Matchbox Bluesmaster Series – Set 3
(MSESET3 – 6 CDs. Release Date 7 May 2021. Album Review by Chris Parker)
Disc 1: Memphis Harmonica Kings 1929–30
Disc 2: Texas Alexander 1928–29
Disc 3: Ramblin’ Thomas 1928–32
Disc 4: Country Girls 1926–29 (Various Artists)
Disc 5: Rufus and Ben Quillian 1929–31
Disc 6: De Ford Bailey and Bert Bilbro 1927–31 (Harmonica Showcase)
The latest set in the Matchbox Bluesmaster Series, like its two predecessors (link to review below), is taken from the 42 albums released by Saydisc between November 1982 and June 1988. They concentrate on blues recordings, but also contain examples of hokum (described by Paul Oliver’s exemplary liner notes as ‘a kind of arch, nudging blues style … entertainment with suggestive lyrics’) and gospel, originally recorded by companies such as Okeh and marketed to the black community.
The first disc is dedicated to harmonica players Noah Lewis and Jed Davenport, who recorded – both in a solo capacity and with various jug bands – in Memphis and Chicago. The former was something of a virtuoso, and he performs the customary train-imitating pieces (‘Chickasaw Special’) and ‘farmyard’ novelties (‘Devil in the Woodpile’) here, collaborating with stellar figures such as Sleepy John Estes and jug player Ham[bone] Lewis on the group tracks. Davenport’s highlights include an affecting visit to ‘Sittin’ on Top of the World’, sung by ‘Too Tight Henry’ Castle, and the celebrated ‘Beale Street Breakdown’ on which he is backed by his Beale Street Jug Band.
Texas Alexander freely mixes frank and explicit sexual innuendo with prison blues of a similarly unflinching nature: ‘Penitentiary Moan Blues’, for instance, describes the reddening of river water that results from convicts washing themselves in it after being beaten with the ‘Black Bettty’, a leather strap used as a punishment for the recalcitrant. Alexander has a somewhat cavalier approach to metre and verse structure, so the fact that he is accompanied by the doyen of blues guitarists, Lonnie Johnson, and by the similarly nimble and subtle Eddie Lang on his New York recordings is a great bonus; all in all, his seventeen tracks provide a fascinating glimpse of an unjustly neglected figure, a service for which this series as a whole is notable.
Ramblin’ Thomas provides his own guitar accompaniment, and his poetic lyrics (Langston Hughes was a great admirer) deal with everything from restlessness and love trouble to legal problems (arrests for vagrancy) and struggles with alcohol and poverty. Like many another blues artist, he came to a sad, premature end, dying in the 1940s of tuberculosis, a death eerily prefigured here by his keening on ‘Sawmill Moan’, which (as Paul Oliver points out) nods to Victoria Spivey’s ‘T.B. Blues’.
Disc 4 begins with five tracks by the feisty but plaintive-voiced Lillian Miller, the first of which, ‘Kitchen Blues’, features accompaniment by another artist who died tragically early: sixteen-year-old pianist Hersal Thomas. On the other cuts, which include ‘Dead Drunk Blues’ (made famous by Ma Rainey), she is supported by Hersal’s brother George. Hattie Hudson provides only two tracks, ‘Doggone My Good Luck Soul’ and ‘Black Hand Blues’, but they’re both highly original numbers with catchy hooks and intriguing lyrics; the same session produced two more blues tunes sung by Gertrude Perkins, also included here, both women accompanied by pianist Willie Tyson. The gospel songs of Laura Henton (four featuring the piano of Bennie Moten) are strident confessions of faith, but the disc’s highlight comes at the end: the chilling ‘Carbolic Acid Blues’ by Bobbie Cadillac, a vivid account of a jealousy-induced acid attack and its dreadful consequences.
After such horrors, the good-natured hokum of Rufus and Ben Quillian on Disc 5 comes as something of a relief, although – as with the undeniably skilful solo harmonica playing from De Ford Bailey and Bert Bilbro that is featured on Disc 6 – a little goes a long way, despite the infectious vitality of the former pair and the variety of sounds (trains, ‘hens, hounds, foxes, turkeys, everything around me’, as Bailey himself notes) produced on the latter disc’s sixteen cuts.
With this latest set of discs, the Matchbox Bluesmaster Series continues to perform a valuable service to early blues, unearthing fascinating nuggets from the pioneers of the genre.
Matchbox Bluesmaster Series Set 3 is released on 7 May 2021 and can be pre-ordered here.