Album reviews

Matchbox Bluesmaster Series – Set 8 (‘Big Road Blues 1966–1972: The Tradition Continues’)

Matchbox Bluesmaster Series Set 8: (‘Big Road Blues 1966–1972: The Tradition Continues’)

MSESET8 – 6 CDs. Album reviews by Chris Parker)

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Disc 1: Furry Lewis in Memphis (1968)

Disc 2: Little Brother Montgomery (1972)

Disc 3: The Legacy of Tommy Johnson (1966–69)

Disc 4: Big Road Blues (1966–71)

Disc 5: Blues from the Delta (1968)

Disc 6: Viola Wells: Miss Rhapsody (1972)

Having issued seven 6-CD box sets of recordings of early blues, gospel and hokum (originally issued by Saydisc in the 1980s – link to reviews below), the Matchbox Bluesmaster Series has now begun a fresh project: to make available a further five 6-CD sets of classic blues from the Saydisc subsidiary Matchbox. 

Entitled Big Road Blues (1966–1972: The Tradition Continues), the first set of the series begins with an informally recorded set from the doyen of Memphis blues, Furry Lewis. In 1968, music historian Karl Gert zur Heide visited the veteran bluesman at his home (an occasion audibly less awkward than the similar event memorialised by Joni Mitchell in her song “Furry Sings the Blues”) and recorded him singing over a dozen self-selected songs. Lewis apparently resisted his audience’s calls for “Beale Street Blues”, but otherwise proves a willing, enthusiastic performer, his set containing everything from blues classics (the hugely affecting Blind Lemon Jefferson song “See that My Grave Is Kept Clean” the album’s highlight) through largely instrumental features (“Spanish Flang Dang”) to popular material (“My Blue Heaven” in an enjoyably informal version). Lewis’s voice is a keening, emotional instrument (Samuel Charters memorably calls him one of “only a handful of singers with the creative ability to use the blues as an expression of personal emotion”), and his playing, basically slide guitar with a ‘drone’ provided by the lowest string, is highly individual (although his claims to have invented the bottleneck technique have been disputed). This is a valuable record of a legendary figure.

 Disc 2 features pianist Little Brother (Eurreal) Montgomery, whom liner-note writer Derrick Stewart-Baxter refers to as “the last of the great barrelhouse men”. Versatility is Montgomery’s watchword: he is equally adept at playing, in his words, “songs, ballads, blues, boogie-woogie and rags”, and this selection provides suitably varied fare, ranging from the gently rolling, lyrical opener “Lonesome Mama Blues” through the swinging “No Special Boogie” to “Tremblin’ Blues”, a tribute to his chief inspiration, Cooney Vaughan. He also plays a particularly affecting version of the W. C. Handy classic “St Louis Blues”, and accompanies his wife Jan’s singing on four cuts, their highlight “Dangerous Blues”. Montgomery himself has a strong voice, showcased most interestingly on the Irving Berlin song “Home Again Blues”, a vocal version of an earlier Montgomery recording “Windin’ Ball Blues”. As Stewart-Baxter suggests, however, the album’s standout track is a journey through the pianist’s musical lifem, “History of Little Brother”, which showcases all the considerable talents that made him one of the most influential pianists in the music.

 Tommy Johnson is the featured artist on Disc 3, although not in person: the album’s 16 tracks (all numbers written or regularly played by Johnson) are performed by 12 musicians who count the great Mississippi bluesman as a seminal influence. The field recordings were made between 1966 and 1969 at the behest of blues researcher David Evans for his biography Tommy Johnson (London: Studio Vista, 1971), and they provide a valuable record of the richness and variety of Johnson’s repertoire, honed over his 30-year career as an itinerant musician, roaming the South, marrying four times, taking on casual farm work when the need arose, always drinking heavily. In many ways, Johnson is the archetypal bluesman: restless, extravagantly gifted (his brother put the rumour abroad that Johnson’s skill was a result of a pact with the devil, a legend later more readily associated with his – unrelated – namesake Robert), singing about women (“Maggie Campbell Blues”, included here in two versions by Arzo Youngblood and Boogie Bill Webb,refers to his first wife, other songs to women more generally) and alcohol (“Show Me What You Got for Sale” is a celebration of bootleg whiskey, the famous “Canned Heat Blues” details his addiction to drinking anything containing alcohol, no matter how injurious to his health). The performers featured on this fascinating album range from the aforementioned sure-footed, strident-voiced Boogie Bill Webb and the accomplished, confident Arzo Youngblood, to Houston Stackhouse, featured here on the album’s sole electric guitar track, and Babe Stovall, backed on the justly celebrated “Big Road Blues” by a string-band-type trio. Overall, this is a fitting (and unfussily instructive) tribute to a neglected but uniquely influential figure.

