing omits Cole’s violin on Adam and Eve– it’s not a duet for Bradley and his accompanying mandolin player Eddie Dimmitt. Cole and Bradley play a fine Sweet Sue, here called Sweet Lizzie to rake in extra compositional money I’d guess, and
Runnin’ Wild too, which shows a keen and open-minded ear for popular currents in song. Buster Johnson joins them to sing (and sing well) in Undertaker Blues though the unknown washboard player sounds as if he is on speed. Bradley essays Nobody’s Business If I Do and nothing further from a stentorian Songster performance can be imagined; by contrast, Bradley is decidedly jaunty and straightforward.
The final disc is devoted to Charley Lincoln and covers the years 1927-30. Clearly a strange character he sports an unusual laugh in a few tracks to decidedly spooky effect. All his sides were recorded in Atlanta, Ga and in the majority of tracks he accompanies himself quite sparingly on guitar and his preferred tempo – it is enervating taken in one go – is a fairly consistent slow to mid-tempo one. He
sang hokum when required, such as If It Looks Like Jelly and a somewhat generic blues style. It seems not to be known for sure if it’s Lincoln or Barbecue Bob – his brother – who accompanies the throatily voiced Nellie Florence on their April 1928 session but from his laugh behind her, it seems almost certain that it’s Lincoln. He too essays the railroad trope and Depot Blues is a decent example of the genre and his propensity for inuendo is well served by Doodle Hole Blues. Though he not one of the elite talents it’s diverting to listen to singers like Lincoln who represent a microcosm of country blues influence.
Apart from the relative disappointment of the Carr disc this sturdy box offers many a chronological pleasure augmented by those outstanding Paul Oliver notes. As I noted in the first volume, the Bluesmaster series offers a very special panorama of blues roots and despite labels such as Yazoo and Document overlapping to some degree, these Bluesmasters have been adroitly selected and make for excellent boxes.
Competitively priced, there’s much more to come from this source so keep
scanning the reviews.
PRESTO MUSIC, USA
This week I have been immersing myself in the root of all jazz, the blues, and the first two volumes in the Matchbox Bluesmaster series, which documents some of the earliest recordings of blues, ragtime, hokum and gospel music. Drawing on the legendary forty-two LP set released by the UK’s Saydisc Records in the eighties, Bluesmaster focuses on extremely rare 78s recorded between 1926 and 1934, with the overarching concept of the series being to provide insight into how Black music was first released on record. Looking back nearly a hundred years since they were first cut, when the various musical genres have become so codified and commercialised now, it’s interesting to note that blues and country were both essentially folk music, written and performed by both Black and white musicians, nearly all living in unimaginable poverty. The genre definitions were largely applied by white-owned record labels in the twenties who cooked up the marketing categories ‘race music’ and ‘hillbilly music’ to sell ‘music by blacks for blacks and by whites for whites’, respectively. At the time there was often no clear musical division between ‘blues’ and ‘country’ except for the colour of the performer’s skin, and in the days when Instagram was the stuff of a mad man’s dreams, the labels sometimes even got that bit wrong.
Both of the present volumes focus on the country blues of the deeply segregated South, with Vol. 1 extending into ragtime blues, and Vol. 2 shining a spotlight on harp players. I appreciated that they have grouped together songs by each artist, affording us the opportunity to get to differentiate the styles between individual artists like Richard “Rabbit” Brown and William Moore, and several artists, such as Buddy Boy Hawkins, take up whole discs. With over 80 tracks in each volume I did initially wonder if they would hold my attention, but instead, I found incredible diversity and richness, especially in the unique approach each artist had to playing the guitar or wailing on a harmonica, and the sheer rawness of the emotion in each voice.
Considering that these recordings were captured using the most basic equipment, the sound quality is largely surprisingly decent, the restoration job stripping away much of the crackle and hiss to reveal plenty of detail in the voices and instruments. Only in a few instances does the surface noise threaten to overpower the music (Skip James’s ‘4 O’Clock Blues’ being a particularly challenging example), but I actually found something rather haunting about these artefacts, hearing an echo from the past refusing to be buried in static. On the subject of Skip James, the disc devoted to him is one of the highlights of Volume 2. An artist who was rediscovered during (and still alive for) the blues revival of the sixties, anyone familiar with the music of the guitarist John Fahey will immediately hear the influence that James’s stark, open-tuned minor mode fingerpicking clearly had on that maverick’s playing.
