Album review

Matchbox Bluesmaster Series – Set 10 (‘Home Town Skiffle’)

Matchbox Bluesmaster SeriesSet 10: Home Town Skiffle

(Saydisc /Matchbox MSESET10 – 6 CDs. Album review by Chris Parker)

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Another set of recordings from Saydisc (Matchbox), featuring blues, rags, the odd dance tune and (Discs 5 and 6) an assortment of blues source material, these six CDs feature not only established legends of the music (Blind Boy Fuller, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Boy Williamson, Blind Blake etc.), but also a host of less well-known figures, all carefully and knowledgeably annotated by David Harrison and Tony Russell.

The first two CDs are devoted to Fuller, Disc 1 comprising his own work, the second (mainly) that of musicians influenced by him. Born in South Carolina in 1903 (he died in his late thirties after a kidney operation), Fuller is a true blues great, his singing affecting, sure and confident, his diction clear, his guitar playing assured, often downright virtuosic, his careful picking tellingly interspersed with double-time passages and skilful rhythmic variations. The material on the first disc, recorded between 1937 and 1939, is a mixture of wonderfully atmospheric blues (“Corinne”, “Mean and No Good Woman”) rags/dance tunes and humorous songs with suggestive lyrics (“What’s That Smells Like Fish”), but whatever style of music he plays, Fuller delivers the goods in spades, his light but surprisingly strong voice beautifully complemented by his dexterous guitar. Disc 2 demonstrates just how influential he was in his shortish career: Blind Gary Davis contributes a couple of secular songs, the pungent-voiced Bull City Red (George Washington) another two, and Blind Boy Fuller No. 2 (Brownie McGhee) sings a pair of songs that, as Harrison suggests, “re-create the rhythmic sound of Fuller’s raggy trio sides”. Also containing cuts by Dan Pickett, Sleepy Joe, Buddy Moss and Curley Weaver (whose version of “Tricks Ain’t Walking No More” provides a fascinating chance to compare it with Moss’s version earlier on the CD), this is a hugely enjoyable album, well recorded, and the two CDs together provide a fitting tribute to a great, if somewhat neglected, bluesman.

Disc 3, Sonny Boy and His Pals, as Harrison points out in his notes, features transitional music, “bridging the gap between the more primitive country style of the twenties and early thirties and the slick, often banal, rhythm and blues which has all but superseded it”. Sonny Boy Williamson is joined, in this lively, listener-friendly collection, by (among others) Big Bill Broonzy (guitar), pianist Walter Davis, mandolin player/vocalist Yank Rachel and Washboard Sam, but whoever’s backing his vocals or singing to his harmonica playing, the album delivers consistently accessible, uncomplicated music, clearly recorded and performed with an infectious, breezy informality which, while it may not have pleased the purists (Harrison himself refers in his notes to “fast dance music with electric guitars turned up so loud that the words didn’t really matter any more”), was undoubtedly extremely influential in 1969, when the Matchbox LP was first issued.

 Disc 4 presents a selection of female artists, recorded between 1929 and the early 1940s. The pleasantly strident voice of Sara Martin, accompanied by violin, banjo and jug, comes from the earliest session here, and the rest of the CD features, among others, Texan moaner Bernice Edwards, who accompanies herself on medium-paced loping piano; Madlyn Davis, skilfully backed by pianist Georgia Tom and guitarist Tampa Red; the sweetly warbling Lulu Jackson (singing a sentimental ballad rather than the blues); the plaintive, lamenting sound of Lucille Bogan backed by pianist Walter Roland; and – from the 1940s – the celebrated singer/guitarist Memphis Minnie, her familiar strong voice ringing out against the excellent guitar of Little Son Joe.

 What liner-note writer Tony Russell refers to as the “pre-history of the blues” is documented on the consistently fascinating Discs 5 and 6. Vaudeville, country music and ragtime all fed into the genre, and the first collection, which is, as Russell suggests, “utterly unlike most other anthologies of blues music”, provides a rich overview of these sources. Sam Jones, known as Stovepipe No. 1 because he played it as a novelty instrument (surprisingly effectively, as evidenced on a couple of cuts here) was also a guitarist/harmonica player of considerable skill with an eclectic repertoire of hymns and vaudeville novelties, and on four tracks he performs an intriguing sample of his material. The driving banjoist Charlie Jackson, a vaudeville entertainer with a penchant for the blues, performs a version of the Ma Rainey classic “Shave ’Em Dry” with great aplomb, plus a lively workout of “Skoodle Um Skoo”, also recorded by Blind Blake (who joins Gus Cannon on three tracks, including the celebrated account of Booker T. Washington’s controversial White House dinner with President Roosevelt, “Can You Blame the Colored Man”). Also featured are a skilful kazoo/ukulele player, Joe Linthecome; the extraordinary vocal dexterity (he yodels and whistles in addition to singing) of Winston Holmes; Walter Jacobs and the Carter Brothers (effectively the Mississippi Sheiks, comprising Lonnie and Bo Chatman, Walter Vincson and – probably – Charlie McCoy), who quaver somewhat uncertainly through “Sheiks Special” and the livelier “Dear Little Girl”; plus – a real bonus for Blind Blake fans – “Champagne Charlie is My Name”, which (almost certainly) features the great man visiting a vaudeville item rare in a bluesman’s repertoire. A wholly enjoyable and – given the relatively unusual nature of its material – valuable compilation.

The last disc continues the historical theme of Disc 5, although Russell provides the caveat that the music is “perhaps a little less ‘early’, even a little less ‘folk’”. The Beale Street Sheiks (Frank Stokes and guitarist Dan Sane) provide a couple of tracks, the rollicking “You Shall” and the slightly more sedate “It’s a Good Thing”, Stokes’s familiar tones set against Sane’s rhythmic accompaniment. Genuine novelties are the two cuts from the Excelsior Quartette, rare examples of blues material sung by a gospel quartet. Other artists include a fair sample of the Paramount stable (called the Hokum Boys: Georgia Tom Dorsey, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson et al.), recorded for promotional purposes in Chicago in 1929; Bumble Bee Slim singing “Slave Man Blues” to clarinet accompaniment; Winston Holmes and Charlie Turner performing a delightful novelty song, “Skinner”; and Tampa Red, providing lively kazoo and vocals. Rounded off by the rousing “Texas Tommy” (Yank Rachel) and the Delta Boys’ “Every Time My Heart Beats”, which, as Russell points out, closely prefigures the skiffle music that was so popular in the late 1950s, this CD (to quote Russell’s perfect summation of both this album in particular and the Bluesmaster reissue series in general) encapsulates “the unquenchable spirit of black music, its rampant joyfulness, its wholehearted refusal to be depressed either by commercial pressures or by social and economic deprivation”.

Disc 1: Blind Boy Fuller On Down (Vol. 1)

Disc 2: Blind Boy Fuller On Down (Vol. 2)

Disc 3: Sonny Boy and His Pals

Disc 4: Those Cakewalking Babies from Home

Disc 5: Skoodle Um Skoo – Early Folk Blues, Vol. 1

Disc 6: Home Town Skiffle – Early Folk Blues, Vol. 2

LINK: Chris Parker’s reviews of Bluesmaster Volumes 1 to 9

Bluesmaster Set 10 is released on 3 January 2023 – LINK: SAYDISC website

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