September 2009

Big Maceo Merriweather: Another Worried Life...

The Bluebird imprint, founded in 1934, had a roster of artists the read something like an early round up city blues players, old tyme guitarists and some hillbilly stalwarts like Jimmie Rodgers tossed in. For the label to have such a seemingly eclectic stable of players would say that the men who ran the show over at Bluebird – Lester Melrose perhaps, he snagged talent if nothing else – had a vision. It should also serve to explain that all of those musics weren’t really all that different, having only in subsequent years been divided up and prostituted. Yeah Garth Brooks is country, but Jimmie Rodgers? I mean come on. There’s not a comparison there. Just like Joe Bonamassa, although a talented dude, really isn’t in the same league as Bukka White even if you can find both at your local record store (they still have those, right?) in the same section.

Sylvester Weaver: A First of Firsts Blues

With the number of folks flying under the auspices of country blues or pre-war blues, it’s easy to get passed over. Sylvester Weaver, though, probably shouldn’t have gone unknown to me for such an incredibly long time. It’s claimed that he’s responsible for the first country blues recordings ever set to 78. That well may be true, but I’m sure that there’s someone out there that disagrees – and probably has some proof. But regardless of all of that nonsense, Weaver, along with a few collaborators over just a few years created an important body of work that could be minimized, but probably shouldn’t be.

After Robert Johnson: A Nod to Pre-War Blues Players

Noticeably absent from the following list of pre-war blues players is Robert Johnson. He’s getting a brief mention here simply as a result of being one of the most important exponents of the style that was popularized in various, disparate southern locales between the aughties and the thirties, just prior to the (first) great crash. His playing certainly set the bar for future blues peformers much in the same way his lyrics, rife with religious double speak and meandering tales of woe and damnation, would change not just the blues, but rock music in the following decades.

While Johnson might still be – and will remain – the most celebrated bluesmen, the folks below aren’t slouches in any sense. Well, Skip James wasn’t all that great at guitar, but it can be forgiven. Regardless, each of the players represented herein affected not only the way in which a guitar would be wielded by rock and blues musicians, but also the American song book. Understanding the genre, after Robert Johnson, begins here.

Amerinca Primitive Guitar: An Album Primer

With such a vacuous name as American Primitive Guitar, one would believe the pseudo-genre to be nothing more than an amalgam of non-musicians working with sub-par instruments to create an unholy racket. That’s just not the case, though. Instead, the players who fall – or kinda are considered – a part of this genre are really masterful performers. There are most likely those readers who will cry out something like, “Long live Segovia,” or maybe even John Williams.

Sandy Bull - Fantasias for Guitar & Banjo (1963)

Pacific Gas & Electric x Glenn Schwartz

Being half crazed and drugged to the gills didn’t inhibit Glenn Schwartz from briefly becoming one of the most lauded guitarists of the ‘60s. Yep, only briefly though. Subsequent to leaving the James Gang, which also included a pre-Eagles Joe Walsh, Schwartz high tailed it to Los Angeles. After arriving, and most likely appreciating the fact that any substance that could be mentioned was available, the guitarist joined up with a retooled group named Bluesberry Jam that had just rechristened itself Pacific Gas & Electric. Despite that lame name, not that the previous moniker was any better, PG&E went on to impact the blues, rock and psych scene over there on the west coast during the latter portion of the ‘60s and even into the ‘70s.

Jimmy Reed: Preternatural Blues

Being on the cusp of something new doesn’t generally allow for folks to cash in or get what they deserve. Surely, latter years might afford people the proper appreciation, but that obviously can’t be assured. So while blues was turning into rock and singles were ready to become a secondary way in which to impart music after the arrival of the full length album’s dominance, Jimmy Reed was in the middle of everything. Working in a blues fashion, having grown up in Mississippi, but moving to Chicago and taking in some sounds of the city, his spate of singles from the fifties can only be rivaled by the names Muddy and Wolf. There just really isn’t another player from the time period whose body of work can match what Reed put down.

Frank Stokes: A Memphis Blues

Beginning one’s recording career as half of a duo presents a number of potential problems. Firstly, folks are gonna always wonder where your other half is even if you make it out from under that shadow of whatever group. Secondly, the material recorded subsequent to leaving the tandem might not rightfully live up to expectations making folks all the more critical – and it could then even impact the popularity of the duo if ever reformed. That’s alotta weight to carry around. But music should be just music and not a business. That’s a beautiful sentiment, but not too realistic.

Jazz Gillum Eschews His Namesake for Blues

Named after a president, William McKinley Gillum eventually picked up the nickname Jazz. There’s no explication that on the internets, so your guess is as good as mine. Regardless of that, Gillum grew up amidst some troubled times. Apart from the fact that the looming depression didn’t help matters, Gillum’s parents both died when he was pretty young, leaving him in the company of an abusive uncle. Needless to say, Gillum didn’t care too much for beatings and left home before turning ten. The life of ramblin’ – for blues players at least – is commonly figured to be some personal thing, something pushing each player to just hit the road for a time to workout whatever’s kicking around in his head. Gillum, though, left for his well being.

Big Joe Williams: 7+2=9 Strings

One of the many myths that surround each and every blues player from the pre-ware period is the way in which he or she came upon the instrument used to play. It’s occasionally figured that these performers first built whatever instrument that they became proficient on and perhaps later purchased a professionally made model. In contrast, Big Joe Williams pretty consistently utilized a traditional six string guitar, but modified it to no end. Usually, the Mississippi born singer and guitarist performed using a nine string contraption replete with some device to occasionally hang a kazoo from in order to play it hands free as well as an electric pick-up, whose wires apparently run up the front of the instrument.