Album reviews

Matchbox Bluesmaster Series – Set 9 (Jack O’Diamonds – Library of Congress field recordings 1934-1943)

Matchbox Bluesmaster Series – Set 9 (Jack O’Diamonds – Library of Congress field recordings 1934-1943)

(MSESET9 – 6 CDs. Album review by Chris Parker)

Disc 1: Mississippi River Blues

Disc 2: Fort Valley Blues

Disc 3: Out in the Cold Again

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Disc 4: Boot That Thing

Disc 5: Two White Horses Standin’ in Line

Disc 6: Jack O’ Diamonds

Containing music originally released in the 1970s as a joint venture between Flyright and Saydisc Records, these six CDs comprise field recordings made between 1934 and 1943 by various collectors for the Library of Congress. The fragility of the resultant pressings – they were made on portable 78rpm lacquer disc-cutting machines – means that their transfer to CD as part of Nimbus Records’ Matchbox series is as timely as it is valuable.

Disc 1 features singers/guitarists Lucious Curtis and Willie Ford (plus one track by George Boldwin), recorded by John A. and Ruby Lomax in 1940 on a visit to Natchez. The town’s Black population (more than a majority at that time) was in deep mourning after a disastrous dancehall fire, but the Lomaxes managed to obtain the help of a parking-lot attendant, who directed them to some “real guitar pickers” in the shape of Curtis and Ford. Their songs are a lively mixture of traditional fare (the affecting “Time is Gittin’ Hard”) and originals (Ford’s excellent “Santa ‘Field’ Blues” and “Sto’ Gallery Blues”; Curtis’s “Lonesome Highway Blues” and “Rubber Ball Blues” – all powerfully emotional performances backed by skilfully blended guitar accompaniment). Lyrics include some memorable lines – “White folks sittin’ in the parlor/Eatin’ that cake and cream”, contrasted with Black families “squabblin’ over turnip greens” – but whatever they’re singing, Curtis and Ford are consistently adept and committed, thoroughly justifying John Lomax’s subsequent comment: “We got some good blues at Natchez”.

Disc 2 contains sixteen tracks recorded by John Work and Willis James, performed by artists featured at the annual Fort Valley State College Folk Festival in Georgia. Although both secular and spiritual music made up said festival, this disc confines itself to the former. The most memorable cuts are those by the only singer to have gone on to a commercial career: Buster Brown. His is a unique approach, his passionate vocals and harmonica decorated with spontaneous whoops and cries. Also utterly distinctive is Gus Gibson, his voice a powerful growl, which blends with his slide guitar to produce a beguiling, slightly eerie sound, all the more poignant for being recorded in the last year of his life. Other artists include Charles Ellis, a rare pianist among all the guitarists; Buster “Buzz” Ezell, who sets a variety of songs on topical subjects to a ringingly propulsive guitar; James Sneed, whose lively vocals and washboard are fetchingly set against the guitars of festival favourites J. F. Duffy and Alvin Sanders; and Allison Mathis, a fierce-voiced singer whose version of “John Henry” is supported by the equally obscure harmonica player Jessie Stroller, whose solo rendition of “When Saints Come to Town” brings this standout selection, annotated by the doyen of living blues writers, Tony Russell, to an appropriately vigorous and unfussily virtuosic end.

In 1935, the celebrated writer Zora Neale Hurston introduced Alan Lomax to a man she considered a fine guitarist, Gabriel Brown, who hailed from her home town, Eatonville, Florida. On the eighteen tracks that constitute Disc 3, Brown plays slide guitar with great dexterity and considerable power, often backed by fellow guitarist Rochelle French. Brown is also an acceptable vocalist, and he delivers the lyrics to such staples as “John Henry” and “Motherless Child” – the blues, not the spiritual, later popularised in an expanded version by Steve Miller – with informal grace. His “Education Blues” (“All my education didn’t mean a thing to me, When I met a good-looking woman, that was the end of me”) is a particular highlight of a compelling set, so it is a shame that the disc’s recording quality (marred by surface noise and abrupt endings) doesn’t do him full justice. Brown later moved to New York, when Hurston featured him in her light opera Polk County, and he made more recordings before drowning in a boating accident in his early sixties.

