What remains to be written about Willie Dixon? He will most likely never be known much for his bass playing, but rather because he was arguably the preeminent blues lyricist of the post-war era, an activist and agitator for the rights of musicians of the folk tradition, and the guiding spirit of one of this country's greatest independent record labels (Chess). In fact, Dixon's total understanding of music as a cultural entity, as an art-form, and as a business was as extensive as Ellington's, or Berry Gordy's, or James Brown's. Dixon truly was a member of the "greatest generation" of African-Americans involved in popular music, the generation which transformed swing, gospel and the country blues into R & B, rock 'n roll, and soul music.
This new reissue of 1940's Bullett, Delta, Okeh and Columbia sides by Dixon's first working band reveals the earliest bubblings up and boilings over of this synthesis. Sure, the ingredients have yet to fully melt and blend. Sometimes the mix of boogie-woogie piano, nasally Mills Brothers' harmonies (pianist Leonard Caston often the de facto frontman), and Louis Jordan / Slim Gaillard-derived jive is lumpy: "Hard Notch Boogie Beat" sets up a wild, nearly bluegrass slap-bass solo with an augmented "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" riff. And occasionally the results are even bland: "I Ain't Gonna Be Your Monkey Man" does very little to exploit the possibilities of its titular metaphor, and offers conclusive? probable? (see below) proof that Dixon was still learning his wordsmith's craft. Nonetheless, it is also these proportions of caution and abandon that can and often do lend the music its savor, spice and aroma.
Listen, for example, to Dixon's heavy-strung, sinewy bass on "If the Sea Was Whiskey (the opening verse of which should be quite familiar to Dixon specialists). He's not playing a strict four-four walking pattern, even though he is playing in four. There is much less of the push/pull swing one feels in a jazz bass line. Nor is it syncopated in the way funk bass patterns would become in the late 1960's. Dixon's bass does not plod. It does not dance. What does it do? On another instrumental, the "88 Boogie", Dixon sounds more akin to Freddie Green than Walter Page, chunking along higher up the fret board, and, like Green did in Basie's engine room, driving, but also making something poetic out of pure functionality. There's a distinctive "gut" sound to Dixon's bass. Clipped and not very woody, it resonates sympathetically with guitarist Ollie Crawford's the group's most consistently riveting soloist stinging electric guitar solos.
But one does not listen to this music as one does jazz, biding one's time until the next lead voice takes over. The point here are the songs, superficially all alike, psychologically shaded with great care and nuance. The best performances on this release are those that are most of their time, and most enmeshed in the sociological tensions of segregated America. "Signifying Monkey" might be a simple novelty tune. But the Monkey here is a mythical figure, as described by Henry Louis Gates, and the music is clearly subservient to the vocal which tells the hero's story. The song plays out as an allegory, and its climax, though set in the jungle, is utterly urban in its political and physical violence. "Reno Blues" begins like any other racy blues, complete with a "hip-shaking mama" and the sound of "pressure on the bed springs" (pressure not applied by the singer), but the real subject is far more taboo divorce. "After While" features a very drum-like bass solo from Dixon, with snare effects and marching figures thrummed-out all over his instrument; the lyric itself is about a drinking party that celebrates black humor, and the time-killing bleakness of adult "fun". "No More Sweet Potatoes" is as much a writer's lament as it is a lover's. "The frost done killed the vine" is a piqunat refrain for affection thwarted. But in the first verse is this complaint about generative powers of another kind: "Anderson cooked the chicken / and Cleanhead made the stew / Washboard Sam cooked cabbage greens / Now what am I gonna do?" "I Feel Like Stepping Out" sneers at Irving Berlin and Fred Astaire, the protagonists of a similarly-titled song. Yet the narrator here has no "baby" to step out with, and he's not stepping out, neat as a pin, to bask in the bright lights of the American night. He's stepping out to forget troubles at home, to revisit old haunts and old friends. Where Astaire is all grace and vivacity, the Big 3 seem to sulk. As Dixon shuffles, you can also sense the dust on the narrator's shoes.
Still, satisfying as this collection can be, the package itself is a little lacking in archival quality. Too much discographical information has been omitted. One can only go by ear and guess which of these compositions are from Dixon's pen. Of course, recognizable tropes abound, as on "You Sure Look Good to Me". But the absence of songwriter credits is not only frustrating, it is ironic given what Dixon endured over the course of a long career, laboring hard to receive his just due from unscrupulous producers and music publishing agents. It is also clear from listening that these tracks are not presented in strict chronological order, and some information with respect to the original recording dates would have been welcome. Nonetheless, Catfish has done an admirable job of filling a significant gap left open by Sony's deletion of their own Big 3 compilation, 1990's The Big Three Trio.
Someone once told me that transition is overrated. He was speaking about writing, the motion of ideas from sentence to sentence in a narrative or argument. In music, as this release proves, transition is often the most interesting if not only state in which sounds can be frozen.
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