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MATCHBOX BLUESMASTER SERIES – SET 2; Country Blues and Great Harp Players 1927-32

MATCHBOX MSESET2 [6CDs: 293:35]


Track listing

CD1

Skip James

- Devil Got My Woman

- Cypress Grove Blues

- Cherry Ball Blues

- Illinois Blues

- Four O'Clock

- Hard Luck Child

- Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues

- Yola My Blues Away

- Jesus Is A Mighty Good Leader

- Be Ready When He Comes

- Drunken Spree

- I'm So Glad

- Special Rider Blues

- How Long "Buck"

- Little Cow And Calf Is Gonna Die Blues

- What Am I To Do Blues

- 22-20 Blues

- If You Haven't Any Hay Get On Down The Road

CD2

Coley Jones & The Dallas String Band (1927-1929)

Coley Jones

- Army Mule In No Man's Land (145324-1)

- Traveling Man (145329- )

The Dallas String Band

- Dallas Rag (145343-2)

- Sweet Mama Blues (145344-3)

- So Tired (147612-1)

- Hokum Blues (147613-1)

- Chasin' Rainbows (147622-2)

- I Used To Call Her Baby (147623-2)

Bobbie Cadillac and Coley Jones

- I Can't Stand That (149536-2)

- He Throws That Thing (149537-1)

- Drunkard's Special (149558-2)

- The Elder's He's My Man (149559-2)

- Listen Everybody149566-1)

- Easin' In (149567-1)

The Dallas String Band

- Shine (149568-2)

- Sugar Blues (149569-1)

CD3

Great Harp Players (1927-30)

William Francis & Richard Sowell

- John Henry Blues (E-4603)

- Roubin Blues (E-4606)

El Watson

- Pot Licker Blues (39732-2)

- Narrow Gauge Blues (39733-2)

- El Watson's Fox Chase (43952-2)

- Bay Rum Blues (43953-2)

- Sweet Bunch Of Daisies (43954-2)

- One Sock Blues (43955-2)

Palmer McAbee

- Lost Boy Blues (41929-2)

- McAbee's Railroad Piece (41930-2)

Freeman Stowers

- Railroad Blues (14711)

- Texas Wild Cat Chase (14898)

- Medley Of Blues (14899)

All Out And Down

Old Time Blues

Hog In The Mountain

- Sunrise On The Farm (14900-B)

Blues Birdhead

- Mean Low Blues (403111-A)

- Harmonica Blues (403112-A)

Alfred Lewis

- Mississippi Swamp Moan (C-4481)

- Friday Moan Blues (C-4482)

CD4

Leroy Carr 1928

- My Own Lonesome Blues (ind-622-A)

- How Long - How Long Blues (ind-623-A)

- Broken Spoke Blues (C-2219)

- Tennessee Blues (C-2220)

- Truthful Blues (C-2221)

- Mean Old Train Blues (C-2222)

- You Got To Reap What You Sow (C-2223)

- Low Down Dirty Blues (C-2224)

- How Long How Long Blues No.2 (C-2688-A)

- How Long How Long Blues Part 3 (C-2689-A)

- Baby Don't You Love Me No More (C-2690-A)

- Tired Of Your Low Down Ways (C-2691-B)

- I'm Going Away And Leave My Baby (C-2692-B)

- Prison Bound Blues (C-2694-A)

- You Don't Mean Me No Good (C-2695)

CD5

Tommie Bradley - James Cole Groups 1930-32

Walter Cole

- Mama Keep Your Yes Ma'am Clean (16996)

- Everybody Got Somebody (16998)

Tommie Bradley

- Where You Been So Long ? (17083)

- Adam And Eve (17084)

James Cole

- Runnin' Wild (17204)

- Sweet Lizzie (17205)

Tommie Bradley

- Pack Up Her Trunk Blues (17206)

- When You're Down And Out (17883-B)

- Please Don't Act That Way (17884)

James Cole

- I Love My Mary (17885-A)

Tommie Bradley

- Four Day Blues (17886-A)

Buster Johnson

- Undertaker Blues (18323)

James Cole

- Mistreated The Only Friend You Had (18324)

Tommie Bradley

- Nobody's Business If I Do (18325)

- Window Pane Blues (18326)

CD6

Charley Lincoln 1927-30

- Jealous Hearted Blues (145103-2)

- Hard Luck Blues (145104-2)

- Mojoe Blues (145105-3)

- My Wife Drove Me From My Door (145106-)

