Elijah WaldBlues Record Recommendations

Considering all the overlapping releases available on the market, it is getting harder and harder to choose a basic library of old-time blues records, and while I by no means have heard all of the offerings, I can certainly make some basic recommendations. So, forthwith, here are some prewar blues suggestions, drawn from CDs currently available on the internet and at stores.

First off, I have three CDs I have compiled and am selling off my Unique Blues CDs page:

When I Take My Vacation in Harlem:
Blues Legends Sing Pop

Leroy Carr:
The Many Sides of a Master

Ida Cox:
Uncrowned Queen of the Blues

Other recommendations would include:

Ma Rainey: Mother of the Blues: 1923-1928 (Epm Musique)

This is a fine collection of songs by the woman who made a quite believable claim to having been the originator of the term "blues" as a name for a musical style, and who was almost certainly the first great touring blues star. Ma Rainey started out in black vaudeville around the turn of the 20th century. Often cited as a pioneer and mentor to Bessie Smith, Rainey was also a magnificent singer in her own right, whose records are rougher and often more exciting than those of any of her many followers. She had interesting taste in accompanists, ranging from plain piano to full jazz bands, to guitar or banjo. This set gives a good sense of her range, and includes such classics as "See See Rider," which she turned into an enduring standard. Especially to "country blues" fans, Rainey remains the queen of early blues singers, and it is a pity that she is not more widely heard.

The Essential Bessie Smith (Sony)

There is not a lot to say about Bessie Smith that has not already been said thousands of times, but she is certainly well worth hearing. Not only was she by most estimations the greatest blues singer of the 1920s, but she had extraordinary good fortune in accompanists, from James P. Johnson's piano work to Louis Armstrong's frequent trumpet obbligattos. Like Shakespeare, Smith has sometimes been unfairly asked to shoulder an entire era, and it is worth mentioning that singers like Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter,Victoria Spivey, Ida Cox, and Clara Smith all had their fans, and strengths that Bessie did not by any means always exceed. On the other hand, none of them has as nice a "best of" collection as this.

Blues Queens

As I suggest above, there are disgracefully few collections devoted to the work of the great women blues singers. There should be great CDs of Victoria Spivey and Sippie Wallace, both extraordinary songwriters as well as powerful and unique singers. Clara Smith, "the queen of the moaners," was considered by many blues fans of the 1920s to be even greater than Bessie (who was no relation). Ida Cox kept a major touring blues revue on the road longer than any other star of the period, and originated many songs that were later associated with male artists, such as "How Long Blues." And then there were the smoother vaudevillian blues stars, such as Alberta Hunter, whose "'Tain't Nobody's Business" may be the most famous blues song of the era. For the moment, none of these artists is properly presented on discs, so I would have to recommend that new listeners start off with a couple of decent anthologies, get an idea of the strengths of various singers, then explore further following their own tastes.

The best single disc sampler of the great blueswomen is Indigo Records' Fattenin' Frogs For Snakes: The Essential Recordings Of The Blues Ladies, which touches on most of the major artists from Ma Rainey to Dinah Washington, representing each with one or two of her biggest hits. This is a wonderfully varied set, traveling from the early queens singing over full jazz bands to 1930s artists like Georegia White and Lil Johnson, with their lighter, combo style. There are too many classic cuts to list here, but I would mention Alberta Hunter's "Nobody Knows the Way I Feel this Morning," Clara Smith's "Don't Advertise Your Man," Ida Cox's "How Long, Daddy, How Long" with Papa Charlie Jackson on banjo, Spivey's "Black Snake Moan" (though there is a skip in the first line...) and Chippie Hill's "Trouble in Mind." The only drawback to this album is that it may be a little hard to find, but if you can get it, it is definitely the best place to start.

For a quirkier selection, but with excellent sound quality, it is well worth hearing Yazoo Records' I Can't Be Satisfied: Early American Women Blues Singers, Vol. 2: Town, a companion volume to the company's exceptional anthology of rural women singers. It includes classic records like Spivey's "Dirty T.B. Blues" and Bertha "Chippie" Hill's "Trouble in Mind," but as is typical with Yazoo, the concentration is on exceptional performances rather than records that were particularly popular or influential. The result is a very strong anthology, but one that often favors delightful obscurities like "Parlor Social Deluxe" over masterpieces like "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues," which the Yazoo folks probably consider over-anthologized... .

If the Indigo set is not available, another reasonably competent overview is presented on Rhino Records' Blues Masters, Vol. 11: Classic Blues Women, a more limited selection, but still very engaging, and tracing the female blues tradition from Mamie Smith's groundbreaking "Crazy Blues" to Billie Holiday.

