Saturday, April 30, 2016

Who's That Writin'?

April is not the bluesest month, except maybe this year...

Idly internetting recently, I found and bought what are sure to be the two best Blues albums of 2016, Blues & Ballads--A Folksinger's Songbook: Volumes I & II by Luther Dickinson, and God Don't Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson performed by a group of solid re-senders. (If I find any other candidate LPs with longer, wordier titles, well, I guess the Blues Millenium really will be upon us.)

But for now, if you know your Blind Willie Johnson, there's only one right answer to the question posed up top: "John the Revelator, wrote the Book of the Seven Seals." Of course, an equally accurate response might be "Blind Willie himself"--the great
gravelly voiced "Bluesman" of the Twenties; no relation to the other Johnson (Robert, that is, who also recorded a total of 29 songs, fixing the all-too-brief recording careers of both men). Willie's own unique repertoire included... {No Sinful Country Blues; Sacred Gospel Numbers Only} ...his "Nobody's Fault But Mine," "Motherless Children Have a Hard Time," "Bye and Bye I'm Goin' to See the King," "God Don't Never Change," "Trouble Soon Be Over," "Let Your Light Shine on Me," "John the Revelator," and the timeless, ethereal, mostly instrumental number "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground," which decades back was chosen for the space capsule carrying music samples from Earth out to the Universe.

The eleven Johnson songs recorded this time around are performed by a suitably stellar cast: Lucinda Williams, the Cowboy Junkies (who incorporate samples of Willie's "Jesus Is Coming Soon"), Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi, Maria McKee, Rickie Lee Jones (a surprisingly beautiful rendition of "Dark Was the Night"), and Mr. Sui Generis himself, Tom Waits, whose gargle-and-grit vocal in "The Soul of a Man" is an almost perfect match for the Blind Willie original. Many highlights fill this Alligator Records CD, but let me just note that Blind Willie's muscular slide guitar stylings, even as refashioned here, are joyous and revelatory; and what some Philistines might call his "barbaric yawp" an acquired taste you really do need to acquire!

Meanwhile, serving as a suitable path to the Blues & Ballads CD is a hill-country
version of Willie's "Bye and Bye..." This track, as by Luther Dickinson and the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band, offers the outdoors, barbecue-and-dance sound (revived in recent decades by Mississippi's Fat Possum Records): tootling fife and martial drum, rollin'-reelin'and-rockin'-out to the glory of God. Luther (of North Mississippi Allstars fame) has honed his all-inclusive Blues over many years; the CD's tongue-in-cheek title and plain packaging (for one disc, not two), with hand-scrawled lyrics, are maybe meant to suggest a bootleg LP reissue of old-timey music, but there's nothing amateurish about the picnic-and-barbecue festivities. I hear rich slatherings of slide guitar over rockabilly roots, of Fred Macdowell and Mississippi John Hurt, of Memphis jug bands, Huddie Ledbetter, and Tommy the third Johnson (Robert and Blind Willie too)--the Country Blues of Texas, the Deep Blues of the Delta, some Piedmont South East picking, and languid music made on the Dickinson family front porch.

I commend to you a half dozen numbers in particular (of the 21 total, divided into two "Volumes" of ten and eleven tracks respectively, like the two sides of an uncommonly generous LP): "Hurry Up Sunrise," the opening track, is co-credited to the late Otha Turner, last of the hill-country, fife-and-drum Bluesmen, keenly resurrected here; soon followed by the piano thunder/slidin' lightnin' of dance number "Bang Bang Lulu," and then "Moonshine" with its gentle guitar harmonics, for a sort-of remembrance tree of nights spent playing in some back-country bar. This opening threesome leads to a shapelier fife-and-slide, gotta-dance anthem called "Mean Old Wind Died Down," plus "Ain't No Grave," a gospel soul hymn featuring great vocalist Mavis Staple.

And so, skipping ruthlessly over another five or ten gems, we fetch up against the haunted final track, "Horseshoe"--multiple guitars, fond memories of Junior Kimbrough, Otha Turner, and others, and more harmonics ringing out to the very end. Blues & Ballads... & the Best of a whole vanishing tradition. Way to go, Luther!

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