- Country Breakdown (145107-1)

- Chain Gang Trouble (145108-2)

- If It Looks Like Jelly, Shakes Like Jelly, It Must Be Gelatine (146016-1)

- Ugly Papa (146019-1)

- Jacksonville Blues (146174-1)

- Midnight Weeping Blues (146175-2)

- Depot Blues (147354-2)

- Gamblin' Charley (147355-2)

- Doodle Hole Blues (150275-2)

- Mama Don't Rush Me (150276-2)

For those who haven’t seen my review of the first volume in this sequence of reissues I am reprising my opening comments here, as they apply to the series as a whole. 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 second set is devoted to Country Blues and Harp (harmonica) players, 1927-32. As each CD is a faithful reproduction of the original vinyl you will expect LP timings, all six CDs running in total to just under five hours in length. 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.

This set begins with 53 minutes of Skip James, who lived long enough to record in the Revival years of the 1960s and is therefore one of the better-known musicians in this particular box. James had an unusual, ethereally high voice that proves expressive, especially in repeated refrains over the rhythmic guitar lines of Devil Got My Woman – though elsewhere you will experience a creative tension between the high vocal line and the more tenorial guitar pitch in such as Cherry Ball Bounce. A number of these 1931 James sides were rare at the time of this LP compilation and are just as rare now, so one must expect some wear – the poor quality 78 copies used are duly noted in the booklet but even so the surface noise in 4 O’clock Blues and Hard-Luck Child is often louder than the musical signal and you’ll struggle to extract much satisfaction from them. They were found just prior to inclusion in the 1983 LP but much better copies have since emerged in the marketplace. James’ voice in the Gospel numbers is much lower in pitch than in the Blues sides. His ballad pickin’ in Drunken Spree is really superb, the guitar licks that reinforce his eager refrain in I’m So Glad just as fine. For the last five tracks of the 18 he sings accompanied by his own piano playing. How Long ‘Buck’ is really Leroy Carr’s How Long Blues and played with vigour, breaks included. His piano style is predicated on breakdown, blues and boogie but with whimsical elements, all shown to prime effect on Little Cow And Calf Is Gonna Die Blues, a long-winded titled but a satisfying blend of vocal and accompaniment. His piano playing is ingenious on 22-20 Blues notably for its displacements, and his foot tapping, which acts as a metrical percussive instrument, generates propulsion even as the right hand glides nonchalantly at will in the blues milieu.

Coley Jones dominates disc two, either solo or as member of the Dallas String Band. String bands are sometimes overlooked by Blues enthusiasts, much to their loss, because these bands offer pluralist musical inspirations, a side dish of hokum and plenty of vibrant musicianship. They’re not representative of the gutbucket earthier element of the music but that’s hardly a reason to overlook them. Jones is often a purveyor of parlando narrative, as in Army Mule in No Man’s Land, an example of a familiar theme, the First World War trope, flourishing a decade after the war’s end. The instrumental Dallas String Band sides do exude Blues elements. There’s plenty of hokum and a three-voice chorus onSo Tired, classic vaudeville or tent show crosstalk on Hokum Blues. Jones teamed up with the marvelously named female singer Bobbie Cadillac in December 1929. Over two days they made and remade in essence a single piece of music – It’s Tight Like That, a familiar piece - but called it four different titles, all with different lyrics. Quite what buyers of these two discs thought after they’d shelled out their hard-earned cash is best left to the imagination. Far more interesting, stylistically and in terms of the lineage of the music, is Drunkard’s Special, an eighteenth-century English folk piece, an Anglo-Country survival well into the twentieth century. The final two pieces in this 16 track CD belong to the DSB once again and show just how capable they were. They probably picked up Shine from Louis Armstrong’s recording of it and in the coupling, Sugar Blues, Jones throws in plenty of scat singing showing precisely how influential Armstrong was beyond the immediate Jazz milieu.

