REALLY THE BLUES? A Blues History, 1893 – 1959 Vol. 1 (1893 – 1929) West Hill Radio Archives WHRA-6028 [9 CDs]
Some of you with a broader focus than “merely” blues may be aware of Allen Lowe, a jazz tenor saxophonist, composer, arranger, and music historian – as a musician, he approaches matters with a very broad brush in his recordings and crosses the boundaries that we outsiders have established in so doing. In his written work he has published an interesting history of popular music (American Pop from Minstrel to Mojo :On Record 1893 – 1946) and one of jazz (That Devilin’ Tune: A Jazz History, 1900 – 1950). Each of the aforementioned is a book with seriously deep and wide CD box sets similarly named (a single box of nine for the first; four boxes of nine for the latter) of textually referred-to musical examples to illuminate the book – or maybe it’s the other way around, a series of discs that the book illuminates! All are somewhat idiosyncratically compiled, but always interesting and thought-provoking – Lowe does not buy into generally dicta. Now he has tackled blues beyond its supposed “accepted wisdom” definitions and history as we know it – note the “?” appended to the title… it’s important, as is the “A” in the subtitle. To cover nine CDs’ worth of contents (25-27 selections per disc!) would be impossible to do, much less list either all the 200+ musical selections or the personnel listings for each selection in these pages without taking up the whole issue of the magazine. This set is the first of four boxes of nine CDs to be released over the next year or so, with a book (still in progress) to follow!* And there is much that will appeal to a blues collector, plus more unexpected stuff if you’re broad-minded about it all!
OK – there are nearly eighty minutes of music on each disc, plus there is a separate CD-R disc that contains the notes that one can put up on their computer – no going blind trying to read a tiny-typed booklet as with past efforts! Lowe assembles material here with a blues impulse or other African American performance practices rather than a more strictly defined 12-bar AAB, African American approach to blues qua blues. His examples are taken from both White and Black traditions, including pop, jazz, gospel, and country, and they demonstrate the wide impact of what we call “blues”. This is responsible for the important “?” in the title! There are most of the usual post-Mamie Smith vaudeville suspects (such as Sippie Wallace, Butterbeans & Susie, Ma Rainey, Sarah Martin, Frankie “Halfpint” Jaxon, Bernice Edwards, Rosa Mae Moore), plus blues-influenced pop (Len Spencer, Sophie Tucker, Ben Harney, Paul Whiteman, Ruth Etting, Paul Robeson, George Gershwin), jazz (Earl Hines, Original Memphis 5, Bennie Moten, Jesse Stone, The Red Heads, Natty Dominique, N.O.R.K.), old time music (Blind Andy Jenkins, Wade Ward, Sam McGhee, Doc Boggs, Grayson & Whitter, Dick Justice, Dr. Humphrey Bate & his Possum Hunters), and religious efforts, both Black and White (Arizona Dranes, Homer Rodeheaver & the Wiseman Quartet, The Denson Quartet, Dinwiddie Colored Quartet, Homer Quincy Smith, Blind Mamie Forehand, Ernest Phipps & his Holiness Singers). Then there are those more readily and comfortably associated with the accepted concept of blues, such as Luke Jordan, William Moore, Barbecue Bob, Tommy Johnson, Will Ezell, Sylvester Weaver, Papa Stovepipe, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Tampa Red. Plus there are many other examples that don’t fit any of these categories that well – Hawaiian guitarist Sol Hoopii being one! You get the picture! As Ray Birdwhistell, one of my late professors, once said, “There’s no such thing as A (i.e. single) good example” and Allen takes that dictum between his teeth and runs with it. Truly a broad brush perspective, über allès… not that there’s anything wrong with that!
