THREE SHADES OF BLUES
Biograph BCD 107 ADD
Skip James, Blind Willie McTell, Bukka White
Blues is a form of Afro-American music that has been greatly misperceived over the years – the [most] popular misconception being of a musical genre or performance style that expresses only how miserable one’s life can be as a poor black in America. Nothing could be further from the truth. In his marvelous book, Stomping the Blues (McGraw-Hill; 1967), Albert Murray stresses that there are at least two main understandings concerning the tern “blues” – there is “blues as music” and there is “blues as such.”
Since blues music has been “noticed” by white-folks, many well-meaning people have equated these two differing stances, which has led to the commonplace definitions (and misunderstandings) for the term “blues”. Murray demolishes this equation, indicating that “blues as music” is that music that is ideal for the Saturday Night Function – good time music that is ideal for dancing. And that is not the same as “blues as such” (or blues as an attitude or mind set) – the phrase “singing the blues” exists both on a metaphorical level and a literal level, and the two levels are not the same []. This CD presents three practitioners of “blues as music”, men who sing and play this wonderful Afro-American mode of musical expression. This disc contains three shades of blues.
On listening to these fourteen pieces, one will notice a great deal of difference in performing style between Messers. White, James, and McTell. Blues music is a varied lot, with many local and regional styles of play. Yet all three men share some common musical vocabulary, so that each musician could have performed with any of the others. They are part of a shared musical aesthetic that has prevailed throughout black American cultures, and one that still survives today.
There are, then, three men presented on this CD, and they are all three of them representative and idiosyncratic performers. All had professional recording careers in what was called the “race record” marketplace (i.e. – records aimed specifically at black record buyers) of the twenties and thirties. All have traveled, to a greater or lesser extent, while attempting to pursue their individual muse and entertain [mainly] black audiences. And all have had an impact, directly or indirectly, on the folk music revivals that began in the fifties, as well as sixties rock! These are men to be reckoned with!
Booker T. Washington White was born November 12, 1906 in Houston, MS and learned guitar first from his father. By the time he was ten, he had begun the life of an itinerant, picking up work both in and out of music. His first recording [as Washington White] was in 1930 (in Memphis for Victor [only two sides issued]), with later sessions in Chicago in 1937 and 1940 (Vocalion/OKeh[… issued as by Bukka White]). Bukka[] stayed mainly in the South Central and Mid-western states, finally settling in Memphis around 1944.
In 1963 he was “discovered” by blues enthusiasts Ed Denson and John Fahey, and White was then introduced to a whole (and mainly white) audience on the folk festival, coffee house, and concert circuit. From that year until his death (February 26, 1977), Bukka worked as often as he liked, both here and abroad. He also recorded quite frequently in those years, maintaining a high level of consistent quality in his albums. These sides from 1974 (and produced by Steve LaVere for Biograph Records) are among the best that he did in his “latter day” career.
The idea of “blues as dance music” is well served by the musical performances of Bukka White – his was a very percussive guitar style, definitely foot-tapping stuff. Listening to the five songs included here, one can easily imagine a country frolic or an urban house-party, with people eating, drinking, dancing fighting, courting – all the behaviors of anyone’s Saturday Night Function! White’s intensely rhythmic music could fuel all of these activities (and more), especially with his signature song, Shake ‘Em On Down. The newer material here, worked up expressly for this session, is of an equal quality to that song.
Bukka White had a raspy voice (similar to that of Louis Armstrong) for his songs, one that alternated with his other “voice”, his guitar. His slashing slide figures and pounding chords are capable of generating a high level of excitement, capable of leaving dancers joyously exhausted. Yet, there is also sensitivity and a sense of dynamics to this music of his – his lyrics ran the gamut from the perceptive to the surreal. The combination of White’s two voices places him squarely within the blues tradition, and in his own niche – that is the beauty of this music.
Nehemiah [“Skip”] James was also born in Mississippi (June 9, 1002) near the town of Bentonia. His father was a Baptist preacher and did not approve of the world of secular music – this separation was to be a constant part of Skip’s life as he went back and forth between the church and “the world”. At about the age of fifteen he left home, also working within and without the world of music. In early 1931, he recorded at least eighteen sides for the Paramount label – a series of recordings that blues record collectors valued highly, both musically and otherwise. [] After the sessions, James mainly left secular music, performing with quartets or preaching (he was ordained in 1946) – his travels in that music took him as far afield as Texas, but he gravitated back to his home state in time. In 1964, [record collector] Henry Vestine (later of Canned Heat), Bill Barth (later of Insect Trust), and John Fahey (again!) located Skip in the town of Tunica. They encouraged him to play blues guitar again and succeeded in getting him into the folk circuit and back into the recording studio. These three songs come from his first session since 1931, and were produced by Dick Spottswood [for] the Melodeon label, later purchased by Biograph Records. James continued to play and record for another four years – he died in Philadelphia (PA) in 1969.
