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MASTERS OF THE COUNTRY BLUES
Rare Footage From the 1960s

Bukka White & Son House Rev. Gary Davis & Sonny Terry Mance Lipscomb & Lightnin' Hopkins Elizabeth Cotten & Jesse Fuller
Bukka White & Son House
Yazoo 500; Video & DVD
Rev. Gary Davis & Sonny Terry
Yazoo 501; Video
Mance Lipscomb & Lightnin' Hopkins
Yazoo 502; Video & DVD
Elizabeth Cotten & Jesse Fuller
Yazoo 503; Video
Fred McDowell & Big Joe Williams Lightnin' Hopkins & Roosevelt Sykes Big Bill Broonzy & Roosevelt Sykes John Lee Hooker & Furry Lewis
Fred McDowell & Big Joe Williams
Yazoo 504; Video
Rev. Gary Davis & Sonny Terry
Yazoo 513; Video
Big Bill Broonzy & Roosevelt Sykes
Yazoo 518; Video
John Lee Hooker & Furry Lewis
Yazoo 519; Video

BY TONY GLOVER

Sometimes music is entertainment, sometimes it's history, and sometimes it's both. Among the recent multitude of blues reissues, recent releases from Yazoo are definitely both. Videos from the Masters of the Country Blues series feature brief but welcome performances by some seminal artists - Son House, Bukka White, the Rev. Gary Davis, Sonny Terry, Mance Lipscomb, and Lightning Hopkins.

The Seattle Folklore society recorded the material in the late '60s, the tapes were saved, converted to film, and are now available on home video.

Each tape features two artists, linked by geography and, consequently, musical approaches.

The Mississippi delta is well represented by Son House and bukka White. Son is a true legendary slide guitarist and singer of frightening intensity. When Robert Johnson copped licks and lyrics from House's "Walking Blues" and "Preaching the Blues," he got a lesson in emotional depth as well - Son always sang for keeps. Son opens his set with a burning version of "Death Letter Blues," playing a steel-body National guitar, and, though in his late '60s, he snaps strings and growls lyrics with the fervor of a man truly possessed. House, who wavered between temptations of the blues life and a calling as a preacher, follows with an a cappella version of the spiritual "John the Revelator," then begins to talk about choosing between god and the devil. He sits down for "Preaching the blues," then closes with another a cappella spiritual. House lays bare his attempt to merge musical gifts with spiritual beliefs; it's compelling to see.

Bukka White, cousin and inspiration to B.B. King, is a more flamboyant performer. His exuberant slide playing sometimes almost drowns out his vocals, while flashy arm gestures add drama to his performance. He does five guitar pieces, as well as a serviceable barrelhouse piano blues. His percussively rhythmic strumming drives the set.

The Rev. Gary Davis and Sonny Terry both went from the streets of Durham, North Carolina, to worldwide acclaim, so it's appropriate that two blind musicians share a tape. Davis was a single-note fingerpicker par excellence, with a strong ragtime base. Though he repudiated blues and would sing only gospel music, he could be talked into numbers like "Candy Man" as long as he only played them. So three of the eight selections are blues-rag instrumentals, two are vaudeville-flavored pieces, "She Wouldn't Say Quit" and "Where You Get Your Liquor From," and the rest is pure gospel. Davis's sprightly picking contrasts with his rather foreboding appearance. (Guitarists will appreciate that all tapes feature lingering closeups of hand work, but they'll probably want to rewind some here - Davis often used false fingering positions so others couldn't steal his style.)

Sonny Terry is the virtuoso harp player who was teamed - and often at odds - with guitarist, singer, and songwriter Brownie McGhee for some 30 years. Terry played with the best, including Leadbelly, Blind boy Fuller, and Woody Guthrie, but he's a standout on his own. This set features him on five solo numbers, with quite gregarious, slightly off-the-wall introductions. His single-note playing with accompanying hand flutters for tone altering is captured nicely, especially on his showcase "Hooting the Blues." He alternates between harp notes and sung falsetto tones so rapidly it's mind-boggling; he was one of a kind.

