Matchbox Bluesmaster Series
Set 1: Country Blues and Ragtime Blues Guitar 1926–30 (MSESET1 – Buddy Boy Hawkins, Bo Weavil Jackson, Peg Leg Howell, Texas Alexander… )
Set 2: Country Blues and Great Harp Players 1927–32 (MSESET2 – Skip James, Coley Jones, Leroy Carr…)
(Both 6-CD sets reviewed by Chris Parker)
The vital, pioneering role played by early US blues musicians in the development of popular music worldwide may be readily recognised by jazz aficionados and most serious cultural commentators, but that it is still unacknowledged by the general public was neatly demonstrated at the end of the last century. The vast majority of lists of the most prominent 20th-century musicians omitted (arguably) the most influential figure of all: Robert Johnson, the peerless doyen of a style of music without which there would have been no Elvis, Rolling Stones, Cream, or even – God forbid – Fleetwood Mac (whose Rumours is still a top-selling vinyl album over 40 years after its release), all of whom featured high on such lists.
Pointing out Its subsequent influence on popular music, however, is merely a convenient way of drawing attention to the blues and associated forms such as ragtime, gospel and hokum; that this music richly rewards close listening merely for its own sake is demonstrated over and over again by the 12 albums that constitute the initial releases of a projected series on CD taken from the vinyl recordings issued by Saydisc in the 1980s, embracing neglected solo blues singers as well as string bands, harp players and purveyors of novelty songs. Paul Oliver (who died in 2017) has provided characteristically learned notes, and the recordings have been skilfully transferred to CD by Norman White.
These two sets cover music recorded between 1926 and 1932, and while the work of some artists will be familiar (such as the vigorous keening of Skip James and the sophisticated assurance of Leroy Carr), other practitioners have undeservedly fallen into relative obscurity. The piercing melancholy of Peg Leg Howell or the affectingly mournful vibrato of Charley Lincoln, for instance, are something of a revelation, likewise the filigree delicacy of the guitar work of Willie Walker (his apparently effortless artistry compared with that of Art Tatum by no less a figure than Josh White, who called him “the best guitarist I’ve ever heard”). Other highlights include the feisty shouting style of Nellie Florence (one of the few women represented), the lively interplay of the various musicians involved in the sessions headed by Tommie Bradley and James Cole, and the strident vocals of Bo Weavil Jackson (Sam Butler).
It is the cumulative effect, though, of the eight hours or so of music in these two sets that really lingers in the mind. The vitality, spirit and freshness infusing performances nearly a hundred years ago of what is, ostensibly, a relatively limited musical form still delight; the resourcefulness and sheer resilience of these singers and musicians still astonish; the authenticity of the emotion – even in its disturbingly violent manifestations – still resonates. In short, a vivid portrait of a long-vanished society – its relentless labour, its fleeting snatched joys, its escape routes provided by trains and liquor, its circumscription by arbitrary law – is painted by these uniquely valuable recordings.
Vol 1 and Vol 2 of the Matchbox Bluesmaster Series are out now:
Categories: CD review