Skip James may have been from Mississippi, but his style of playing (and singing) blues is light years from that of Bukka White. His singing is a gentle near-falsetto with very intricate guitar picking (a style that seems to have had its roots in Bentonia). James was a very original songwriter and a dedicated musician. Not for him the stream-of-consciousness approach that was often that of White and others. His lyrics were worked over carefully, and he created guitar accompaniment specific to each song – often he had a specific guitar tuning for a specific song.
In a genre that often conjures up images of idiots-savant in the mind of the [non-black] public, Skip James was a highly personal and very sophisticated musician. His music may not strike the ear at first as dance music, but it was just that in the twenties [and thirties] – Drunken Spree here gives one a good glimpse. Fluent on both guitar and piano, James built up a different mood than did White, but they both serve the same ends – to help people feel good about themselves. Skip James’ gentle music is yet another shade of blues.
William Samuel McTell was not born in Mississippi – he was born blind near Thompson, GA on May 5, 1898 to Ed and Minnie McTier. He was raised by his mother and her family in Statesboro, where he took up the guitar, influenced first by his mother and other family members. McTell was a truly remarkable person, and extremely independent one. He may have begun “professional” playing by the mid-teens with traveling shows. In the early twenties he attended a state school for the blind in Macon, learning Braille and possibly piano. As a poor, blind black man, music was one realm in which he could generate some income and be self-supporting – McTell went after that end.
Willie began recording commercially in 1927 and continued to appear in the studios through 1936, usually playing his twelve-string guitar and often accompanied by the likes of fellow Atlantans Buddy Moss, Curley Weaver, Piano Red, or Fred McMullen. He hit all the labels of the day – Victor, Columbia, OKeh, Vocalion, and Decca – by the judicious use of pseudonyms (e.g. – Blind Sammie). John A. Lomax recorded him for the Library of Congress [folksong archive] (see Melodeon – MLP 7323). His last commercial sessions took place in 1949 for Atlantic, and then Regal. Biograph has selected six songs from the Regal session for this CD. The entire session was produced by Fred Mendelsohn and later purchased by Biograph Records. That was it for Willie as a commercial recording artist – he still played in the streets and at parties, and a private tape was made in 1956, three years before his death (in Milledgeville, GA, on August 19, 1959) McTell died before he could be “discovered” by collectors, but his recordings have influenced many musicians in and out of the realm of folk music.
Willie McTell pragmatically played all sorts of music – blues, hillbilly songs, et al – as a truly professional [street] musician in the twenties and thirties down South. He had to be able to please all sorts of crowds in order to be paid and survive, whether at a party for dancers or busking on the streets. His repertoire was vast, although the commercial companies focused on his blues material (and some church songs). These six songs also have that blues focus, with the exception of Pal of Mine, an early white pop tune. Also, his buddy, Curley Weaver, plays second guitar with him and even sings lead on Wee Midnight Hours to McTell’s harmonies.
McTell played in the ragtime-based finger-picked tradition that was so prevalent throughout the Southeast. Why he chose to specialize on the twelve-string we may never know – he did produce lilting, raggy performances of extreme facility that both attracted peoples’ attention and got them to dance. His fine tenor voice rang out clearly or blended tastefully, whichever was needed at the moment. The combination of his voice and guitar are such a strong memory that they are easily identifiable in this, a third shade of blues.
So there you have it – three men and three shades of blues. From the driving “percussion” of Bukka White’s Mama Don’ ‘Low through the modal introspection of Skip James’ Special Rider to the ragtime rhythms of Willie McTell’s East St. Louis. Slide guitar through minor modes to twelve-string finger-picking. These men are some of the pieces of early recorded blues music
Some may say that this is old-time stuff and outdated. Duke Ellington once said that there are two kinds of music – good music, and the other kind. So slide this into the machine and prepare yourself for an immersion into three shades of blues. I must caution you – this music can be habit forming!
Peter B. Lowry (1988) Department of Folklore & Folklife University of Pennsylvania
BUKKA WHITE – vo/gtr
West Memphis, AK – 1974
“Mama Don’t ‘Low”
“Hot Springs, Arkansas”
“Jelly Roll Workin’ Man”
“Black Crepe Blues”
“Glory Bound Train”
SKIP JAMES – vo/gtr
Falls Church, VA – Dec 16, 1964
“Special Rider Blues”
“I Don’t Want A Woman To Stay Out All Night Long”
BLIND WILLIE McTELL – vo/gtr
Curley James Weaver – gtr/vo*
Atlanta, GA – 1949
“Love Changin’ Blues”
“Talkin’ To You, Mama”
“East St. Louis”
“Wee Midnight Hours”*
“Pal Of Mine”
[ This is one of the beauties and points off frustration regarding the glorious English language: The existence of homonyms (words that sound the same, but have different meanings) and synonyms (words spelled differently, but have the same meaning! “Blues” has several homonymous, different meanings.]
[ This soubriquet/nom-de-disque was the result of a mis-hearing of his first name, Booker, by the record men. He never liked it, but it has stuck through the ages and I use it as part of common practice.]