Friday, November 14, 2014

A Newcomer's Guide to Early Mississippi Delta Blues (Part 1)

Photo by Bill Steber

Let's do a little "Supposin'," if you will.....Suppose you've only been listening to the blues for a short time.  Suppose you came to the blues through some of the modern blues artists, either blues rockers or contemporary blues.  Suppose you are interested in delving deeper into the roots of this great music that you're wondering just who might have influenced some of this great music that you've found.  You know about artists like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, and Howlin' Wolf....may even have a collection or two from them that you listen to regularly, but you want to go even further back.  Just how do you go about doing that......backtracking even further and checking out the original sources of this great music?  Where do you start?  How do you manage to do it without putting a serious dent in your wallet?

Years ago, it wasn't so easy.  In the pre-internet days, it was pretty hard to track down early blues recordings.  They weren't exactly a big seller in the record stores, so they were pretty hard to find at your local Camelot Music.  Your best bet back in the day was to track down a record catalog for particular labels that carried this brand of music, which is what I did.  I don't remember where I found them, but I ended up sending letters or dialing 1-800 numbers requesting catalogs to several mail-order places.

So, as a public service (I am a public servant in my secret identity, so it only makes sense), Friday Blues Fix is going to present you with a short list of five essential purchases to help you get started on a collection of early Mississippi Delta Blues musicians, mostly recordings from early blues pioneers that will give you a good idea of what they sounded like and help you understand the influence they had on their followers.

Photo by Kelly/Mooney
What I'm going to give you today is in line with the way that I began collecting these recordings.  It's the only way I know how to do it and it worked pretty well for me in two different formats over twenty years or so.  One thing to keep in mind about buying and listening to these early blues stars is that the sound quality of the recordings varies from artist to artist.  Most of the time, it all depends on which label they recorded for.  In some cases, these will be later recordings by the artists.  For some listeners (I fall into this catagory), it's probably better to hear the later recordings first, to get a feel for what the artists sound like.  If you like the later recordings, then you should have no problem listening to the earlier, more challenging sides.  That was the case for me with some of the items on this list.

This is not a definitive list, by any means.  These are just the recordings, or similar to the recordings, that I originally picked up when I started collecting.  I see other albums more recently issued that are probably better, more comprehensive collections, but I don't have them, so I don't feel right recommending them.  If you have some info to share in this area, please feel free to put your two cents in under Comments below.  In the meantime, if you're interested in backtracking to the early years of blues recordings, especially blues from the Mississippi Delta, this is a nice set to start with.  We will dig deeper, eventually moving from the Delta to other areas, in future posts.

Robert Johnson - King of the Delta Blues (Columbia/Legacy):  A no-brainer, for sure.  There are so many Robert Johnson collections out do you distinguish one from the other??  Well, the first two collections originally released in the 60's are fine, with great songs on both discs.  Any of the box sets are wonderful, and they include EVERYTHING Johnson recorded, alternate takes and all.  However, while I know some collectors love to have everything from particular artists, alternate tracks and all, it gets REALLY tedious at times, because on most collections, alternate takes are played back-to-back and there's not usually a gnat's hair difference in the tracks if you're not approaching it from a scholarly viewpoint.  If you're a newcomer to an artists, the box set is probably not the best jumping-off point for you.  King of the Delta Blues contains sixteen of Johnson's best sides, some taken from each of the initial 60's collections and many of which you have probably heard covered by either other blues artists or blues rockers, and is an ideal starting point for new listeners at a bargain price.  If you like these tracks, then chances are good that you would be fine buying the full box set, but as a beginning buyer, this is where you need to start.

