To contextualize the release of Smith’s record, entitled Clarksdale Blues, it’s worth recognizing that Bob Dylan’s first full length was issued the same year. And really, but that late date, the first wave of folksy appropriations had begun. There had already been a spate of old tyme blues players tracked down by historians and carted out on package tours to Europe. Smith, though, was the descendent of those folks.
Living in poverty, according to the liner notes, accompanying his album, Smith didn’t really have peers, just picking up bits and pieces for guitarists he knew. The man’s musical development was pretty much reckoned in a vacuum. But it’s really hard to figure that after getting a listen to the spate of songs he offers up over the course of Clarksdale Blues. Sure, the requisite cover crops up – Jimmy Reed’s “Ain't That Loving You, Baby” being the culprit here. In his choice of cover material, though, Smith’s isolation can be properly sussed out as Reed represents an electric exponent of blues disconnected from the rural tradition in which Smith revels.
On his own compositions, like Smith’s “Council Spur Blues,” there’s a pretty unique voice springing forth. No it’s not due to his playing or his actually singing voice. But mentioning a troubling situation, the guitarist and song writer notes that a white friend of his stepped in to help solve a problem at work. And work, in this case, was working on a farm. According to the liner notes, Smith earned three dollars a day. That kinda stinks, but makes understanding his disconnect – and that of any sharecropper, Mississippi John Hurt included – all the more easy.
Smith’s mention of race can be seen as an aspect of his craft coming specifically from being the spawn of earlier players. Talking about white friends may have occurred on earlier sides dating to the first half of the century, but by the sixties it couldn’t have been considered so risqué. Regardless of that, the playing on this disc is just short of extraordinary, if not horribly original. If Clarksdale Blues presents itself to you in person, passing it up would be a mistake. Truly.