Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Classic Appalachian Blues reviewed by Mark Thompson

Classic Appalachian Blues
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
21 tracks/67:44

This collection serves up a sampling of the various styles of blues music that were influenced by the Appalachian Mountain range, which reaches from New York to Mississippi. Using a variety of sources including recently digitized live tapes from the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife, the set mixes well-known musicians with obscure names to educate listeners to the wide range of talent the region nurtured. Barry Lee Pearson contributes a fifteen-page overview that examines the impact that mountainous terrain had on blues musicians and their music. The booklet also includes notes about each track.

Sticks McGhee opens the proceedings with a rousing take of “My Baby’s Gone”, with McGhee on guitar and vocal, with a duo harmonica backing from Sonny Terry and J.C. Burris on harmonica. The brother of Brownie McGhee, Sticks is a strong singer, proving that point on “Wine Blues (Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee), a remake of his 1949 hit for Atlantic Records that closes out the disc. With its raw sound, this 1959 recording certainly celebrates of pleasures of alcohol consumption.

In between these bookends listeners will find tracks from the likes of Doc Watson, with his intricate acoustic guitar picking on “Sitting on Top of the World”, Rev. Gary Davis working his guitar magic on “Hesitation Blues” and Brownie McGhee’s powerful voice resonating on “Pawnshop Blues”. John Jackson demonstrates his light touch on guitar on “Railroad Bill” while the string band of Martin, Bogan & Armstrong use a mandolin, guitar and violin on an extended live romp through “Hoodoo Blues”. Etta Baker picks her way through the instrumental “One Dime Blues” with sublime skill.

There are also a number of performances that will surprise all but the most knowledgeable blues fans. Big Chief Ellis sings with authority and plays a mean piano On “Louise Blues”, backed by the Barrelhouse Rockers, whose members include John Cephas on guitar and Phil Wiggins on harmonica. J.C. Burris impresses on “Blues Around My Bed”, switching with ease between his singing and harp playing while Peg Leg Sam Jackson blows some hot licks on his harp on “Walking Cane”.

Josh White is often thought of as a folk singer but early in his career he was a traditional bluesman. His version of “Outskirts of Town” shows he was a strong guitar player and an expressive singer. A highly influential but obscure artist, Roscoe Holcomb is featured on “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues”, accompanying his eerie, high-pitched vocal on guitar instead of his customary banjo. Brothers Marvin & Turner Foddell transform “I Got a Woman” into an acoustic rockabilly number, with both men on guitar and vocal. Lesley Riddle’s guitar style was made famous by his protégé, Maybelle Carter. His run-through of “Red River Blues” provides a brief glimpse of his picking ability.

While a single disc is insufficient to thoroughly cover the vast array of blues music from such a wide swath of the country, the Smithsonian Folkways staff has certainly done an outstanding job of collecting a representative sampling of the variety of sounds that emanated from the region. In serving up a mix of live and studio recordings from their collection and not limiting the selections to well-known artists – plus using budget pricing- they have created a package that should be of interest to any listener who wants to learn more about the roots of blues music or just enjoy a fine disc of acoustic music.

Reviewed by Mark Thompson

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