Matchbox Bluesmaster Series
(Set 7: MSESET7 – 6 CDs – Album Review by Chris Parker)
Disc 1: Lonnie Johnson Vol. 2 1927–32
Disc 2: The Famous Hokum Boys 1930–31
Disc 3: Songsters and Saints Vol. 1a 1925–31
Disc 4: Songsters and Saints Vol. 1b 1925–31
Disc 5: Songsters and Saints Vol. 2a 1925–31
Disc 6: Songsters and Saints Vol. 2b 1925–31
This, the seventh (and final) six-CD set in the peerless Matchbox Bluesmaster Series, features blues expert Paul Oliver’s selection of tracks sacred and secular (four CDs) alongside a single-artist album of songs and a CD of humorous ‘hokum’ music.
Lonnie Johnson is featured on the single-artist CD. Generally thought of as something of a sophisticate among blues singers (he collaborated with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael and Eddie Lang, had his own radio show, and fronted the pit orchestra at the Stanton Theatre in Philadelphia), he worked for Okeh between 1927 and 1932, producing both solo recordings and the odd duet with Victoria Spivey or Jimmy Foster. His guitar playing throughout these sessions is characteristically neat, forceful and imaginative, his voice strong and sure with admirably clear diction, so material such as ‘Death Valley is Just Half Way to My Home’ (based on the ‘Lonesome Road’ theme) and ‘Don’t Drive Me from Your Door’ (on which he plays steady-rolling piano) is highly affecting. His is a fine body of work, professional as well as consistently entertaining, although (as all too often with the classic blues of this period), a number of his songs are, inexcusably, violently misogynistic (‘I’ll take my fist and knock you down’ is the shocking climax to one song).
Moving swiftly on to less controversial territory: The Fabulous Hokum Boys (Georgia Tom and Big Bill Broonzy plus various collaborators such as Hannah May, Jane Lucas and Kansas City Kitty), produce pure entertainment, rags, struts and dance-worthy novelty items. Oliver points out that the Hokum Boys ‘brought a new lightness and sophistication to the idiom, contrasting with the heavy emotion and seriousness of much Southern blues’, and this selection raises spirits with such lines as ‘my [heart] got so hot, burned a hole in my undershirt’ and ‘when she starts to do her stuff, make a bulldog break his chain’. Light-hearted verses and harmonised choruses enliven such subjects as the efficacy of corn liquor and the difficulties experienced by cheating spouses in concealing evidence of infidelity, and the tracks featuring heavy-handed but largely inoffensive sexual innuendo are handled with great aplomb by sweet-voiced but sparky female foils. Both Broonzy and Georgia Tom are, moreover, skilled and deft instrumentalists, making this a wholly enjoyable CD.
Disc 3 comes in two parts: Dancing and Travelling Shows, and Comment, Parodies and Ballad Heroes. These categories cover everything from close-harmony novelty songs, rural folk music and jug-band music, sung to guitar accompaniment augmented variously by violins, kazoos, jugs, mandolins and the odd piano. Performers range from the versatile entertainer Peg Leg Howell and the celebrated bluesman Charley Patton singing non-blues material rooted in the vaudeville stage tradition or the songster repertoire, to more problematic fare: so-called ‘coon’ songs, originally composed to pander to a white audience’s predilection for ridiculing behaviour seen as characteristic of Southern blacks. Examples here include ‘Under the Chicken Tree’ (Earl McDonald dreams of chicken-eating), and the self-explanatory ‘The Coon Crap Game’ (George ‘Big Boy’ Owens). These sit somewhat uneasily in this selection alongside such straightforwardly ‘protest’ songs as ‘Furniture Man’ (a castigation of the repo-man: ‘If ever there was a devil born without horns, it must have been the Furniture Man’) and laments concerning banes of contemporary Southern life such as recalcitrant mules, violent villains and capital punishment.
‘Songsters and Saints’ continue their contributions on Disc 4: the ‘Saints’ are hellfire preachers urging their (extremely vocal) congregations to repent before it’s too late, but there are occasional songs too, spirituals and reflective fare such as Washington Phillips’ ‘I am Born to Preach the Gospel’. Anyone familiar with Phillips’ uniquely touching dulceola-accompanied masterpiece ‘Denomination Blues’ (which can be heard on the classic compilation Screening the Blues, with notes from Paul Oliver) will not be surprised to hear the selections on this disc that detail all the baptist sub-sects and their varying practices and beliefs, but there are also topical references to Colonel Lindbergh, bo weevils and the sinking of the Titanic, so that a fascinating picture of contemporary Southern life emerges from the CD’s 18 tracks.
Disc 5 contains more contemporary commentary, on everything from a subtly satirised visit to President Roosevelt by Booker T. Washington (Gus Cannon’s ‘Can You Blame the Colored Man’) to an anti-liquor 1909 mayoral campaign (Frank Stokes’s ‘Mr Crump Don’t Like It’). Featured artists on this CD include the conversationally informal Papa Charlie Jackson, the slurry-voiced Sam Jones (whose instruments include a stovepipe) and the widely influential Texas bluesman Henry Thomas (whose USP is his use of quills, a pan-pipe-like instrument made from cane reeds). Highlights are Blind Blake’s deft guitar accompaniments to his two cuts, ‘He’s in the Jailhouse Now’ and ‘West Coast Blues’, which provide a suitably musicianly climax to an entertainingly varied selection.
Although it reaches a rousing climax with the rasping, rousing vocals of Sister Bessie Johnson, Disc 6 contains much contemplative matter in the form of preaching about Nebuchadnezzar (J. C. Burnett, who also uses a deck of cards to illustrate his teaching, much as country singers such as Wink Martindale were to do much later in the century), and (again – it seems to have been something of an obsession with Southern preachers) a Blind Willie Johnson song about the Titanic disaster. Johnson has an attractive, growling vocal style and plays a mean slide guitar, and his duet with wife Angeline on ‘The Rain Don’t Fall on Me’ is particularly affecting. Fleshed out with more preaching and cautionary tales, this, the last disc of Matchbox’s exemplary reissue series, provides a useful complement to the secular blues that constitute the bulk of the material on the previous six sets.
As Paul Oliver says, in his summary at the end of his characteristically learned notes: ‘We should no longer let our absorption with blues and gospel deflect our attention from the richness and variety of those idioms of an early era; not only because the roots of contemporary music are embedded in them, but also for their intrinsic worth…’ Amen to that.
Links to all of Chris Parker’s previous Bluesmaster Reviews