Milestone Recordings in American Music

4/5/09

High Water (1930-1931)

In many ways, the first two years of the decade were a high-water mark for country blues artists, as the following riveting performances show. As the Great Depression caused sales to drop, though, opportunities would soon dry up even for established artists like Charley Patton and Blind Willie Johnson. Other promising talents, like Son House and Skip James, would find their careers over before they had even begun.

Geeshie Wiley
Last Kind Words Blues(Paramount 12951, 1930)

Geeshie Wiley doesn’t fit any of the molds for 1920s and 1930s blues singers, but her unique style is so captivating perhaps more should have been cast like her. “Last Kind Words Blues” is her masterpiece, a slow, haunting blues that chronicles the final exchange between the narrator and her lover, who is headed to war. The ominous tone captures the narrator’s worry at the impending threat of loss: “If I get killed, if I get killed, please don't bury my soul / I cry just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole.”

Wiley’s delivery is reserved but far from mellow, as an almost manic anxiety lurks just below the surface. The guitarist, probably her frequent collaborator Elvie Thomas, is masterful on guitar, strumming a steady rhythm and adding some edgy, minor-key picking here and there to heighten the tension. Despite recording one of the most exciting blues records of her era, Wiley made very few additional records, and almost nothing is known of her.

~ You may also like: Geeshie Wiley, “Skinny Leg Blues” (Paramount 12951, 1930)

Kansas Joe & Memphis Minnie
Bumble Bee (Columbia 14542-D, 1930)

“Kansas” Joe McCoy may have equal billing here, but there is no doubt that his wife Lizzie Douglas, a.k.a. “Memphis Minnie,” was the star of the pair. After the couple split in 1935, Minnie continued to enjoy a respectable career for another two decades and is today considered one of the greatest female blues artists in history.

“Bumble Bee” was one of Minnie’s first hits and signified a shift toward the traditional “country blues” style for female artists. While her commanding voice is as powerful as earlier, vaudeville-inspired female blues singers, she plays a mean guitar and proves adept at singing relaxed, “Memphis style” blues. The gentle, twin guitar accompaniment ultimately proves more satisfying than any jazz instrumentation would have, putting her voice clearly in the foreground and allowing her a greater range of expression. Her playful change of tempo on the final verse sounds perfectly natural and ends the song on a high note.

~ You may also like: Frank Stokes, “How Long” (Victor V-38512 , 1929)

Blind Willie Johnson
God Moves on the Water (Columbia 14520-D, 1930)

“God Moves on the Water” is one of the most amazing slide guitar performance ever captured on record. It is a recounting of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, told with religious overtones: “God moves, God moves, God moves, ah, and the people had to run and pray.” Johnson’s guitar wails and sings with as much emotion as the man’s voice, creating a haunting performance. The brief bridge in the middle is particularly entrancing with its stark, deeply expressive slide playing. The bridge ends with a wonderful transition as Johnson gives a little moan and starts fingerpicking again.

~ You may also like: Blind Willie Johnson, “God Don’t Never Change” (Columbia 14490-D, 1930)

Blind Willie Johnson
John the Revelator(Columbia 14530-D, 1930)

“John the Revelator” is a powerful gospel blues that references the author of the Biblical Book of Revelation. Johnson, one of the most striking vocalists and musicians in blues history, gives an inspired performance. His rough voice repeatedly growls questions (“Who’s that writing?”), and a woman’s voice (most likely his wife Willie B. Harris) answers “John the Revelator” in a much softer voice that provides a clear contrast. Johnson’s passion comes through loud and clear, and despite the rawness of his voice, his singing is quite strong and the song quite exciting.

After the April 1930 session that produced “John the Revelator,” Johnson would never record again.

~ You may also like: Blind Willie Johnson, “Praise God I’m Satisfied” (Columbia 14545-D, 1930)

Charley Patton
High Water Everywhere (Parts 1 & 2) (Paramount 12909, 1930)

This song is one of Charley Patton’s best vocal performances. Covering two sides, it is an account of the utter devastation caused by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. Patton gives an eye-witness account of what he saw traveling throughout the region: “Oh, Lordy, women and grown men drown / Oh, women and children sinkin' down / I couldn't see nobody's home and wasn't no one to be found.” Patton’s delivers these lyrics with utter conviction, reaching deep into his soul to convey powerful emotion with every line. In Part 1, his gravelly voice strains with a sense of urgency and desperation. In Part 2, he sounds more reserved and saddened. Both are equally heartbreaking.

~ You may also like: Charley Patton, “A Spoonful Blues” (Paramount 12869, 1929)

Son House
Preachin’ the Blues (Parts 1 & 2)(Paramount 13013, 1930)

Eddie “Son” House is one of the giants of the Delta blues. He had a unique style characterized by repeated signatures on guitar, over which he layered intense, shouted vocals. He recorded only a few sides in the 1930s and a couple more in the ‘40s, but they were enough to cement his legacy. Eventually, he was rediscovered during the folk revival and made some recordings late in his life that nearly matched the intensity of these early sides.

“Preachin’ the Blues (Parts 1 & 2)” is his masterpiece. It is an autobiographical account of House’s life, from his original intention to be a Baptist preacher (“Oh, I'm gonna get me a religion / I'm gonna join the Baptist Church / I'm gonna be a Baptist preacher, and I sure won't have to work”) to his eventual downfall to temptation (“Oh, I'd-a had religion, Lord, this very day / But the womens and whiskey, well, they would not set me free”). The record was cut for Paramount, with its notoriously poor sound quality, but despite the scratches and hissing, House’s voice comes through loud and strong. He sounds like a man possessed as he drives through this two-sided recording. House may not have made it as a Baptist preacher, but on this record, he clearly has the passion and commanding presence of one, singing: “I swear to God / I got to preach these gospel blues!”