Texas guitarists Mance Lipscomb and Lightning Hopkins share another tape. Lipscomb was a songster; he did rags, polkas, and vaudeville numbers as well as blues. Despite a heavily bandaged picking-hand finger and some 70 years of age, he turns out an easy-flowing set of nine tunes, in a rolling fingerpicking style. He plays to the audience, mixing anecdotes and music is a nice rapport. Lightning Hopkins has charisma of a different sort. A full-time bluesman/traveler, he's smooth and dapper is shades and turtleneck, capable of charming juke joint and white college audience alike. He melds simple, rocking guitar with an expressively plaintive voice to move and groove you, as on his Top-40 hit, "Mojo Hand." Though an expressive head shake at song's end causes him to lose his upper plate, his dignity remains intact. Hopkins was an ingratiating boogie stylist, but he could communicate matters of the soul as well. He wasn't a guitar wizard, but he didn't need to be - his personality makes you watch him.

Another new release features two Mississippi bluesmen: Fred "I do not play no rock and roll" McDowell and Big Joe Williams. McDowell was a slide player who shared many gigs with Bonnie Raitt in her early days, and his style rubbed off on her. His 15-minute set is short but sweet and includes a snatch of his trademark piece, "Shake 'Em on Down." Williams was an itinerant nine-string guitarist and early partner of Sonny Boy Williamson's. He played a heavy, rhythmically complex style, and in 25 minutes he does several verses each of some 13 tunes, including his own standard, "Baby Please Don't Go."

Another tape showcases fingerpickers Jesse fuller and Elizabeth cotten. Fuller was a showman, a one-man band who played 12-string guitar, harp and kazoo in a rack, and the "Footdella," a foot-operated string bass. He did blues, ragtime, gospel, and vaudeville numbers, most of which are touched on here. His tune "San Francisco Bay Blues" was a staple in early repertoires of Jack Elliot and Dylan; it's here with six others, all played with Fuller's compelling onward stride. cotten was more homespun. No wonder - for years she was a maid to musicologist Charles Seeger. When his kids - Pete, mike, and Peggy - grew up and became folk performers, they took "Libba" along. Her sweet, melodically ornate guitar style became known as Cotten picking, and her "Freight Train" was even a pop hit.

A third "Masters of the Country Blues" tape, from Houston public television, comprises two half-hour documentaries covering Texas homeboy Lightning Hopkins and pianist Roosevelt Sykes. Both are seen at home and in performance, reminiscing and playing. Hopkin's recollections - of his homemade guitar, meeting and playing with Blind Lemon Jefferson, working and playing on he railroad - are interwoven with partial versions of 10 tunes, including his '60s hit, "Mojo Hand." It's not an in-depth profile, but still it's interesting - Hopkins could shoot the bull as slickly as he could bend the strings. The second half is a somewhat deeper look at Sykes, whose "Driving Wheel" is a standard and whose other tunes have been widely covered as well. His easy, loping style is captured in this pleasant profile.

- from the Twin Cities Reader

Furry Lewis and John Lee Hooker represent generational markers in the development of traditional blues in Memphis and Mississippi. Furry, born around the turn of the century, incorporated ragtime, ballads and other types of secular black music in his repertoire along with blues. John Lee Hooker, born in 1917 in Clarksdale, the heart of the Mississippi delta, was suffused with the blues that by then had become the predominant music of the area. Yet his approach was totally unique and became one of the building blocks of rock and roll.

Roosevelt Sykes was one of the greatest blues pianists of all time. In a recording career that extended over five decades, Sykes displays a mastery of performing styles from barrelhouse to stride piano, form St. Louis boogie woogie to New Orleans blues. Along the way he composed songs that have become standards, including "Night Time is the Right Time," "Honeydripper Blues" and many others.

Big Bill Broonzy is a towering and influential figure in traditional blues as a guitarist, singer and architect of early Chicago blues. Broonzy came to Chicago in the 1920s and began recording rags and hard-edged guitar blues. As blues became more urbanized, Broonzy moved with the times, retaining his spectacular guitar style and warm vocals. By the late 1930s, he was probably the most famous bluesman in this country.

"These videos are a precious resource." - Acoustic Guitar

"As saved pieces of history, these videos are fascinating." - Southland Blues

© 2000 Yazoo Records