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
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
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
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