~ You may also like: Son House, “My Black Mama (Parts 1 & 2)” (Paramount 13042, 1931)

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1931 Headlines … Great Depression continues … “The Star-Spangled Banner” is adopted as the U.S. national anthem … Gambling legalized in Nevada … Empire State Building completed in New York City
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Willie Brown
Future Blues (Paramount 13090, 1931)

Willie Brown is both one of the most influential Delta blues musicians and one of the most elusive. Very little is known for sure about the man, except that he was a renowned sideman, accompanying such greats as Charley Patton and Son House. Many music scholars believe that he was an uncredited guitarist on the records of many other artists as well. He was also a noteworthy vocalist, but only three of his known solo records have survived: two from a 1930 session and one more from 1941.

“Future Blues” is taken from that first session and was issued by Paramount in 1931. Brown’s guitar playing is solid; he plots a fairly straightforward course, but executes it with precision. He regularly snaps the strings to add some emphasis. His distinctive voice is rough and yet wonderfully expressive. The highlight of the song is the fourth verse, where instead of repeating the first line twice, Brown slowly unfolds the line, revealing more and more of it until he finally says the whole thing: “I got a woman, Lord, and she's lightning when she smiles.” Brown’s voice soars, growls and grins during the delivery of this verse, and it is a joy to listen to.

~ You may also like: Son House, “Clarksdale Moan” (Paramount 13096, 1931)

Skip James
Devil Got My Woman (Paramount 13088, 1931)

Skip James
I’m So Glad (Paramount 13098, 1931)

Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James had a unique sound among Delta blues musicians, and his legacy has proven highly influential. He recorded 26 songs for Paramount in 1931, but only 18 have survived. Despite their utter brilliance, sales of James’ records were poor due to the Great Depression, and he would not record again until the very end of his life when he was “rediscovered” during the folk revival. Nevertheless, his sound proved influential to later blues musicians like Robert Johnson, and his stature has grown over time.

“Devil Got My Woman” is one of James’ best recordings, and was the inspiration for Robert Johnson’s “Hell Hound On My Trail.” James plays the song very slowly in an ominous, open D-minor tuning, and his eerie, high pitched voice cuts to the listener’s soul with every line. The opening lines set the tone: “I’d rather be the devil to be that woman’s man / nothing but the devil change my baby’s mind.” James continues the song in that mournful, wailing tone until revealing the source of his despair at the end: “Woman I love, took her from my best friend / but he got lucky, stole her back again.”

~ You may also like: Skip James, “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” (Paramount 13065, 1931)

“I’m So Glad” is another classic from James. Like “Devil Got My Woman,” James’ distinct, high pitched voice features prominently and gives the song an otherworldly feel. However, this song is much faster, and contains some inspired fingerpicking. James easily proves himself the equal of the best Piedmont blues fingerpickers, but his technique is uniquely his own. His unusual tone and forceful delivery set him apart from his contemporaries, and mark him as a kindred spirit with later guitar heroes like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page.

~ You may also like: Skip James, “Jesus Is a Mighty Good Leader” (Paramount 13108, 1931)

Willie Walker
South Carolina Rag(Columbia 14578-D, 1931)

Willie Walker was a talented guitarist who unfortunately only cut only single in his lifetime. “South Carolina Rag” is one side of that solitary record, an easy-going, ragtime-inspired ditty that leaves you wanting more. Walker has a fine voice with a lot of range, and he takes advantage of it in the way he slides from low to falsetto. But it is his guitar work that deserves most of the praise, as he shows a fluid fingerpicking style that shows him to be among the best of the Piedmont blues guitarists. Walker manages to show off on guitar without doing anything to diminish the song’s relaxed feel. It’s an enjoyable and entertaining listen that shows true talent, and like so many others of his generation, it is a shame he didn’t leave behind any more of a legacy.

~ You may also like: Blind Blake, “Police Dog Blues” (Paramount 12888, 1929)


Blind Sammie (Blind Willie McTell)
Broke Down Engine Blues(Columbia 14632-D, 1931)

Willie McTell recorded under a variety of names for a variety of record labels. For this original recording of “Broke Down Engine Blues” on Columbia, he was billed as “Blind Sammie.” He would later record the song as Blind Willie McTell in 1933 (Vocalion 02577) and as Barrelhouse Sammy in 1949 (Atlantic 891). Whatever the name on the record, there is no mistaking his distinct voice and unique 12-string guitar style.

The song tells a typical blues story: a man is down on his luck and feels “like a broke down engine” that “ain’t got no drive at all.” The narrator tells of gambling away all of his money and losing his woman as well: “I went down to my praying ground and fell on bended knees / I ain’t crying for no religion, Lordy, give me back my good gal please.” McTell’s guitar playing is magnificent, but much more reserved here than on his 1928 masterpiece “Statesboro Blues.” What makes this song truly compelling is his quivering, nasal voice. He gives it a great workout on this record, and the result is addictive, especially between verses when he sings “Lordy Lord, Lordy Lordy Lord.”

~ You may also like: Blind Willie McTell, “Dark Night Blues” (Victor 38032, 1928)

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