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Blues history is littered with voices that never made it into the studio. Thanks to the industrious efforts of folklorists and fieldworkers like Alan Lomax, Chris Strachwitz, Pete Welding, Harry Oster and numerous others, many of these peripheral figures survive on tape and acetate. One such musical soul is Robert Brown, known by the sobriquet of Smoky Babe, and this disc rejuvenates one of his only records.
Though a long-time denizen of Louisiana at the time of this recording, Brown was a native of Mississippi, and his Delta roots are manifest in a hard picking style and informal vocal inflections. His chosen program is an engaging blend of standard licks superimposed with personalized lyrics. The title track is an autobiographical sketch of Smoky's job at a local Conoco gas station. Running down the pleasures of his labor over a bristling backdrop of strums and stops he extemporizes in a ringing style steeped with expressive ebullience. "Something Wrong with My Little Machine" travels Big Joe Williams' double entendre territory, sounding off with classic stanzas like "He's a deep sea diver, got a stroke just like a whale." Henry Thomas' nasal harp chimes in with greasy response to Brown's brittle chords.
Even the boll weevil comes under Brown's incisive scrutiny. Reflecting on the calamity the bugs wreaked at the turn of the century on "Insect Blues" he traces an agricultural thread that winds through other tracks like "Long Way from Home" and "I'm Going Back to Mississippi." "Ocean Blues" illustrates another preoccupation in the guise of Robert Johnson as Brown's strident slide work with a polished steel tube invokes strains of the legend's signature style enunciated with a vernacular of his own. Closing ranks with "Cold, Cold Snow," a tale of scorned love, the disc ends on an appropriately dour note (this is the blues after all).
Fortunately other work by Brown made it to tape in his lifetime. He shares Louisiana Country Blues (Arhoolie) with fellow Louisiana resident Herman E. Johnson and also has a few cuts on the Arhoolie compilation of Oster recordings Country Negro Jam Session. Both discs, along with this recent reissue, are well worth acquiring.
Recorded: 1961, Baton Rouge, LA.
Bluesville on the web: http://www.fantasyjazz.com
Track Listing: Now Your Man Done Gone/ Hottest Brand Goin'/ Something Wrong with My Machine/ Insect Blues/ Long Way From Home/ I'm Goin' Back to Mississippi/ Melvanie Blues/ Locomotive Blues/ Ocean Blues/ Boogy Woogy Rag/ Coon Hunt/ Cold, Cold, Snow