After this visit to Eatonville, Hurston, Lomax and Elizabeth Barnicle moved on to Belle Glade in the Everglades, meeting a fine jook band there: Booker T. Sapps and Roger Matthews (harmonica players) and – on the evidence of the cuts on this CD – one of the greatest slide guitarists of his time, Willy Flowers. They start with solo harmonica visits to contemporary staples for the instrument, “The Train” and “The Fox and Hounds”, but then move on to blues songs, most memorably “Alabama Blues” and “The Weeping Worry Blues”, both utilising the familiar “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” motif, and taken at breathtaking speed by the driving guitar of Flowers. The vocals, both here and elsewhere on this session, are somewhat reedy, even perfunctory, but the lyrics are clearer than on many comparable recordings; those wishing to explore the further reaches of bawdiness (“The Bud”, featured here and on Disc 3) should consult Bluegrass Messengers. The rest of the session features more staple fare: “Frankie and Albert”, “John Henry” etc. are given thorough workouts by this enjoyably informal but consistently virtuosic trio. Both this and the previous disc are annotated by Bruce Bastin. One caveat: as on Disc 3, the recording quality here is distinctly variable.

The Lomaxes are also responsible for gathering the music on Disc 5, played by inmates of various Texas penitentiaries. As on Discs 3 and 4, poor sound quality and premature endings militate against unalloyed enjoyment of the fare on offer here, but fortunately the best tracks, performed by a genuine though cruelly undersung star, Smith Casey – or possibly Casey Smith; his name is uncertain, are complete and relatively clear of surface noise: “ Shorty George”, “Santa Fe Blues” and “Hesitating Blues” are minor masterpieces, featuring plaintive, sweet moaning vocals against faultlessly picked, propulsive guitar. “Shorty George”, in particular, is highly affecting courtesy of Casey’s long-held notes (which bring the late great Tim Buckley to mind) and persuasively emotional delivery. On the evidence of these tracks, Casey is a superb (lost) talent, who could have been a true blues great had he been extensively (and properly) recorded. Among other tracks are material by Ace Johnson (harmonica features), the wavery-voiced Wallace Chains and guitarist Sylvester Jones, and one song from a female inmate of Goree State Farm, the strong-voiced Hattie Ellis.

The Lomaxes’ shortcomings as recording engineers are again evident on Disc 6, which is disfigured by a number of abruptly truncated takes. The title cut, however, Pete Harris’s “Jack O’ Diamonds”, is complete, and features twice. Harris is the only non-convict on the CD, and his repertoire (not exclusively blues, but also made up of cowboy ballads and popular songs) is representative, as liner note writer Bob Groom points out, of his time. His voice has a keening edge to it, and his slide guitar playing (best represented on “Blind Lemon’s Song”) is particularly effective. Other artists featured include the somewhat frail-voiced Tricky Sam, and Augustus “Track Horse” Haggerty (accompanied by an admirably sure-footed guitarist, Jack Johnson), plus a single track from Little Brother.     

What was said (by John Work) about the the Fort Valley State College Folk Festival (Disc 2) could equally be said of the ongoing Matchbox series: “By bringing such inimitable music as ‘Gus’ Gibson, ‘Buzz’ Ezell, and Samuel Jackson make to the attention of America, and in the same action proving to these musicians that their appreciative audience extends far beyond their church or corner storefront where they previously sang and played, this festival stimulates and preserves something extremely valuable in our American life.”

LINKS: Set 9 at Wyastone

Purchase Set 9 from Presto Music

Chris Parker’s LJN reviews of Sets 1 to 8

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