Matchbox Bluesmaster Series – Set 4
(MSESET4 – 6 CDs. Release Date 2 July 2021. Album Review by Chris Parker)
Julius Daniels/Lil McClintock (1927–30)
Texas Alexander Vol. 3 (1929–30)
Peg Leg Howell (1926–27)
Sanctified Jug Bands (1928–30)
St. Louis Bessie (1927–30)
Texas Alexander Vol. 4 (1934–50)
This six-CD set, the fourth in the series of reissues of Saydisc vinyl recordings of blues roots music from the 1920s and 1930s (supplemented with a couple of Texas Alexander tracks from a 1950 Houston session, included here), documents the uniquely influential music produced not only by contemporary blues artists but also by songsters and informal gospel groups. In the process, Matchbox triumphantly vindicates the 1912 prediction of pioneering civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson that the music of the South he so beguilingly describes in his Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (as productive of ‘one of the most thrilling emotions which the human heart may experience’) will one day constitute African Americans’ ‘most treasured heritage’.
The first CD is split between South Carolina’s Julius Daniels and a (probably) older man, Lil McClintock. As the late Paul Oliver points out in his characteristically erudite liner notes, both these men drew their repertoire from a tradition slightly pre-dating blues, so are as likely to sing ballads and spirituals as straightforward blues material, and their songs contain a wealth of historical detail about coal mining, rural working life and experiences in the prison system, not to mention novelty songs about mules and even seagoing women in men’s attire. Both Daniels and McClintock are possessed of affecting, emotive voices, particularly effective at conveying the direct power of lines such as ‘Policeman come by asked me what’s my name … My name is written on the bosom of my shirt, I’m a solid lover, never had to work.’
Texas Alexander has two CDs dedicated to his work, appropriately enough, since he was a relatively rare example of someone who (sporadically) made a decent living from his Okeh royalties. He is accompanied by various guitarists and by larger groups, both the Mississippi Sheiks and an intriguing band including a New Orleans-style clarinettist, ‘His Sax Black Tams’. The second CD concludes with the aforementioned 1950 Houston tracks, their raggedness underlining the sad end to which Alexander came, worn down both by syphilis and labour during his spell of imprisonment in the 1940s. He may have had a somewhat erratic approach to rhythm and verse structure, but his is an undeniably powerful and authentic voice.
Shot and lamed by his brother-in-law, Peg Leg Howell had to make a living from bootlegging during Prohibition, resulting in his imprisonment and consequential exposure to songs such as ‘New Prison Blues’, with its chillingly graphic lyrics. All Howell’s material has a compellingly lived-in quality to it, whether his songs deal with gambling or the perils of train tracks, and his repertoire, as Oliver points out, thus constitutes a highly personal body of work forged from country songs, ballads, blues and field hollers.
The music of the Sanctified Jug Bands may well have been ‘devised by the company promoters for the sole purpose of selling more records’, as Oliver suggests, since there is scant evidence of jug bands ever having played in churches, but the CD devoted to them contains a good number of hectoring sermons and shrill spirituals that provide a fascinating snapshot of this strand of Southern music.
In many ways, however, it is the CD dedicated to St. Louis Bessie that is the highlight of the collection. Lyrics such as ‘Just because I’m from the country my man treats me like a dog: he wants to put me in the stable and feed me like a hog’, plus a great number of songs about death and morbid dreams (not to mention her apparent obsession with snakes), make listening to her music a rather harrowing experience. But she is, simply, an utterly compelling and powerfully individual voice, and her delivery of such lines as ‘Late last night I lay in my bed alone’, and her constant references to moaning, weeping and worrying are highly affecting.
There are, it is good to report, three more six-CD sets to come from Matchbox; they are doing the musical world a great service with this excellent series of reissues.
Matchbox Bluesmaster Series is released on Friday 2 July 2021
LINKS: Matchbox Bluesmaster available to pre-order on Amazon now
Read Chris Parker’s review of Matchbox Bluesmaster Series sets 1 & 2 and Matchbox Bluesmaster Series set 3