Another set of David Evans’s field recordings provides the (previously unreleased) material for Disc 4. Mott Willis sings and/or plays guitar on eight of the album’s 16 tracks; unassuming versatility and keening sincerity are his hallmarks, and his ‘story’ song, “Bad Night Blues”, is one of the highlights of the disc. Other performers – and none of these bluesmen, based around Drew Mississippi, has ever been commercially recorded – include some featured on the Tommy Johnson disc, Isaac and Arzo Youngblood and (Tommy’s brother) Mager Johnson among them, and others utilise, as Johnson himself did, lyrics and guitar stylings from the common ‘pool’, so the great man’s influence was clearly undiminished in the delta region over ten years after his death. As Evans points out, Drew and environs also produced two famous ‘alumni’: Howlin’ Wolf and Roebuck Staples, so these recordings of utterly authentic ‘community’ blues singers, informally produced as they are, provide a unique picture of a highly influential, rich local tradition.

More evidence of the persistence into the 1960s of the local Mississippi blues tradition is provided by the nine tracks (from four singers) recorded by Bill Ferris in 1968. James “Son” Thomas begins with his signature song, “Cairo Blues”, which is a somewhat chilling account of a woman’s drowning, delivered at a suitably stately pace in an affecting, plaintive voice. Thomas’s other contribution, “Rock Me Mama”, is something of a blues staple, but he effortlessly makes it his own. Lee Kizart plays rolling boogie-woogie-style piano on both his cuts, jaunty but powerful, complementing his entertaining vocal delivery perfectly. Scott Dunbar was 69 at the time of this recording, and his age shows in his slightly reedy voice. What he lacks in power, however, he more than makes up for with sheer brio, and his concluding eight-minute “Jay Bird”, an infectious refrain with spoken interjections, is oddly compelling. Lovey Williams has a gravelly voice well suited to his material: “Rootin’ Ground Hog”, and the more familiar “Train I Ride”. As Ferris points out in his notes, these recordings are all the more valuable for their representing the work of the last exponents of the folk blues style that originated in the area. 

Disc 6 is devoted entirely to “Miss Rhapsody”, Viola Wells, who was 70 at the time of this recording, but still strong-voiced, and clearly enthusiastically embracing the chance to make her first major recording since her retirement (to raise a family) in the late 1940s. She was regarded, in her heyday, as “the greatest blues singer in the country” by Benny Carter (whose “Blues in My Heart” forms part of her secular set here), and she performed with various touring acts before     fetching up in New York in the mid-1940s, where she collaborated with the likes of Art Tatum and Count Basie. Nearly 30 years on, her voice is sure, her diction perfect, but she is undoubtedly more at home with gospel/religious songs (on which she is accompanied by pianist Grace Gregory) than with secular and blues material (on which she is backed by a jazz quartet led by pianist Reuben Jay Cole). She herself tacitly acknowledges this preference in her reaction to the session: “When you’ve got a certain amount of love in your heart, a power comes from somewhere that we have no control over. Yes, my God has been good to me.” 

Matchbox now plan to issue Library of Congress recordings along with CDs of the music of Blind Boy Fuller, Peetie Wheatstraw, Sonny Boy Williamson et al., with a final set devoted to the 1960s British blues boom.

LINKS: Chris Parker’s coverage of sets 1 to 7

Purchase link for Set 8

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