The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson (Yazoo)

Lemon Jefferson was the first major "country blues" star, and he remains one of the most excitingly idiosyncratic performers in American music, and the single most important guitarist-singer of the 1920s. His voice is huge and powerful, and his guitar work has a rhythmic quirkiness unlike anything else in blues (including the work of his many immitators). His songs include a few pre-blues numbers, as well as many original compositions in the 12-bar form, and several became classics, like "Black Snake Moan" and "Matchbox Blues." There is a budget box set of Jefferson's complete recordings available from JSP, but the fact is that under the commercial pressures of the 1920s he recorded a lot of songs that are virtually indistinguishable from each other, and he is better served by a good anthology, such as this set, which well-chosen, with good notes and Yazoo's usual first-rate sound quality (but be warned: Jefferson recorded all but a couple of his sides for the notoriously low-fi Paramount label, and the sound leaves something to be desired).

Lonnie Johnson: Blues in My Fingers (Indigo)

Lonnie Johnson was the second major male blues star, and he could hardly have been more different from Jefferson. A sophisticated multi-instrumentalist from New Orleans, he was really more of a male "blues queen" than a countrified guitarist-singer. Today, he is generally thought of first of all as a guitarist (as witness this album title, but in the 1920s and 1930s he was far better known as a singer, a smooth crooner whose ability to range freely over jazz, pop, and blues styles makes him an obvious predecessor to Nat Cole and George Benson. This set gives an excellent picture of his range, from more traditional blues like "Careless Love" to the jiving "Uncle Ned Don't Use Your Head," to blues and jazz instrumentals. Johnson was said to be Robert Johnson's favorite recording star, and as one listens to this set it is easy to see how a Delta artist would have dreamed of being able to play with this kind of delicacy, speed, and sophisticated soul. To buy from Amazon, click here.

For another side of Johnson's work, it is well worth checking out Playing With the Strings, an excellent anthology of his jazz recordings with Louis Armstrong, Eddie Lang, and the Duke Ellington orchestra, which shows why he is often called the father of jazz guitar. Not strictly blues (though the album has some of that, too), this is an important reminder of how false the distinction between blues and jazz really was in the days when both were hot, contemporary pop styles.

Leroy Carr: How Long Blues: 1928-1935

In 1928, Leroy Carr made his recording debut with "How Long--How Long Blues" and changed the blues world forever. Unlike most of the blues queens and rural singers who had preceded him, Carr was a smooth crooner, accompanied by his own piano and the guitar of Scrapper Blackwell, and his beautifully written, meditative lyrics set the pattern for generations of future singers, from blues artists like Robert Johnson and Bumble Bee Slim to Charles Brown, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, and Sam Cooke. Best known for ballads like "How Long," "Blues Before Sunrise," and "In the Evening When the Sun Goes Down," Carr also recorded a series of unique comic numbers like "Papa's on the Housetop" and "Gettin' All Wet," and Tin Pan Alley pop songs. Unfortunately, none of the available anthologies show the full breadth of his talent, while his complete recordings (available on Document Records) get pretty repetitive. Until someone puts out the anthology of my dreams, the best option is this set, which gives a good overview of Carr and Blackwell, and includes most of their most important cuts.

Tampa Red: It Hurts Me Too (Indigo)

Tampa Red was the most-recorded blues singer of the pre-war era, but he has often been passed over by later fans because he had a rather light voice, loved to play kazoo, and would never be mistaken for a deep Delta moaner. What is odd about this is that the Delta fans often emphasize slide guitar, and Red was without a doubt the most influential slide player in blues, at least until the 1960s. This album ranges from his hokum classic, "It's Tight Like That," one of the most immitated songs of the era, to meditative instrumentals like "You Got To Reap What You Sow" (note the resemblance to Robert Johnson's "Come on in My Kitchen"), "Black Angel Blues," which would be memorably covered by B.B. King as "Sweet Little Angel," and two songs that gave Elmore James and the later electric stars the textbook on how to play slow blues slide: the title track and "Anna Lou." And then, there are wonderful oddities like "Let Me Play with Your Poodle"...

Blind Willie McTell: The Classic Years 1927-1940 (JSP Box)

Willie McTell was not a major influence in the early blues world, on the order of Jefferson, Carr, or Johnson, but he was a brilliant and extremely varied artist, and to my tastes the only performer of this period who is well-served by a complete box set. McTell was an Atlanta-based street singer who played a lot of blues, but also minstrel-style monologues, gospel, ragtime, and hillbilly numbers. His twelve-string guitar work ranges from intricate fingerpicking to supple slide that recalls his friend Blind Willie Johnson, and perfectly frames his songs. Bob Dylan sang that "Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell," and it is true. His light vocals are a world away from the Delta moans, but remain soulful, and his work has an imagination and humor that few rural artists ever matched. This set includes all his prewar sides, from commercial recordings like "Statesboro Blues" to his Library of Congress Recordings, which show him singing pop oddities like the ragtime ode to King Edward's abdication. Far too few modern-day blues artists have chosen to follow McTell's model, and it is our loss.

