Friday, January 23, 2015

Classic Live Blues - Newport Folk Festival: Best of the Blues 1959 - 68

About two years into my discovery of the blues, I became curious about the older blues artists......the ones who recorded and performed in the 20's and 30's.  I was already familiar with Robert Johnson, because you could still find his music in stores, but it was pretty hard to track down anything else from other artists of his era.  I had read about many of them in Living Blues because LB often had reviews of album collections of these artists, but I really didn't know how to get started on listening, or what to listen to.

I was familiar with Vanguard Records because I had picked up a couple of great albums from the label.....Buddy Guy's A Man and the Blues and Junior Wells' It's My Life Baby.  I had actually found both of those in a mall record store (remember Camelot Music?), but that was about it.  Back then, if a record store had three columns of cassettes on their wall, I considered myself fortunate.

I also ran across Peter Guralnick's Feel Like Going Home, which I discussed in detail back in FBF's early days.  Guralnick had included chapters in this wonderful book on a couple of early blues pioneers, Skip James and Robert Pete Williams.  The Skip James chapter in particular was fascinating, and it really encouraged me to want to hear him, but as mentioned above, recordings of early blues artists were pretty scarce at record stores in my neck of the woods.  Of course, newer listeners may not be able to understand how hard it was for blues fans at the time to check out music in the days before the internet, when today it takes about two clicks of a mouse to pull the Skip James song of your choice up for your listening pleasure.

One day, while in a Jackson, MS mall, I happened upon Blues At Newport, a collection from Vanguard that captured highlights of the Newport Folk Festival between 1959 and 1964.  I saw a few familiar names on the track list, including James and Williams, along with John Lee Hooker and Reverend Gary Davis, another artist I had read about in Living Blues, but had never actually heard.  Needless to say, my curiosity was piqued and I hurried to the counter with my copy in hand.

Sadly, there was only one song from Skip James, and a pair from Williams and Davis, but I also got to hear Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Robert Wilkins, and Sleepy John Estes for the first time. My blues horizons were expanded greatly from this release, and I began to dig a little deeper into the catalogs of some of these artists, finding Vanguard's Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt releases and diving off into the extensive Yahoo Records discography.  However, even with finding additional recordings, I often returned to the Newport album....I think it was because the live setting really gave the music a more personal feel.

Around 2001, Vanguard embiggened their Newport blues recording by offering a 3-CD set of festival performances, dating from 1959 to 1968.  Newport Folk Festival:  Best of the Blues 1959-68 took many of the songs from the earlier single disc set and added two whole discs of songs from multiple artists.....several from the original release and many others, such as Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, Lightnin' Hopkins, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Bukka White, and Son House.  This actually slipped past me when it was originally released and somehow, I never even knew about it until a few weeks ago, when I saw it on Amazon.

The Newport Folk Festival was started in 1959, by George Wein, as a counterpart to the ongoing Newport Jazz Festival.  Music fans owe more than they will ever know to Wein, who started these two festivals, plus the Playboy Jazz Festival and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.  While the Folk Festival definitely features folk music, it also showcases blues, country, bluegrass, rock, and Americana.

Son House, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt

It was around this time that many older blues artists were being rediscovered, such as John Hurt, Bukka White, Skip James, and Son House.  All of these artists eventually showed up at Newport to play.  For many of them, it went beyond the $50 fee they received for their 15 or so minutes of performing.  Many of the record companies at the time had representatives there, and a lot of these artists were able to sign deals with various labels, based on their performances.  Hurt and James signed with Vanguard Records, White with Takoma, and House with Columbia.

