Album reviews

‘Matchbox Bluesmaster Series – Set 5’ (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson…) plus BOOK.

Matchbox Bluesmaster Series Set 5

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1: Blind Lemon Jefferson 1926–29

2: Frank Stokes 1927–29

3: Blind Blake 1926–29

4: Big Bill Broonzy 1927–32

5: Mississippi Sheiks 1930 (Vol. 1)

6: Lonnie Johnson (Vol. 1) 1926–28


Blues from the Avon Delta: The Matchbox Blues Story by Mark Jones

(ALBUM: MSESET5 – 6 CDs / BOOK: The Record Press, 120pp., £19.99. Album and book reviews by Chris Parker)

The fifth six-CD set of early blues recordings from the Saydisc vaults mines the wealth of material (originally issued on LPs between 1982 and 1988) that comes under the category of “remaining titles” or “new to LP”, but – like its predecessors – comes with comprehensive notes by the late great blues professor Paul Oliver.

     Starting, appropriately enough (for he was a great pioneer of rural blues, his recordings bringing the form to the attention of the record-buying public in the late 1920s), with Blind Lemon Jefferson, the set begins with the singer’s first secular titles, “Got the Blues” and “Long Lonesome Blues”, the former featuring the unforgettable opening line: “Well the blues come to Texas, lopin’ like a mule”. The subsequent cuts include the celebrated “Match Box Blues” (part of Ma Rainey’s repertoire) and a series of snapshots of rural life ranging from a fear of being shot (“Cannon Ball Moan”) to a visit from the repo man (“Empty House Blues”), all showcasing Jefferson’s finely honed guitar technique and haunting vocal style.

     Frank Stokes may cast his stylistic net slightly more widely than Jefferson, including syncopated ragtime and dance rhythms and jaunty banter passages in his repertoire, but his guitar playing is similarly light and deft, and his often sensual lyrics, plus his humorous songs, made him a surefire attraction at medicine shows when he was still a teenager. Many of the songs included here feature Stokes accompanied by either guitarist Dan Sane or violinist Will Batts (with whom he often played in a string band popular in country clubs), but perhaps his most celebrated song, “I Got Mine”, is a lively solo performance recorded in Memphis in 1928. 

      Blind Blake has been memorably described (by blues writer Dr Hans R. Rookmaaker) as “a real artist with a personal style, never going beyond his capabilities, trying to refine his technique but always staying within the tradition he was born into”, and eleven of the eighteen tracks featured here are solo recordings that more than justify such praise. Blake, however, was a skilful enough guitarist to attract the attention of jazz musicians, and several tracks featured on this CD see him collaborating with the great clarinettist Johnny Dodds and the xylophone player Jimmy Bertrand, prompting Paul Oliver to speculate rather ruefully on “ways in which blues and jazz combinations could have been developed”. There are also three songs from Bertha Henderson, sympathetically accompanied by Blake as she moans out her mournful lyrics. Blake is a somewhat neglected figure these days, but his technical mastery shines through on these recordings, particularly on his solo-guitar outings “Guitar Chimes” and “Blind Arthur’s Breakdown”, which conclude the selection.

     Big Bill Broonzy, contrastingly, has never been neglected: as Oliver points out, “There are few blues singers as extensively recorded, as widely respected in his day, or as consistently good as Big Bill Broonzy.” His work, indeed, may well be a good place to start for anyone wishing to become better acquainted with early blues, since it is intensely communicative and accessible. His cleanly articulated guitar playing, too, prefigures rock guitar in a way little early blues playing does (Robert Johnson aside, of course). Here, Broonzy is featured in a variety of contexts, accompanied by Georgia Tom Dorsey or the Jug Busters, or accompanying the likes of Bill Williams or Georgia Tom and Jane Lucas in his inimitably light-fingered, thoroughly professional manner.

     The Mississippi Sheiks (the name is a nod to the contemporary popularity of the film heart-throb Rudolph Valentino) were extensively recorded (though not at full string-band strength) performing in a variety of musical modes from blues to novelty songs, and this CD concentrates on just one year’s output from the family-based band formed around the thirteen children of Eliza Jackson and Henderson Chatmon, later joined by Walter Vincson. An intriguing highlight of this selection is a highly affecting version of “Sitting on Top of the World”, but all their material is addressed with infectious verve and brio.

     Lonnie Johnson is already a significant presence on previous CD sets in this consistently excellent series; here, he gets a disc to himself to vindicate Paul Oliver’s fulsome praise of him: “There has been no blues singer to compare with Lonnie Johnson for diversity of experience and breadth of respect … His importance as a blues artist is without question, not only as a singer and guitarist, but also as an influence on his contemporaries … and as an accompanist to singers as varied as Texas Alexander and Clara Smith.” On these eighteen tracks, he is featured as singer, guitarist and violinist, not to mention banjoist, and he effortlessly demonstrates on all of them just why, to quote Oliver again, “there was no name in the male blues [between 1926 and 1928] better known than that of Lonnie Johnson”. Inventive, deft and fluent, he perfectly exemplifies the spirit and energy that make these Bluesmaster compilations so compulsively listenable.

Also available: Blues from the Avon Delta: The Matchbox Blues Story by Mark Jones (The Record Press, 120pp., £19.99), an exhaustive survey of “how Blueswailin’ Bristol kick-started Britain’s late 1960s’ country blues boom and became the epicentre of the UK’s DIY blues record label industry”. A labour of love, this painstakingly researched work, as well as providing a history of the 1960s British blues boom, lists all Saydisc (and related companies’) releases (complete with sleeve images). Blind Boy Fuller and Kokomo Arnold jostle with Jo-Ann and Dave Kelly, Peetie Wheatstraw and Furry Lewis with Mike Cooper and Ian Anderson – the result is truly an aficionado’s dream. 

Bluesmaster Vol. 5 is released on 5 November 2021

LINKS: Pre-order from Amazon

The book is available from Wyastone

Categories: Album reviews

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