Kokomo Arnold: Old Original Kokomo Blues (P-Vine Japan)

Considering all the focus on Robert Johnson, it is baffling that so few contemporary blues fans have devoted much attention to Kokomo Arnold, who provided Johnson with one of his most obvious models, as well as the original versions of his two most popular songs, "Sweet Home Chicago" (based on "Old Original Kokomo Blues") and "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" (whose lyrics are drawn from Arnold's "Sagefield Woman" and "Sissy Man Blues"), and the pattern he used for his one hit, "Terraplane Blues," which was originated in Arnold's "Milk Cow Blues," a major hit that was covered not only by bluesmen, but also by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys and later by Elvis Presley. Arnold was a strong singer, equally at home on slow, soulful songs and upbeat rhythm numbers, and also the fastest slide guitarist of the early blues era. His guitar lines are weirdly off-center flashes of virtuosity, punctuating his vocals in counter-rhythms that are unlike anything else on record. He was not much interested in recording, and many of his records feel somewhat repetitive, but if one searches there is plenty of variety, and Catfish records put together an excellent anthology that is unfortunately out of print. At present, the best offering is this Japanese disc, but it is pretty pricey, and hopefully a better option will appear in the near future.

Roosevelt Sykes: Nasty But It's Clean (Catfish)

Roosevelt Sykes was one of the biggest sellers of the blues era, and remained a funny and exciting musician until late in the blues revival, but was passed over by a lot of people because he played piano instead of guitar. This album shows just how ridiculous that prejudice was. It ranges from straight blues numbers like his career-making "44 Blues" (adapted by both Skip James and Robert Johnson) to wonderful off-color romps and excentricities like "Journey to the Germs." One could file Sykes with the other double-entendre hokum bluesmen, but there is a verve to his records that the others rarely if ever matched. Anyone looking for a father figure for rock 'n' roll will find more affinities in Sykes's exuberant boogie-woogie than in all the deep Delta blues ever recorded. This anthology is a truly exceptional set, well-programmed to highlight Sykes's strengths, and is one of the most entertaining records I have come across in recent years. Great driving music.

The Best of Charlie Patton (Yazoo)

Charlie (or Charley) Patton was the central figure in the style now called "Delta blues." This was only one of many styles played in the region, but it produced some astonishingly varied and powerful musicians, including Son House and to some extent Robert Johnson. Patton was the founding father of this style, but his tastes ranged far more widely than that title suggests. Born in 1891, he grew up before the blues era, and his repertoire reflects this fact, including a range of material that might make him kin to such black "folk" artists as Leadbelly. Among his many styles, though, was the most rhythmically intricate blues work on record. In songs like "Down the Dirt Road" and "Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues" he builds up an astounding set of competing rhythms, like a full African drumming group living in one body. When this rhythmic virtuosity is combined with the gruff, shouting force of his singing, it is not surprising that he is now considered the toughest and most important artist of his region, and by some accounts the one-man root of rock 'n' roll. That is an oversimplification, of course, but it also does a disservice to Patton himself, who could also be a swinging, funny ragtime player or an astute composer of story-songs. This new Yazoo set is an excellent sampler of his work, with better sound quality than ever before.

Masters of the Delta Blues: The Friends of Charlie Patton (Yazoo)

Another excellent anthology from Yazoo, this set was designed to showcase the circle of musicians influenced by Charlie Patton, and whether or not one buys the idea that Patton was the most important blues artist of the 1920s, the Mississippi Delta-style players were certainly among the most exciting musicians of the 20th century, and this set is particularly important for including all the early recordings of Son House, and many of the best of Tommy Johnson. Both of these artists are historically important, but more than that they are brilliant, unique musicians who are tragically under-represented on record. Also included here are cuts by the pianist-singer Louise Johnson and other Delta figures. The sound is, as usual, exceptionally clear, though the House tracks have survived only in one or two scratchy examples, and there is nothing that can be done to make them sound clean without losing a lot of the music. That said, the astounding power of House's vocals, and his slashing slide lines are worth the effort.

Tommy Johnson 

Tommy Johnson was a fine guitarist in the Patton style, but his most impressive aspect is his singing. He had a smooth, but achingly soulful voice, with a falsetto that would be immitated by many other Mississippi singers. Unfortunately, he recorded very few sides, and even some of these are annoyingly repetitive. Like virtually all rural guitarists of his time, he played a huge range of material, and was stifled by the record companies' refusal to record anything but blues. The result of all of this is that his complete recordings, few as they are, are not really required listening, but one does want a good, solid set of his seven or eight greatest sides. That is exactly what Catfish records provided on Tommy Johnson & Associates, but this disc is now pretty hard to find in the US (Though a good record store can hunt it down, and Amazon sometimes has copies, if you want to try your chances by clicking here.) The Yazoo disc above has a pretty fair selection of Johnson's discs, but they are mixed in rather than set apart by themselves, and do not include one of his most beautiful and distinctive vocals, "Cool Drink of Water," with its floating falsetto. If you cannot get the Catfish set, I would suggest biting the bullet and getting his Complete Recorded Works (1928-1929), which any hardcore blues fan will want in any case, despite the rather iffy quality of Document's sound.