Best of the Blues 1959-68 is divided into three CDs.  The first disc is called Delta Blues, and features 17 tracks from Hurt, James, House, White, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and a pair of acoustic tracks from Muddy Waters.  The second is called Country Blues and features Robert Pete Williams, Mance Lipscomb, Jesse Fuller, Reverend Gary Davis, and the duo of Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry.  The third is called Urban Blues and showcases Lightnin' Hopkins, Memphis Slim, John Lee Hooker, Waters and Otis Spann, the Chambers Brothers, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

On Delta Blues, you get a great glimpse of Mississippi John Hurt.  He obviously won over the crowd with his amiable personality and his sweet, gentle brand of blues.  Hurt sounded just as good as he did on his 1928 recordings, and his six tracks get the disc off to a nice start.  His diverse repertoire and guitar playing influenced many blues and folk artists and some of his songs ("Coffee Blues" and "Candy Man") are still favorites.

Skip James at Newport

James and House provided a sharp contrast to Hurt's songs.  I can only imagine what the crowd's reaction was when James sang the first notes of his "Devil Got My Woman."  Dick Waterman, whose wonderful photos brought the festival to life for numerous blues fans, is quoted in the liner notes describing his reaction to James' singing:
"He took that first note up in falsetto all the way, and the hairs on the back of my neck went up, and all up and down my arms, the hairs just went right up.  Even now I get a reaction to that note when I listen to the recording......It's almost a wail.  It's a cry.  There was an audible gasp from the audience."
That performance is on this collection, and I'm pretty sure that most listeners will get the same reaction when they hear it for the first time.  I know I did.  It STILL gives me goose bumps.  The video below is not from Newport, but you will get the idea.

Son House

For sheer intensity, it's hard, or impossible, to top Son House, both on his guitar and vocally.  He does four mesmerizing songs on this set, including "Preaching Blues" and the harrowing "Death Letter."  House was a huge influence on many of the later generation of blues men, such as Muddy Water and Howlin' Wolf and was a revered figure among them.  Here's a clip of House performing "Death Letter Blues," taken from Vestopol's Legends of Country Blues Guitar DVD series.

Both House and James had to be retaught their songs upon their rediscovery, but on these tracks, it sounds like they'd never put their instruments down for a minute.

Mississippi Fred McDowell

The remainder of Delta Blues consists of Bukka White's fierce version of "Aberdeen Mississippi Blues," two tracks from McDowell ("Louise" and "If The River Was Whiskey"), and a pair of acoustic tracks from Waters.......House's "Walkin' Blues" and Waters' own "I Can't Be Satisfied."  It's sort of neat to hear Waters' acoustic guitar will remind you of his Library of Congress recordings from the early 40's (Waters recorded both of these for Alan Lomax during the L of C session).

Disc 2, Country Blues, features blues artists from various locations.  The ones that stood out to me were Robert Pete Williams from Louisiana, Mance Lipscomb from Texas, and Reverend Gary Davis, who was born in the south, but spent most of his years in New York City.

Robert Pete Williams

Williams had recently been released from the penitentiary in Louisiana, where he served a sentence for murder.  Williams' music was completely unique.  There were no other blues artists, or any musicians really, who sounded quite like him.  His lyrics were largely autobiographical and sometimes brutally honest and could be an acquired taste of sorts for some music fans.  It actually took me a bit of listening to catch on, but it's compelling stuff, especially the chilling "Levee Camp Blues" (below is Williams' version on Arhoolie Records).

Mance Lipscomb

Texan Mance Lipscomb had a distinctive guitar style, using a pocket knife as a slide instead of the traditional glass or metal slide, and was more of a "songster" than a blues man....similar to Mississippi John Hurt, he was adept at different styles ranging from blues to ballads to spirituals and pop tunes.  He actually spent most of his life as a sharecropper and farmer and didn't record until he was in his mid 60's.  He became a favorite on the festival scene until a couple of years before he passed away in 1976 at the age of 81.  His three songs show his range, including a narrative of the sinking of the Titanic.

Rev. Gary Davis

The Reverend Gary Davis was one of the most influential guitarist in blues and folk music.  His fingerpicking style influenced a wide range of artists, from Bob Dylan to Taj Mahal to Ry Cooder to Jorma Kaukonen to Donovan.  He was self-taught, began to play at the age of six and was basically blind since birth.  In the beginning, as a street musician he played a mix of blues and spiritual tunes to make it harder for the police to interrupt him, but by the late 30's, he began to focus exclusively on the gospel material and became an ordained minister.