It has been argued that the iconic image of the lone bluesman was partly a construct by the record labels, who preferred to record solo artists not only because the primitive recording technology was better at capturing solo voice and guitar rather than the complexity a full band, but also because they found group sessions often became boisterous affairs that were hard to control. So it’s a treat to hear music by a larger ensemble like the Dallas String Band, a family group led by Coley Jones, whose ‘Hokum Blues’ demonstrates that even as late as 1928 notions of what separated blues from jazz were not yet fixed. The subject matter of these songs belie the usual “woke up this mornin’” blues stereotypes as well, and so alongside songs about the woes of relationships and the hardships of working on the railroads, we find ballads about outlaws from society, and commentary on recent historical events, as in ‘Sinking of the Titanic’. Peg Leg Howell and Eddie Anthony’s ‘Turkey Buzzard Blues’ is a fine example of a blues violin hoedown, and I especially enjoyed the novelty skits of Freeman Stowers, which feature imitations of farmyard animal and train sounds on his harp. Many of the innovations made by these artists would ultimately feed directly into rhythm and blues, and then rock and roll, and you can already hear intimations of Chuck Berry’s chug in Stephen Tarter and Harry Gay’s ‘Brownie Blues”. I eagerly look forward to future volumes in the Bluesmaster series.
BLUES IN BRITAIN
The Matchbox Bluesmaster Series
Tracing the Origins of Black American Blues Music.
Released on CD and digital for the first time ever, the Matchbox Bluesmaster series is the most comprehensive survey tracing the origins of Black American Blues Music offering a rare insight into the world of black musicians of the day……. All the releases are tied together by the erudite notes of Paul Oliver, a leading authority and researcher on jazz and blues music. Fascinating for blues enthusiasts and collectors, this series will bring to the attention of younger people, the power and importance of this music. It is clear that 'black music matters' and that it has been the back-bone of almost all popular music forms, from rhythm and blues, to reggae, rock and roll, Motown and gospel…….These fantastic albums suggest those following during the year will be well worth waiting for. For any follower of country blues guitar these are an absolute must. Even allowing for the background noise because of their age, the blues here is timeless.
MATCHBOX BLUESMASTER SERIES SET 1
One of the many great pleasures of being a blues fanatic, and a writer for this wonderful magazine, is exposure to collections like this. Listening to the huge amount of music presented on this six-disc set, I felt less like a reviewer, and more like a musical archaeologist, digging down into the hidden foundations of the blues music we all love and enjoy so much. This collection of vintage recordings has been painstakingly collected from the archives of vintage record companies who in their turn trawled the streets looking for the black street corner musicians strumming their acoustics and singing their blues in their wavering voices for the nickels and dimes from passers-by. Encouraged into studios by pioneering record labels, they made ‘race’ records for a black audience – this was the late 1920’a and exposure to white audiences was still thirty-plus years in the future. Songs like this followed the traditional twelve-bar format – one of the reasons for the universal popularity of blues music is its standard formats which allows complete strangers to be able to play and harmonise together from the minute they meet. From the first cut on the first disc, living history comes out of the speakers, the scratchy sound, the reedy voices, the poor sound quality, everything just exudes an utterly authentic feeling of men playing and singing their simple songs together, with no inkling of the genre and historical impact they were creating. Almost nothing of substance is known about any of the musicians making this music, they were never going to be famous or well-paid for their efforts, but their work created the building blocks for the future of expression of black culture, the oppression, the travelling, scratching for money, and expressing what was always a poor lot in life. Each disc is devoted to an individual musician, and the rich seam of authentic blues sounds is a wonderful introduction to the roots and beginnings of everything from 1926 to 1930. Listen, and hear the influences being formed and created, scholarship and musical pleasure combined. More to follow, hopefully.
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