Son House - The Original Delta Blues (Columbia/Legacy):  The first Son House song I ever heard was "Death Letter," the version that's on this CD.  It was actually on a Columbia/Legacy anthology set and was the last song on the album.  I had heard of Son House and he had passed away not long after I started listening to the blues, but I had never actually heard him.  The pictures I had seen of him seemed to show a nice, gentle, kindly man...always with a slightly bemused smile on his face.  When I heard "Death Letter," I was blown away by the sheer intensity of it.....not just House's manhandling of the National steel guitar, but his rugged vocals.  Imagine my surprise some years later, when I found out that upon his "rediscovery" in the 60's, he had pretty much forgotten how to play any of his music.  Alan Wilson, later of Canned Heat, was given the assignment of teaching Son House how to play his own songs.  In the mid 60's, he released a new album, from which the songs on this set are taken, and they're nearly at the level of his 30's and 40's recordings.  The reason this set is on my list instead of his earlier recordings is because of the sound and the nice price.  These songs also appear on a two-disc set from Columbia/Legacy that collects the mid 60's album, along with outtakes and alternate versions of some of the songs.  It's very good, but again new fans may not want to take in all the alternate versions initially.  House's 40's recordings for the Library of Congress are his best (more on his 30's recordings in a bit), and that's where I would definitely go if I liked what I heard on this album,  Son House's story is worth a separate post of it's own and hopefully, we will take care of that in the near future.

Skip James - Complete Early Recordings (Yazoo Records):  Okay, this one may be a bit tricky for new listeners.  FBF discussed Skip James about a year ago and we mentioned that the early recordings (actually from 1931 instead of the indicated 1930) are sometimes hard to listen to because of inferior sound quality.  In the twenty-something years since I first purchased this set, the sound has been improved considerably.  That being said, it's still sometimes difficult, but even a few scratches and hisses cannot hide the fire and intensity of James' performances.  His vocals come from somewhere that ordinary mortals can only dream about and his delicate guitar work is equally haunting.  James recorded many of these sides again for Vanguard Records in the mid 60's (compiled into an excellent set in the late 90's) and they are very good with crystal-clear sound, but the energy and intensity of these earlier performances outshine the later recordings.  I would recommend getting both sets eventually, but the early sides are blues at their rawest and most personal and that comes through loud and clear, even through the static.

Charlie Patton - Founder of the Delta Blues (Yazoo Records):  I originally had this on a cassette, which had a few more songs than the two dozen featured here (it was originally a double album), but I might as well not have even had it.  The sound was so bad that you could barely make out Patton's gruff vocals and guitar playing over the noise, so I rarely listened to it.  When CDs became popular, Yazoo reissued it with the song list trimmed and considerably better sound.  As mentioned previously on FBF, the Paramount label, which recorded Patton, as well as James, House, Tommy Johnson and many others, was a furniture company that made records only to be used on the record players that they sold, so they printed them on cheap shellac.  Later on, the masters of the recordings were destroyed or sold for scrap metal, so any compilations of these songs had to be made from existing copies of the few surviving original 78's.  Like the James set from Yazoo, Patton's power and charisma really comes out, even through the noise and it's easy for listeners to hear and understand why he was such a huge influence on scores of artists who followed, such as Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Son House, just to name a few.  From many interviews and reports from fellow musicians and Patton fans of the day, he was an entertaining live performer as well.  This is probably as good a shot as blues fans will have, soundwise, at listening to the original source of Mississippi Delta Blues.

Various Artists:  The Roots of Robert Johnson (Yazoo Records):  Okay, you've picked up the previous four CDs and you really like what you've heard and would like to dig a little deeper.  Where do you go from here??  Well, you can actually go in a couple of different directions.  Since most new blues fans are more familiar with Robert Johnson of the early blues artists, I would recommend this collection from Yazoo, which collects 14 tracks from which listeners can get a good idea about the various artists who influenced Johnson, including Patton, James, House, and others like Lonnie Johnson, Scrapper Blackwell, Kokomo Arnold, and the Mississippi Sheiks.  These songs will give you a sense of the various guitar and lyrical influence that these artists had on Johnson, and it's a nice way to expand your knowledge of early blues artists and songs (many of these songs are still played by blues musicians today).

These five albums will give new blues fans a starting place to the early Mississippi Delta Blues sounds.  They will discover several of the early masters and their influences through these recordings, and they will also get a chance to hear the artists who influenced many later artists and current ones as well.  Friday Blues Fix will be revisiting this topic in the near future.

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