One of the first things I must comment upon is the sound quality – the early stuff (mainly pre-1925) is acoustically recorded, and some are even from cylinders. An English collector/researcher friend of mine (he knows who he is!) would refer to most of them as “soddingly rare”, so take that into account. All said and done, Allen has done quite a decent job here in assembling listenable examples. Lowe has done the production from a variety of sources and only the cylinder of “Keep Movin’” from 1894 by The Standard Quartet on Disc One is a hard listen (probably the one known copy in collectors’ hands, put together from fragments): He makes his points, though. Disc One goes to from 1893 to 1922 and has almost no sides that would be picked out as obvious “blues records” by most collectors – that’s a good thing. One gets Len Spencer, Victor Military Band, Polk Miller & his Old South Quartet, James Reese Europe, W.C. Handy, Wilbur Sweatman, and even Sam Moore’s octacorda, in the 27 cuts – you get the picture – before Mamie Smith crops up (NOT with “Crazy Blues”, though!). Disc Two continues from 1922 to 1924 with the likes of Nick Lucas, James P., Jelly, Sophie Tucker, Bix, and Marion Harris in the 26 cuts. Included are blues names such as Bessie Smith, Butterbeans & Susie, Alberta Hunter with the urban/vaudeville side of blues things, plus Sylvester Weaver, and Ed Andrews to bring into the studio the burgeoning rural approaches. Disc Three starts to get more down-and-dirty in its 27 selections ending in 1927: Leecan & Cooksey, Arizona Dranes, The Two of Spades, Ben Harney, Blind Andy Jenkins, Ma Rainey, The Hendersonville Double Quartet, Blind Roosevelt Graves and brother, and Sippie Wallace as the rural material and approach begins to impact more on the recording business. “Get me someone like XXXX” not being a new idea in the record business even then! Also included are Roba & Bob Stanley’s “All Night Blues” (1924) from the White musical side of the tracks, Piron’s New Orleans Orchestra, Lee Morse, Edna Thomas, and Hersal Thomas (no relation!) to help round things out.
Disc Four covers ’26 – ’27 in a similar vein with, among others: Cookie’s Ginger Snaps, Hazel Meyers, Sam & Kirk McGee, Jeanette’s Synco Jazzers, Reb Spikes, and Dumaine’s Jazzola Eight. Blues as we tend to know it is here in the person of: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Henry Thomas, Rabbit Brown; gospel with Arizona Dranes, Blind Willie Johnson, and Sam Butler (Bo Weavil Jackson). Not to mention the aforementioned Hoopi, some Black string band music – and a Jelly Roll Morton solo piano piece. Disc Five is all material from 1927: there is little that would pass muster with most of the Blues Police, but such goodies as by Bix & Tram, King Oliver, Venuti & Lang, Ellington, Walter Rhodes, B.F. Shelton, Sara Martin, and Blind Mamie Forehand get some exposure. One should by now be getting a picture of the author’s broad-brush vistas of American vernacular musics during the first half of the 20th Century. Disc Six continues with more ’27 and into 1928: Sam Collins, Texas Alexander, Tommy Johnson, Jim Jackson, Jaybird Coleman, and Buddy Boy Hawkins easily passing blues muster. Louis, Al Bernard, Prince Albert Hunt, Edward Clayborn, and even Paul Robeson adding to the “flava”. Allen Lowe has trolled far and wide for examples, as you’ve no doubt figured out by now!
The last third begins with Disc Seven (1928): The goodies include Gershwin, Helen Morgan, John Hurt, Moses Mason, Julius Daniel, “Bullet” Williams, and Rambling Thomas continuing the swathe of possibilities Mr. Lowe has put forth for our edification. Such “non-blues’ performers as Annette Hanshaw, Emmett Miller, Dennis McGhee, and The Biddleville Quartet are also included. Disc Eight (1928) continues in a similar mix-and-match vein with Cliff Edwards, Boyd Senter, Dr. Humphrey Bate, Pink Anderson, Johnny Dodds, The Hokum Jug Band, William Moore, Bing, and Charlie Johnson. The final disc in this box, Disc Nine (1928 – 1929), includes the likes of Robert Wilkins, Lang & Johnson, Luke Jordan, Leo Soileau, The Leake County Revellers, Blind Blake, Furry Lewis, Teddy Darby, Heurvé Duerson, Raymond Barrow, and Doc Walsh. You can see what I mean by not sticking within the generally laid-down boundaries of “blues”. If you are broad-minded, or just love “old” music, then grab a hold of this box and await the next three with bated breath as I am doing! This sort of collection is FUN and EDUCATIONAL all at the same time – not a bad double-play in my estimation. At US$60.00 per box, this ain’t all that expensive considering the quantity you get… and the quality is there, also, so have a go, folks!
PETER B. LOWRY
* One can find out more detail about the series at the website “The Blindman’s Blues Forum” – go to the “Shameless Plugs” listing and look for “A Blues History, 1893-1959” begun by Allen Lowe; he lists all the sides for the WHOLE SERIES here in sequence, not just this first installment of nine discs! OR, more recently, he’s got his own blog site: www.allenlowe.com where the info can be found under “books”.