Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Singing the Blues with Stories -Vol. 1 reviewed by Mark Thompson

Singing the Blues with Stories -Vol. 1
Fruteland Jackson
IT Records
3 tracks/30 minutes

On his latest release, Fruteland Jackson displays his skill as a storyteller on two lengthy tracks. The first relates the stirring saga of Stewball, the blind racehorse. This storyline is based on an actual race held several centuries ago in Ireland. The tale was a favorite of African-American slaves in the southern states, who reworked the song until there was little left of the original piece. Versions of the song have been recorded by many, including Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary.

Jackson spins his interpretation using a spoken delivery that is highlighted by a variety of sound effects. The big race has Stewball competing against two champion thoroughbreds – the black stallion Wild Bill and Molly, the filly that many had picked to win the race. Even though he had won every one of his local races, few had much hope for Stewball's chances against such formidable competition. After all, he was just a common farmhouse, left blind by a bolt of lightning. Jackson takes a measured approach as he describes the background for the race, gradually building the excitement as the tale unfolds. You hear the trumpet calling the horses to the gate and the sound of the pounding hoofs as Jackson describes the race in detail, right up to its dramatic conclusion. The next track has Jackson singing a shorter version of the Stewball saga while playing slide on a resonator guitar.

The other narrative blends fact and fantasy as Jackson chronicles the life of famed blues musician, Robert Johnson. As he lays out the key elements of Johnson's early years, Jackson relates the growing frustration Johnson might have felt at his inability to master the guitar and cut a hit record. The main thrust of Jackson's piece is his imagining of that fateful evening when Johnson arrives at the mystical crossroads, determined to sell hi soul to the Devil for fame and fortune. Jackson's rendering paints a vivid picture of the dialogue between the two as they bargain for Johnson's eternal soul. For the Devil's speaking parts, Jackson electronically alters his voice,  resulting in the Devil sounding like your average heavy metal singer. Jackson carries the story forward to the end of Johnson's life, relating the version of his death as described by the late David “Honeyboy” Edwards.
One has to wonder how much staying power this release will have over repeated listens. Perhaps the disc could have been fleshed out with a few more musical performances, given the short playing time. But Jackson is a natural storyteller, able to inject a strong sense of realism into both works. It would be a wonderful disc to play for younger children as well as those who are young at heart, looking to exercise their imaginations.

Reviewed by Mark Thompson

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