Every music lover has defining moments in his or her listening history; turning points were exposure to an artist or song completely unhinges their way of thinking and opens their ears to a whole different level of experience. For me one of these epiphanic moments came when I first heard Blind Willie Johnson’s “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole.” The religion-bred alloy of Johnson’s bellowing, gravel-chewed voice rending apart the spiritual’s Old Testament lyrics over a spine-tingling slide refrain chilled and moved me to the very core. But it was Johnson’s otherworldly slide guitar that really transfixed my senses- the sound of hammered steel on twined strings spooling out a redemptive message from the pits of one man’s tortured soul.
While slide guitar remains one of the most elementally emotive sounds endemic to the Blues, as a technique it wasn’t born out of the idiom. It’s roots rest firmly in Polynesian and specifically Hawaiian origins. But the ways in which African Americans crafted the method to their own devices are archetypal. Injecting an ocean of sorrow and pathos and in turn channeling all the hardship and dark emotions of their experiences through it bluesmen made the technique their own. In the right hands a simple section of glass or metal and a guitar can become an instrument with all the tonal breadth and scope of the human voice.
Slide guitar traditions have a rich and traceable history thanks mainly to recordings. As might be expected some of the most stirring and informative come from the music’s early Pre-War stylists. These two compilations from Catfish focus specifically on these formative years traveling a programmatic road pock-marked by both well-known and obscure practitioners. Of the two volumes the first has a slight edge in terms of material and sequencing. Starting out with the whistling bottleneck of Willie Harris the disc moves through such legendary figures as Blind Willie McTell, Bukka White, Blind Willie Johnson, Barbecue Bob and Charley Patton. Mixed in with these guiding lights are lesser known, but equally brilliant stylists like Ramblin’ Thomas, King Solomon Hill and Black Ace. Virtually every track is a keeper. The only slight exception is “Good Time Blues” by Jelly Roll Anderson, which suffers from wooden vocals but contains some stellar, off-kilter slide work that clearly illustrates the style’s Hawaiian antecedents.
Volume two focuses further on lesser-known names while appending a pair of rare sides by Leroy Foster, which seem somewhat out of place. “Busy Bootin’” by the influential Kokomo Arnold starts things off right in a wash of bouncing wirey strums. Tracks by Charlie McCoy and Smith Casey keep the train running along a taut steel rail straight into the back yard of Charley Patton. Patton’s pair of sides (like his concluding suite on volume one) sounds remarkably clean (especially compared to the versions on Yazoo label reissues). The Delta Blues King’s voice is finally scrubbed of much effacing surface crackle without losing any of its canine bark. Memorable cuts by Son House, Tampa Red and King Solomon Hill follow. The final two by Leroy Foster drag slide guitar traditions roughly into the Age of Amplification. Muddy Waters’ amp flattening fretwork, particularly on “Part 2” is strong enough to wrestle the pounding pulse of the Foster’s drum kit for supremacy. The downside is that the remastering job is quite inferior, especially compared to the same tracks available on The Blues World of Little Walter (Delmark). But this is a completely superficial quibble. Both discs stand up remarkably well as handpicked samplers of the most influential players in the slide guitar’s long and twisted lineage. Ideal purchases for both the neophyte and the seasoned fan these volumes speak volumes about this integral instrumental component of the blues.
Catfish on the web: http://www.catfishrecords.co.uk/