The third disc offers a variety of harp players (or harmonica – or mouth harp as Americans properly term it) recorded variously in NYC, Atlanta, Chicago and Richmond, Va. Richard Sowell accompanies William Francis in a couple of rather unadventurous, mainstream titles but El Watson, with guitarist Charles Johnson, is cut from a more vigorous cloth. He has plenty of ideas, with a rich complement of colour supported by a fine and idiomatically based technique. Try the virtuosic train ride in blues-drenched style on Narrow Gauge Blues, for instance, or the rather infectious zydeco-sounding Bay Rum Blues. Watson is a perfect example of a musician with a wide range of enthusiasms and the confidence to put them across – the polar opposite of Bobbie Cadillac’s one-song-fits-all approach – and his inclusion of the White balladSweet Bunch of Daisies followed immediately by the straight-ahead One Sock Blues shows his versatility and excellence. Palmer McAbee’s efforts exemplify the powers of the harp solo and his whoosh effects and incremental speed shows his self-hymning McAbee’s Railroad Piece in all its heightened excitement. For excitement, indeed, you could hardly do better than McAbee. But if it’s animal impersonations that you want, turn instead to Freeman Stowers who mixes a blues track with a farmyard impersonation one. He, like McAbee, was adept at railroad rhythms as Railroad Blues, complete with many a whistle, ably demonstrates, but his most distinctive tracks are vocal impersonations and have nothing to do with the harp. That said, if you fancy a menagerie of animal noises, already a well tilled furrow on discs by 1929, then Stowers is a real virtuoso of his craft. James Simons aka Blues Birdhead is a fine player, accompanied by an unknown pianist and the high-voiced moaning of Alfred Lewis brings this disc to a satisfying conclusion.

Leroy Carr is everyone’s favourite and his 1928 sides deserve their place in any respectable collection, as critics of yore used to note, with just a hint of superiority. His barrelhouse style, his mining of topical blues, constant revisiting of his own How Long, How Long Blues in ever more magnificent style, the perfect accommodation of his vocal and piano playing, would make him a figure of singular accomplishment but his lyrics, which could on occasion take on a heightened and strangely poetic edge, are as remarkable as any of these skills. So you’ll find these great fifteen sides spanning June to December 1928 in CD4. Thereafter I’m afraid I can’t commend the disc. Some of the originals used in the vinyl LP were not good and a number have very rough starts and blasting, with blights and scrunches, and one 78 sounds off-centre. There’s only a limited amount the restorer can do about this. You’d need to go to Document or JSP or another label to find Carr’s sides here done justice.

The Tommie Bradley and James Cole sides on CD5 are in much healthier estate. Bradley sang and played guitar, Cole played violin and they had various colleagues, known and unknown, with them in the Gennett recording studios in Richmond, Indiana between 1930-32. Bradley was another to sing in a relatively high tessitura and there are vaudevillian elements to his performances, as in Everybody Got Somebody, where you’ll hear an unfortunate skipped groove, but you’ll also hear his stylistic versatility which embraces Country influence. The personnel booklet listing omits Cole’s violin on Adam and Eve – it’s not a duet for Bradley and his accompanying mandolin player Eddie Dimmitt. Cole and Bradley play a fine Sweet Sue, here called Sweet Lizzie to rake in extra compositional money I’d guess, and Runnin’ Wild too, which shows a keen and open-minded ear for popular currents in song. Buster Johnson joins them to sing (and sing well) in Undertaker Blues though the unknown washboard player sounds as if he is on speed. Bradley essays Nobody’s Business If I Do and nothing further from a stentorian Songster performance can be imagined; by contrast, Bradley is decidedly jaunty and straightforward.

The final disc is devoted to Charley Lincoln and covers the years 1927-30. Clearly a strange character he sports an unusual laugh in a few tracks to decidedly spooky effect. All his sides were recorded in Atlanta, Ga and in the majority of tracks he accompanies himself quite sparingly on guitar and his preferred tempo – it is enervating taken in one go – is a fairly consistent slow to mid-tempo one. He sang hokum when required, such as If It Looks Like Jelly and a somewhat generic blues style. It seems not to be known for sure if it’s Lincoln or Barbecue Bob – his brother – who accompanies the throatily voiced Nellie Florence on their April 1928 session but from his laugh behind her, it seems almost certain that it’s Lincoln. He too essays the railroad trope and Depot Blues is a decent example of the genre and his propensity for inuendo is well served by Doodle Hole Blues. Though he not one of the elite talents it’s diverting to listen to singers like Lincoln who represent a microcosm of country blues influence.

Apart from the relative disappointment of the Carr disc this sturdy box offers many a chronological pleasure augmented by those outstanding Paul Oliver notes. As I noted in the first volume, the Bluesmaster series offers a very special panorama of blues roots and despite labels such as Yazoo and Document overlapping to some degree, these Bluesmasters have been adroitly selected and make for excellent boxes. Competitively priced, there’s much more to come from this source so keep scanning the reviews.

Jonathan Woolf


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