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MATCHBOX BLUESMASTER SERIES – SET 1; Country Blues and Ragtime Blues Guitar 1926-30

MATCHBOX MSESET1 [6CDs: 255:40]


Track Listing

Country Blues - The First Generation

CD1

Papa Harvey Hull & Long Cleve Reed, Richard (Rabbit) Brown

Papa Harvey Hull & Long Cleve Reed

- Gang Of Brown Skin Women

- France Blues

- Two Little Tommie Blues

- Don't You Leave Me Here

- Mama You Don't Know How

- Original Stack O'Lee Blues

Richard (Rabbit) Brown

- James Alley Blues

- Never Let The Same Bee Sting You Twice

- I'm Not Jealous

- Mystery Of The Dunbar's Child

- Sinking Of The Titanic

CD2

Walter 'Buddy Boy' Hawkins 1927-29

Complete Recordings in Chronological Order

- Shaggy Dog Blues

- Number Three Blues

- Jailhouse Fire Blues

- Snatch It Back Blues

- Workin' On The Railroad

- Yellow Woman Blues

- Raggin' The Blues

- Awful Fix Blues

- A Rag Blues

- How Come Mama Blues

- Snatch It And Grab It

- Voice Throwin' Blues

CD3

Bo Weavil Jackson (Sam Butler) 1926

- Devil & My Brown Blues

- Poor Boy Blues

- Jefferson County Blues

- Jefferson County Blues (alt tk)

- You Can't Keep No Brown

- Christians Fight On,Your Time Ain't Long

- Heaven Is My View

- Pistol Blues

- Some Scream High Yellow

- You can't Keep No Brown (2nd version)

- When The Saints Come Marching Home

- I'm On My Way To The Kingdom

- Why Do You Moan?

CD4

Ragtime Blues Guitar 1928-30

The Complete Recordings of William Moore, Tarter & Gay, Bayless Rose, Willie Walker in Chronological Order

William (Bill) Moore

- One Way Gal

- Ragtime Crazy

- Midnight Blues

- Ragtime Millionaire

- Tillie Lee

- Barbershop Rag

- Old Country Rock

- Raggin' The Blues

Tarter & Gay

- Brownie Blues

- Unknown Blues

Bayless Rose

- Jamestown Exhibition

- Black Dog Blues

- Original Blues

- Frisco Blues

Willie Walker

- Dupree Blues

- South Carolina Rag (tk. 1)

- South Carolina Rag (tk. 2)

CD5

Peg Leg Howell (1928-29)

Complete Recordings in Chronological Order

- Please Ma'am

- Rock And Gravel Blues

- Low Down Rounder Blues

- Fairy Blues

- Banjo Blues

- Turkey Buzzard Blues

- Turtle Dove Blues

Banjo Joe

- Walkin' Blues

- Broke And Hungry Blues

- Rolling Mill Blues

- Ball And Chain Blues

- Monkey Man Blues

- Chittlin' Supper

- Away From Home

CD6

Texas Alexander - Vol. 1 (1927-1928)

Complete Recordings in Chronological Order

- Range In My Kitchen Blues (11-8-1927)

- Long Lonesome Day Blues (11-8-1927)

- Corn-Bread Blues (12-8-1927)

- Section Gang Blues (12-8-1927)

- Levee Camp Moan Blues (12-8-1927)

- Mama,I heard You Brought It Right Back Home (16-8-1927)

- Farm Hand Blues (16-8-1927)

- Evil Woman Blues (17-8-1927)

- Sabine River Blues (17-8-1927)

- Death Bed Blues (9-3-1928)

- Yellow Girl Blues (9-3-1928)

- West Texas Blues (9-3-1928)

- Bantam Rooster Blues (9-3-1928)

- Deep Blue Sea Blues (9-3-1928)

- No More Women Blues (9-3-1928)

- Don't You Wish Your Baby Was Built Up Like Mine? (9-3-1928)

- Bell Cow Blues (9-3-1928)

Gef Lucena’s Saydisc label is well-known for its folk records, amongst other specialisms, but back in the 1980s it released 42 LPs that formed the Matchbox Bluesmaster Series. Most featured chronologically complete runs of artists’ recordings, the series editor was Johnny Parth and the notes were written by none other than Paul Oliver. Now thirty years after the last LP was released the whole catalogue is being issued on CDs grouped together in seven 6-CD boxes. It is an immense undertaking, with the necessary digitizing being undertaken from the LPs (the original master tapes no longer exist) by Norman White, and one that has an expected completion date of May 2022 when the final, seventh set is due to be issued. Lucena is the series producer.

