The Mississippi Delta is commonly revered as the American birthplace of the Blues, both figuratively and factually. The porous soil of the regions vast cotton fields and the hot humidity of the Mississippi sky were catalytic ingredients that sparked an alchemical reaction between the poverty and repression felt by Southern Blacks and their more ancient musical traditions. What is often overlooked is the sheer diversity of the protean blues styles spawned from these geographic origins. This two-disc set does a brilliant job of applying a microscope to the many surviving Pre-War recordings from the region and magnifying the localized plurality of the music’s purveyors.
The sparse chording and whistling croon of Kid Bailey on the opening “Mississippi Bottom Blues” leads the charge on Disc One, followed by a procession of other seminal (if sometimes forgotten) progenitors. Collectives like the Mississippi Jook Band and the Mississippi Sheiks showcase the blues roots in urban Tin Pan Alley and string band folk forms. Other artists like Otto Virgial, whose nasalized wail dances over a chugging series of guitar breaks on the rhythmically charged “Bad Notion Blues,” and Bukka White, who blows away the competition in an electrifying duet with scuffling washboard on the transcendental “Aberdeen Mississippi Blues” illustrate more rural variants. Humor (sometimes unintentional) is also a pervasive component as verified by Tommy McClennan’s “I’m a Guitar King,” a perfect example of the idle boast. Though, the guitarist’s rudimentary fretwork competes with a forceful throat raw enough to strip the paint of a roof of shingles. Skip James foul-tempered misogyny offers a darker side on “Devil Got My Woman” as his falsetto threats float above an otherworldly guitar tuning. The legendary Charley Patton reduces things to pure undiluted rhythm on “Revenue Man Blues” barking out a tart as turpentine indictment against the Law.
Disc Two closes the gender gap by presenting a handful of female artists. The bite and pluck of Mae Glover’s “I Ain’t Give Nobody None” and the dour melancholy of Geechie Wiley’s “Last Kind Word” prove definitively that these ladies could hold their own with their male counterparts. The remainder of the disc is checkered by lesser known, but no less brilliant performers. Ishmon Bracey’s lazy drawl on “Leavin’ Town Blues’ and Tommy Johnson’s high lonesome yodel on “Canned Heat Blues” are just two of the indelible marks left on the ears in deep indigo ink. William Harris’ emphatic “Bullfrog Blues” offers another example of how emotion and relentless rhythm can combine into an unforgettable Gestalt. Closing out on Rube Lacy’s haunting “Mississippi Jailhouse Groan” the pits of despair are invoked one final time.
Earlier excellent compilations on Yazoo like Mississippi Masters and Mississippi Moaners attempted similar overviews, but Catfish has the added advantage of having access to a host of label catalogs. As a result Robert Johnson can be featured beside Son House. In addition the noise-reduction techniques and equipment employed here free the tracks from even more of sonic grit and grime deposited by time. In my listening experience these tunes have never sounded as clean as they do here. Any more lucid or complete a snapshot could only be achieved by seeking out the expensive releases on the exhaustive Document imprint, and again at a sacrifice of sound clarity. As a compact and convenient compendium of Pre-War Mississippi blues it really doesn’t get any better than this.
Catfish on the web: http://www.catfishrecords.co.uk/