I remember reading (don't remember where) that he broke his arm as a youth and it didn't heal correctly, which may have attributed somewhat to his unique playing style.  Good as his guitar work was, his vocals were at times astounding.  One of his more amazing songs was his version of Blind Willie Johnson's  "Samson and Delilah (If I Had My Way)," which he performs on this disc.

The remainder of the disc includes a couple of entertaining songs from Bay Area one-man-band  Jesse Fuller ("San Francisco Bay Blues" and "I Double Double Do Love You"), a track from Tennessee blues man Sleepy John Estes ("Clean Up At Home"), and five tracks from the duo of Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry.  McGhee and Terry had played a big part in bringing the blues to the folk scene in the early 50's, so they were more than comfortable by this time at Newport, and their stirring five-song set is top notch, with a rousing version of "Long Gone," "Drink Muddy Water," and "Key To The Highway."

The third and final disc, Urban Blues, features the occasional electric instrument with mostly familiar artists......Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters (with Otis Spann), The Chambers Brothers and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.  Despite the electricity involved on some of these tracks, they're pretty subdued for the most part, probably for the benefit of the mostly folk audience.....after all, many of them booed Bob Dylan when he showed up in 1965 with a Stratocaster and plugged in.

Lightnin' Hopkins at Newport

Despite packing an electric guitar onstage, Lightnin' Hopkins was usually pretty subdued anyway and his performance (three songs featured here...."The Woman I'm Leaving, She's Taken My Appetite," "Baby Please Don't Go," and "Shake That Thing".), delivered in his usual amiable manner, were probably crowd pleasers.  Seriously, I can't imagine anybody booing Lightnin' Hopkins for any reason at all.

John Lee Hooker

I saw John Lee Hooker back in the late 80's in New Orleans, and he had a boat full of party goers hanging on his every word sung and note played......just him and his guitar.  I'm pretty sure that the same thing happened at Newport.  This set includes six of his songs, accompanied on a few tracks by Spike Lee's dad, Bill, on bass.  One of their collaborations was the moody and intense "Tupelo."  Hooker also included a somber narrative about the horrible 1940 fire at the Rhythm Room in Natchez, MS, and his old favorite, "Boom Boom."

Memphis Slim at Newport

Memphis Slim gets four songs (previously unreleased before this set was issued), and Waters and Spann get a pair of tracks, also heard here for the first time.  The set starts wrapping with a gospel-flavored reading of "See See Rider," from the Chambers Brothers, whose electrifying mix of soul, psychedelic rock, blues, funk, and gospel was very popular at the time, culminating in their massive hit, "Time Has Come Today."  The Butterfield Blues Band closes with strong readings of "Blues With A Feeling" and "Born In Chicago."

How's this for a line-up.....Butterfield - harmonica, Mike Bloomfield - guitar, Elvin Bishop - guitar, Jerome Howard - bass, Sam Lay - drums, Al Kooper - keyboards, Barry Goldberg - keyboards)?  Sounds pretty impressive, considering what several of these musicians went on to achieve, but some in the crowd, which took a more "purist" approach to the blues were aggravated by the "integrated" nature of the blues band, and according to the liner notes, Butterfield's manager Albert Goldman got in a fight backstage with musicologist Alan Lomax, who was belittling the band.

The Newport Folk Festival continues to this day at the end of July every year.  Usually the tickets sell out before the line-up is even finalized or announced.  While there doesn't seem to be as many blues artists as in years past, the music is still great and the blues world owes a huge debt to the festival for getting the word out in the late 50's/early 60's about the blues and these new and rediscovered blues artists.

For blues fans who are just getting into acoustic blues from the artists of the pre-war era, Best of the Blues 1959 - 1968 is a great and fairly inexpensive way to get started, and will probably encourage you to dig deeper into their earlier recordings.

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