Matchbox Bluesmaster Series – Set 6
(MSESET6 – 6 CDs. Album review by Chris Parker)
Disc 1: Papa Charlie Jackson 1924–29
Disc 2: Memphis Jug Band 1927–34
Disc 3: Barbecue Bob 1927–30
Disc 4: Leecan & Cooksey 1926–27
Disc 5: Roosevelt Sykes 1929–34
Disc 6: Mississippi Sheiks 1930–34
The sixth six-CD set in the Matchbox Bluesmaster Series is slightly more slanted towards ‘hokum’ music than previous sets, featuring the work of popular entertainers as well as that of more ‘pure’ blues artists, but like its predecessors it is a veritable goldmine, containing numerous priceless nuggets of early recorded music, all scrupulously annotated by world authority Paul Oliver.
Papa Charlie Jackson is unusual in that his preferred instrument is the banjo rather than the guitar (though three tracks here feature his limber guitar playing), and this gives his music a slightly vaudevillian flavour, appropriate for his work as an entertainer on medicine shows, where he’d play for hoochy-coochy dancers etc., using contemporary events and issues as inspiration for a number of his original songs. His has a pleasingly informal approach, his singing frequently interspersed with spoken interludes; as Oliver comments, he ‘never seemed to succumb to complaints… but told of scuffling and hardship with a wry, sometimes ironic humour’.
The Memphis Jug Band needs no introduction – anyone interested in early American music will doubtless already be familiar with such timeless classics as ‘Stealin’, Stealin’’, ‘Whitewash Station Blues’ and ‘Got a Letter from My Darlin’’ – but this selection features other vocalists as well as Will Shade, Ben Ramey and Will Weldon, among them the sweetly strident Jennie Clayton and Charlie ‘Bozo’ Nickerson. Their material, delivered with all their customary panache (featuring musical saw, kazoo, washboard as well as the jug), is anchored in blues, but also contains dance material and road-show standards, well loved by audiences keen to distract themselves from the vicissitudes associated with the Great Depression.
The CD featuring Barbecue Bob (Robert Hicks) begins with ‘When the Saints Go Marching in’, a relatively uncommon selection at the time (though it has subsequently become the anthem of the New Orleans Revival), and continues with another religious number, ‘Jesus’ Blood Can Make Me Whole’, but the singer is clearly more at ease with secular titles such as ‘Easy Rider, Don’t You Deny My Name’ or the hokum of ‘It Won’t be Long Now’, a humorous song performed with his older brother Charley, who taught him to play guitar. Barbecue Bob has a warm baritone voice and an eclectic repertoire, so his premature death at 29 from pneumonia robbed the music of a potential great.
Leecan & Cooksey are Bobby Leecan (guitar) and Robert Cooksey (harmonica), and most of the cuts on their CD are duets (apart from a solo ‘Blind Bobbie Baker’ version of the classic ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’), all addressed with considerable brio, if no great subtlety. They also collaborated with cornet player Tom Morris in the Dixie Jassers Washboard Band, who provide the last four items in this lively, intriguing selection.
Roosevelt Sykes is another familiar name, here caught at the beginning of a fifty-year career. Professional to his fingertips, he clearly hit his stride early (he is in his mid-twenties on these sessions), dispensing an easy-rolling piano which perfectly complements both his own engaging singing and that of others included here, such as Isabel Sykes, Charlie McFadden and Carl Rafferty. As Oliver points out, Sykes was ‘unusual among blues singers for he had an outgoing disposition and a… generally optimistic outlook’, and his inclusion in this set brings welcome emotional variety to the proceedings.
The Mississippi Sheiks are a family string band with rural origins featuring Bo Carter (Chatmon) and Walter Vinson among others, and their repertoire is fascinatingly broad-based, including songs about everything from Prohibition to automobiles and the numbers racket. The violin playing of Lonnie Chatmon is, admittedly, not particularly tuneful, but if the band are somewhat lacking in strict musicality they more than make up for it with the spirit and energy of their performances.
This is the penultimate issue in a seven-set series, but Saydisc are to continue their admirable reissuing policy with a further five volumes (each of six CDs) of Matchbox 1970s blues releases (including Library of Congress recordings), field recordings and some unissued material.
Bluesmaster Vol. 6 is released on 4 February 2022