Matchbox Bluesmaster Series
(Set 7: MSESET7 – 6 CDs – Album review by Chris Parker)
Disc 1: Lonnie Johnson Vol. 2 1927–32
Disc 2: The Famous Hokum Boys 1930–31
Disc 3: Songsters and Saints Vol. 1a 1925–31
Disc 4: Singers and Saints Vol. 1b 1925–31
Disc 5: Songsters and Saints Vol. 2a 1925–31
Disc 6: Songsters and Saints Vol. 2b 1925–31
This is the seventh (and final) six-CD set in the incomparable Matchbox Bluesmaster Series, featuring blues expert Paul OlivierThe selection of sacred and secular tracks (four CDs) alongside an album of single-artist songs and a CD of humorous ‘hokum’ music.
lonnie johnson is featured on the single artist CD. Generally considered something a bit sophisticated among blues singers (he collaborated with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael and Eddie Lang, had his own radio show and led the pit orchestra at Stanton Theater of Philadelphia), he worked for Okeh between 1927 and 1932, producing both solo recordings and the odd duet with Victoria Spivey or jimmy foster. His guitar playing throughout these sessions is typically neat, powerful and imaginative, his voice strong and sure with admirably clear diction, so tracks such as ‘Death Valley is Just Half Way to My Home’ (based on the theme ‘Lonesome Road’) and ‘Don’t Drive Me from Your Door’ (on which he plays steady rolling piano) is very moving. It is a beautiful work, professional and always entertaining, although (as too often with classic blues of this period) a number of its songs are, inexcusably, violently misogynistic (“I’ll take my fist and knock you down’ is the shocking climax of a song).
Quickly move into less controversial territory: The Fabulous Hokum Boys (Georgia Tom and Big Bill Broonzy as well as various collaborators such as Hannah May, Jane Lucas and Kansas City kitty), produce pure entertainment, rags, struts, and dance-worthy novelties. Oliver points out that the Hokum Boys “brought a new lightness and sophistication to the idiom, contrasting with the heavy emotion and earnestness of much Southern blues”, and this selection lifts the spirits with lines such as “my [heart] was so hot, I tore a hole in my undershirt” and “when she starts doing her business, make a bulldog break her chain”. Light-hearted verses and harmonized choruses animate topics such as the efficacy of corn liquor and the difficulties cheating spouses have in covering up evidence of infidelity, and tracks containing heavy but largely innocuous sexual innuendo are treated with a lot of aplomb by soft voices. but sparkling feminine foils. Broonzy and Georgia Tom are, moreover, skilled and skillful instrumentalists, which makes for a thoroughly enjoyable CD.
Disc 3 is made up of two parts: Dance and traveling shows, and Heroes commentary, parodies and ballads. These categories cover everything from close-harmony novelty songs, rural folk music and jug-band music, sung to guitar accompaniment augmented in various ways by fiddles, kazoos, jugs, mandolins and the strange piano. Performers range from versatile artist Howell Ankle Leg and the famous bluesman Charley Patton singing non-blues material rooted in the stage tradition of vaudeville or the singer’s repertoire, to more problematic fare: so-called “coon” songs, originally composed to pander to a white audience’s predilection for the ridiculing behavior considered as characteristic of southern blacks. Examples here include ‘Under the Chicken Tree’ (Count McDonald dreams of eating chicken), and the self-explanatory ‘The Coon Crap Game’ (George “Big Boy” Owens). These sit somewhat awkwardly in this selection alongside downright “protest” songs like “Furniture Man” (a chastisement of the repo-man: “If ever there was a devil born without horns, this was to be the Furniture Man”) and laments the scourges of contemporary Southern life such as recalcitrant mules, violent villains and capital punishment.
The “Songsters and Saints” continue their contributions on disc 4: the “Saints” are hellfire preachers urging their (extremely vocal) congregations to repent before it’s too late, but there’s also occasional songs, spirituals and thoughtful dishes such as washington phillips“”I was born to preach the Gospel”. Anyone who knows the unique and touching masterpiece accompanied by Phillips’ dulceola “Denomination Blues” (which can be heard on the classic compilation Blue Screeningwith liner notes by Paul Oliver) will not be surprised to hear the selections on this disc which detail all of the Baptist sub-sects and their various practices and beliefs, but there are also topical references to Colonel Lindbergh, bo Weevils and the sinking of Titanicso that a fascinating picture of contemporary Southern life emerges from the 18 tracks on the CD.
Disc 5 contains more contemporary commentary, on everything from a subtly satirical visit to President Roosevelt by Booker T. Washington (Gus Canon‘s ‘Can You Blame the Colored Man’) at a 1909 anti-alcohol campaign at City Hall (Frank Stokes‘Mr Crump doesn’t like it’). Artists featured on this CD include the casual conversation dad charlie jacksonmuddy voice Sam Jones (whose instruments include a stovepipe) and the highly influential Texas bluesman Henry Thomas (whose USP is his use of quills, a panpipe-like instrument made from cane reeds). Highlights are Blind Blakedeftly guitar accompanies his two tracks, “He’s in the Jailhouse Now” and “West Coast Blues”, which provide a musically appropriate climax to an entertaining and varied selection.
Although it reaches a rousing climax with the raspy, driving voice of Sister Bessie JohnsonDisc 6 contains much contemplative material in the form of preaching on Nebuchadnezzar (J. C. Burnetwho also uses a deck of cards to illustrate his teaching, much like country singers such as Wink Martindale were to do much later in the century), and (again – this seems to have been something of an obsession for the southern preachers) a Blind Willie Johnson song about the Titanic disaster. Johnson has an appealing, growling vocal style and plays mean slide guitar, and his duet with wife Angeline on “The Rain Don’t Fall on Me” is particularly touching. Enriched with more sermons and cautionary tales, this latest disc in Matchbox’s series of exemplary reissues provides a useful complement to the secular blues that made up the bulk of the material from the previous six sets.
As Paul Oliver puts it, in his summary at the end of his Typically Scholarly Notes: “We should no longer allow our absorption in the blues and gospel music to distract our attention from the richness and variety of these idioms of ancient times. ; not only because the roots of contemporary music are anchored there, but also for their intrinsic value…’ Amen to that.
Links to all of Chris Parker’s previous Bluesmaster reviews
‘Matchbox Bluesmaster Series – Set 6’ (Papa Charlie Jackson, Memphis Jug Band, Barbecue Bob…)
‘Matchbox Bluesmaster Series – Set 5’ (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson…) plus BOOK.
Matchbox Bluesmaster Series – Series 4
Matchbox Bluesmaster Series – Set 3 (six CD set)
Matchbox Bluesmaster Series – Series 1 & 2