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Various: Texas Blues

Derek Taylor By

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Commonly regaled as a definitively American musical form, the blues are in fact a living amalgam of social, cultural and artistic antecedents both indigenous and otherwise. African-derived rhythms and folklore intersected with traditions extrapolated from European, Latin and Polynesian sources—with everything falling into the simmering melting pot that describes the music. Distinct styles were the product of both regional experimentation and the proliferation of commercial recordings. As a cross-pollinating musical ecosystem in the early part of the 20th century, the state of Texas was one of the most scattered and distinctive; the blues forms that arose within its arbitrary boundaries were equally so.

This Catfish compilation delivers a comprehensive distillation of Pre-War Texas styles. Often pairing the selections from each artist into convenient double-shots, the discs offer the listener a variegated tour from the bouncing rustic drive of Henry Thomas' guitar-and-quills verses to the urban barrelhousin' of barroom matrons like Hattie Burleson. Well-known staples such as the ubiquitous Blind Lemon Jefferson stand aside long forgotten troubadours like "Funny Paper" Smith (who incidentally traffics in subject matter that is hardly humorous) and Black Boy Shine. The folks at Catfish make a point of covering all the bases and it is this level of all-inclusiveness that makes Texas Blues so effective in countering the fickle druthers of time.

The program also touches upon the rich Texas string and jug band traditions with rousing entries from outfits like Frenchies String Band and the Dallas Jamboree Jug Band. Both groups use chugging mandolin and booming brass bass to spread rhythmic glue around rag and Tin Pan Alley-derived themes. Jake Jones and The Gold Front Boys are of similar origins, balancing mournful vocals with wailing clarinet counterpoint.

The separate works of Whistlin' Alex Moore and Billiken Johnson are fascinating, the latter of whom skillfully and often uncannily mixes vocal effects that approximate the sounds of train engines and steam boat whistles with double-fisted piano rolls. Topically, the usual suspects of liquor, women and the law are flanked by the downright bizarre, as with Ramblin' Thomas' masticatory musings on "Back Gnawing Blues." Sound quality varies widely given the diversity of source materials, but the music is always gratifying, even when significant and tenacious surface noise is present. The top-flight graphic design contains some valuable period photos accompanied by the detailed liner notes of resident Catfish blues scholar, Keith Briggs. Texas' geographic expanse is a perfectly suited allegory to the creative width of its musical constituents and this wide-ranging compilation offers an affordable and handpicked entry point into the state's rich legacy of the blues.

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