The first set is devoted to Country Blues and Ragtime Blues Guitar between 1926 and 1930. As each CD is a faithful reproduction of the original vinyl you will expect LP timings, all six CDs running in total to four and a quarter hours in length. The earlier releases had a shorter playing time than was to be the case with discs four, five and six so whilst it might have been possible to utilize fewer CDs, the result would have been to destroy the integrity of the original artist-led LPs – thus one LP for one CD.

The First disc covers Papa Harvey Hull, Long Cleve Reed and then Rabbit Brown’s. Hull’s influence continues to resonate – just lend an ear to Pokey Lafarge, for instance - as does his Gang of Brown Skin Women in various guises and under different names, and you will find the original Hull 1927 recording here: pimp braggadocio has a firm place in the iconography of the Blues. Hull also had an appreciation of parlour, theatrical and songster traditions, and drew on First World War tropes too (France Blues, Two Little Tommies) whilst drawing on the common well source of imagery, as in Don’t You Leave Me Here, with itsKnockin’ A Jug echoes. Then there’s the Levee ballad Original Stack o’Lee Blues, roughishly done in Chicago in May 1927. Richard ‘Rabbit’ Brown was recorded down in New Orleans and he is a different performer altogether, gruffer vocally but with a superior interplay between his voice and self-accompanied guitar. He also has recourse to thought-provoking and unusually intimate lyrics for his songs. As a postscript James Alley Blues references the street in the city where Louis Armstrong was born, though Armstrong of course is himself absent from the song which isn’t about the street at all. Brown’s lyrics tended to the mordant. He could essay more popular country-style music and reportage balladry (Mystery of the Dunbar’s Child and Sinking of the Titanic). Both these are detailed in their reportage, the latter mentioning the Carpathian, wireless signals and the like.

Buddy Boy Hawkins recorded in 1927 and 1929, first in Chicago and then in Richmond, Indiana for the Gennett label. Varied, colourful and harmonically daring, Hawkins has been a long-time figure of admiration for many blues lovers. His commanding vocal delivery, even on standard tropes, enlivens these self-penned songs that are unusual in their suggestion that he actually worked on the railroads, rather than using railroad imagery as ancillary to his songs. He is a master of the narrative-interrogative song and a dexterous instrumentalist whose absorption of the Guitar Rag is unusually complete. He also reached an accommodation between the two traditions, effectively writing hyphenated Blues Rags. He could also invoke hokum innuendo, on the Gennett recording of Snatch It and Grab It a song notable for his excellent guitar control and for the brio of his performance, where an unknown studio voice joins in the fun. Voice Throwin’ Blues, as many have pointed out, doesn’t work on disc, though radio ventriloquism, a similar kind of impossibility, does work for some ironic reason. This copy is a little worn but it’s enjoyable to hear.

Bo Weavil Jackson was Sam Butler who recorded, self-accompanied, in Chicago in 1926. Devil and My Brown Blues is Down Home Blues, choppily phrased but energetically delivered. His recording of Jefferson County Blues, taken from a slightly rough copy, is a very early example of the use of the slide, and there is an alternative take with which to compare the issued version. He uses the slide again on the heavily rhythmic Gospel Christians Fight On. He is a vivacious player sometimes revealing a tendency to push ahead of the beat in his accompaniments which generates only more heat and he seems to sound higher pitched vocally in his Paramount sides than he does for Vocalion – perhaps a recording quirk. His version of Why Do You Moan? is straight out the smutty school of Classic Blues singing.

