Matchbox Bluesmaster Series Set 8: (“Big Road Blues 1966–1972: The Tradition Continues”)
MSESET8 – 6 CDs. Album reviews by Chris Parker)
Disc 1: Furry Lewis in Memphis (1968)
Disc 2: Little Brother Montgomery (1972)
Disc 3: The Legacy of Tommy Johnson (1966–69)
Disc 4: Big Road Blues (1966–71)
Disc 5: Delta Blues (1968)
Disc 6: Viola Wells: Miss Rhapsody (1972)
Having released seven 6-CD box sets of blues, gospel and hokum recordings (originally released by Saydisc in the 1980s – link to reviews below), the Matchbox Bluesmaster series has now begun a new project: putting available five other 6 -Sets of classic blues CDs from Saydisc’s subsidiary Matchbox.
Entitled Big Road Blues (1966-1972: the tradition continues)the first set of the series begins with an informally recorded set from the Dean of Memphis Blues, hairy lewis. In 1968, the music historian Karl Gert zur Heide visited the veteran bluesman at his home (an audibly less awkward occasion than the similar event commemorated by Joni Mitchell in her song “Furry Sings the Blues”) and recorded him singing over a dozen songs self-selected. Lewis has seemingly resisted his audience’s pleas for “Beale Street Blues”, but is otherwise proving a willful and enthusiastic performer, his set containing everything blues classics (Blind Lemon Jefferson’s immensely touching song “See that My Grave Is Kept Clean” the album’s highlight) through largely instrumental features (“Spanish Flang Dang”) to popular material (“My Blue Heaven” in a pleasantly informal version). Lewis’ voice is a lively and emotive instrument (Samuel Charters memorably calls him one of the “only few singers with the creative ability to use the blues as an expression of personal emotion”), and his playing, essentially a slide guitar with a ‘drone’ provided by the lowest string, is very individual (although his claims to have invented the bottleneck technique have been disputed). This is a precious recording of a legendary figure.
Disc 2 features a pianist Little Brother (Eurreal) Montgomeryincluding the author of the accompanying note Derrick Stewart Baxter refers to “the last of the great cooperage men”. Versatility is Montgomery’s watchword: he’s equally adept at playing, in his words, “songs, ballads, blues, boogie-woogie, and rags,” and this selection offers suitably varied dishes. , ranging from the soft and lyrical opening “Lonesome Mama Blues” through the swinging “No Special Boogie” to the “Tremblin’ Blues”, a tribute to its main inspiration, Cooney Vaughan. He also plays a particularly moving version of the WC Handy classic “St Louis Blues”, and accompanies the vocals of his wife Jan on four tracks, their highlight “Dangerous Blues”. Montgomery himself has a strong voice, presented most interestingly on the Irving Berlin song “Home Again Blues”, a vocal version of an earlier Montgomery recording “Windin’ Ball Blues”. As Stewart-Baxter suggests, however, the album’s highlight track is a journey through the pianist’s musical life, “History of Little Brother”, which showcases all the considerable talents that made him one of of the most influential pianists in music.
Tommy Johnson is the featured artist on disc 3, but not in person: the album’s 16 tracks (all numbers written or regularly performed by Johnson) are performed by 12 musicians who count the great Mississippi bluesman as a defining influence. The field recordings were made between 1966 and 1969 at the request of the blues researcher David Evans for his biography Tommy Johnson (London: Studio Vista, 1971), and they provide valuable testimony to the richness and variety of Johnson’s repertoire, honed over his 30-year career as a traveling musician, traveling the South, marrying four times , accepting occasional agricultural work when the need arose, always drinking heavily. In many ways, Johnson is the archetypal bluesman: restless, extravagantly gifted (his brother spread the rumor that Johnson’s skill was the result of a pact with the devil, a legend later later easily associated with its namesake Robert), who sings about women (“Maggie Campbell Blues”, reproduced here in two versions by Arzo Youngblood and Boogie Bill Webb, refers to his first wife, other songs to women more generally) and alcohol (“Show Me What You Got for Sale” is a celebration of bootleg whiskey, the famous “Canned Heat Blues” details his addiction to drink anything that contains alcohol, no matter how detrimental his health is). The performers featured on this compelling album range from sure-footed, shrill-voiced Boogie Bill Webb and accomplished, confident Arzo Youngblood to Houston Stackhousefeatured here on the only electric guitar track on the album, and Babe Stovall, backed by the justly famous “Big Road Blues” by a string-band type trio. All in all, it’s a fitting (and uninstructive) homage to an overlooked but uniquely influential figure.
Another set of field recordings by David Evans provide the (unreleased) material for Disc 4. Mott Willis sings and/or plays guitar on eight of the album’s 16 tracks; his unassuming versatility and enthusiastic sincerity are his trademarks, and his “story” song, “Bad Night Blues”, is one of the record’s highlights. Other performers – and none of these bluesmen, based around Drew Mississippi, have ever been commercially recorded – include some featured on the Tommy Johnson record, Isaac and Arzo Youngblood and (Tommy’s brother) Mager Johnson among them, and others use, like Johnson himself, common “pool” lyrics and guitar styles, so the great man’s influence has clearly not waned in the Delta region over ten years after his death. As Evans points out, Drew and the surrounding area also produced two famous “oldies”: Howlin’ Wolf and Roebuck Staples. These utterly authentic, informally produced recordings of ‘community’ blues singers offer a unique image of a highly influential band with a rich local tradition.
The nine tracks (by four singers) recorded by Bill Ferris in 1968. James “Son” Thomas begins with its signature song, “Cairo Blues,” which is a somewhat chilling tale of a woman’s drowning, delivered to a suitably majestic beat in a touching, plaintive voice. Thomas’ other contribution, “Rock Me Mama,” is something of a blues staple, but he effortlessly makes it his own. Lee Kizart plays boogie-woogie-style rolling piano on his playful yet powerful two cuts, perfectly complementing his entertaining vocal delivery. Scott Dunbar was 69 at the time of this recording, and his age shows in his slightly thin voice. What it lacks in power, however, it makes up for brilliantly, and its eight-minute “Jay Bird” conclusion, an infectious chorus with spoken interjections, is oddly compelling. lovey williams has a gravelly voice well suited to his material: “Rootin’ Ground Hog”, and the more familiar “Train I Ride”. As Ferris points out in his notes, these recordings are all the more precious because they represent the work of the last exponents of the folk blues style originating in the region.
Disc 6 is entirely devoted to “Miss Rhapsody”, viola well, who was 70 at the time of this recording, but still strong-voiced, and clearly embracing the chance to make her first major recording since retiring (to raise a family) in the late 1940s. She was considered , in her heyday as “the greatest blues singer in the land” by Benny Carter (whose “Blues in My Heart” is part of her age-old set here), and she performed with various touring numbers before heading to New York. York in the mid-1940s, where she collaborated with Art Tatum and Count Basie. Nearly 30 years later, her voice is sure, her diction perfect, but she is undoubtedly more at ease with gospel/religious songs (on which she is accompanied by the pianist Grace Gregory) only with secular and blues material (on which she is accompanied by a jazz quartet led by the pianist Ruben Jay Cole). She herself tacitly acknowledges this preference in her reaction to the session: “When you have a certain amount of love in your heart, a power comes from somewhere over which we have no control. Yes, my God has been good to me.
Matchbox now plans to release Library of Congress recordings as well as CDs of the music of Blind Boy Fuller, Peetie Wheatstraw, Sonny Boy Williamson et al, with a final set devoted to the British blues boom of the 1960s.
LINKS: Chris Parker’s coverage of sets 1-7
Purchase link for Series 8