Disc four covers Ragtime Blues Guitar from 1928-30. Bill Moore takes half the tracks. Sometime resident in Virginia Moore takes a relaxed approach to Blues material and shows himself much at home in the Ragtime milieu, not least in deft solos and vocal interpolations. Possibly he was a shoeshine but irrespective of this the Piedmont traditions he espouses are exemplified in the droll storytelling on Tillee Lee. His version of Raggin’ the Blues is less rhythmically insistent than some Rag players and possesses a welcome stylistic ease. He shares disc space with Stephen Tarter and Harry Gay’s single 78 recorded in Bristol, Tennessee in 1928, though they hailed from Virginia. They go through the motions jauntily with insipid lack of inflection; a case of take the session money and run. Bayless Rose mines the nexus between Country and Rag in his Gennetts and is notably dexterous picker whilst Willie Walker in his Atlanta sides reveals a stentorian voice – though not as much as Memphis Songsters - and mines old ballad traditions in Dupree Blues where Sam Brooks’ accompanying vocals detract significantly from the effect. There are two takes of South Carolina Rag, a kind of Salty Dog cousin.

Peg Leg Howell must be a favourite of many lovers of his 1928-29 Atlanta sides. The mantra-like repetitions in Please Ma’am Walkin’ Blues generate a hypnotic beat, the music deep in introspective Blues lexicon. He is a superb exponent of the kind of parlando biography that advertises his ‘reckless living’ on Low Down Rounder Blues where he also admits to the Bluesman’s besetting sin of not listening to mama. Eddie Anthony joins for some justly famous sides, Anthony’s sketchy violin and even more sketchy vocals adding to the pleasures of the ensemble. Turkey Buzzard Blues is Turkey in the Straw by another name and a Country dance. Without Anthony to lighten the emotional temperature, Howell is mired deep in gloom in Turtle Dove Blues and Walkin’ Blues and when joined by another fiddle player – the booklet discography says ‘probably Anthony’ but Paul Oliver is more sceptical in the notes – similarly so. I’m with Oliver, given the gloomy candour of these sides; when Howell is teamed definitively with Anthony, there’s more playful fun to be enjoyed. There’s crosstalk to be heard in Chittlin’ Supper where Howell is joined by Jim Hill’s mandolin.

For the final CD, the focus turns to the Rural Blues of Texas Alexander’s 1927-28 sides with variously Lonnie Johnson and pianist Eddie Haywood. Alexander’s soaring vocals, his moans and croons and inflexions are especially revealing indices of the range of his influences and the fact that, alone of all the players in this first box, he is ‘just’ a singer and doesn’t self-accompany, adds more lustre to his very personal delivery. His phrasing is free to the point of elasticity and as Lonnie Johnson remarked, it was a devil of a job to accompany him. Johnson however manages superbly whether in his richer style or when he simplifies his playing to accommodate Alexander (born Alger Alexander incidentally). As noted in the booklet, Death Bed Blues uses a poor original copy but better that than nothing and it’s fascinating to hear Johnson accommodate Alexander’s flexibilities on something like Bantam Rooster Blues where his rural delivery is at a sharp remove from the constraints of a more urbane approach. Urbanity is here in the shape of pianist Eddie Heywood, whose cocktail stylings are a strange counterpoint to Alexander’s singing. Heywood was backwardly recorded at the New York sessions, but he imposed metrical backbone onto Alexander’s singing, though at the risk of cosmopolitanism.

The original LPs were released during 1982-83. A lot has happened since then, not least the invention of the CD, and some Matchbox CDs have appeared with longer playing time and an increased number of tracks in that medium. To take only one example, the Texas Alexander CD MBCD2001 issued in 1993 has a chronology of 78s that runs to 15 November 1928, whereas the original LP under review here runs to 9 March 1928. That previously released CD contains extra tracks, therefore, as well as extra alternative takes.

Other labels have covered similar ground – Document and Yazoo have been especially fertile in the field, for example, and there are a number of others, of course. But the Bluesmaster series offered and still offers a very special panorama of blues roots, sourced from largely excellent copies which have been finely transferred. The discs are laced with those top of the range booklet notes and full discographical information. The price per set is extremely competitive and it’s invigorating to see this pioneering series back in the marketplace. It represents a primary go-to resource for Blues and roots aficionados everywhere.

Jonathan Woolf


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