Son House

Son House was the greatest singer in the Mississippi Delta, and earned enduring fame by acting as teacher and mentor to both Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. However, Waters often pointed out that House was never really captured on record, and it is hard not to agree with him. The prewar commercial recordings available on the Yazoo Delta set above are his greatest, but badly recorded and marred by years of heavy playing, and they amount to less than a half-dozen songs. His Complete Library of Congress Sessions (Travelin' Man records) give a fuller view of his repertoire, as well as showing him with the sort of rural band that he often used in the Delta juke joints, but I find his singing relatively desultory and below the quality of what he did either earlier or in the 1960s. (Many people disagree with me, and it is certainly worth checking out these recordings, which are available here.) House was "rediscovered" in the 1960s, and while his playing may not have been as precise as in the prewar era, his voice was still magnificent and, to my taste, these are his most satisfying recordings. The best of them were done shortly after he reemerged on the scene, for Columbia records, but unfortunately Sony has provided a choice of too little or too much: Original Delta Blues is the original LP, and includes House's greatest later work, but is quite short and could easily have been fleshed out with additional tracks recorded at the time. On the other hand, Father Of The Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Sessions is a two-CD set that includes all of the tracks I wish were on the former set, but also a bunch of alternate takes that no one but the most hardcore fan really needs....

Skip James

Skip James was the most soulful musician in blues, a unique genius whose style relies on an unusual minor-key guitar tuning and eerie falsetto vocals. There are blues experts who argue that he was merely one representative of a local style in his hometown of Bentonia, but I tend to think that the other Bentonia players were influenced by James, and in any case they never approached his level of artistry. James's 1931 recordings, available on Yazoo's The Complete Early Recordings, are one of the greatest bodies of work in American music, ranging from meditative guitar moans to examples of James's anarchic, brilliant piano work. Every blues fan needs this album, and it has a power and depth that transcends the genre and should make it obligatory listening for anyone who likes serious music or any sort.

James was also unique in his later recordings. Unlike any of the other early bluesmen who were "rediscovered" in the 1960s, he had continued to substantially develop his art. His voice had deepened with age, but rather than lowering his guitar to match it, he reformulated his vocal style to rely almost entirely on his entrancing falsetto, creating music that is in some ways even more hypnotically soulful than his early work. There is an absurd school of blues "experts" who are so utterly caught up in guitar virtuosity that they dismiss all these later recordings as hopelessly inferior, but they are simply wrong. James also remained a powerful songwriter, continuing to produce masterpieces like "Washington DC Hospital Bed Blues." Vanguard Sessions: Blues From The Delta is beautifully recorded, and is the basic document of this later period.

However, there is another side to James, of which most of us were unaware until very recently. Along with his unique personal style, he was also a masterly interpreter of a wide range of other music. A wonderful new release of material from the Vanguard vaults, Studio Sessions: Rare & Unreleased, finds James playing such surprising material as a piano version of the Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer hit "Lazybones" and versions of Bessie Smith and other blues hits, as well as a couple of vaudevillian numbers and various hymns and boogies. If it is not as resoundingly brilliant as James's deeper work, this is still great music, and fills out our picture of this musical master.

The Mississippi Sheiks: Stop and Listen (Yazoo)

In their day, the Mississippi Sheiks were the most popular recording band in rural Mississippi, and had at least one huge national hit, "Sitting On Top of the World," which was covered by white and black bands alike. Basically a duo, though the personel could shift from time to time, the Sheiks featured Lonnie Chatmon's violin and Walter Vinson's vocals and guitar, and although most of their records are blues, they could play everything from fiddle hoedowns to the latest pop hits. This is an excellent anthology, and gives a good picture of their recorded work -- from soulful blues to sprightly fiddle -- though it only scrapes the surface of their repertoire. An interesting picture of their broader scope can be found in the later recordings of Sam Chatmon, Lonnie's brother.

Paul Geremia: The Devil's Music

Of the many good musicians still playing blues, I must single out Paul's work. Not only is he one of the greatest guitarists ever, as well as a fine harmonica player and singer, but -- more unusually on the modern scene -- he injects his own personality into everything he sings, so that even if the song started out with Blind Lemon Jefferson or Percy Mayfield, it ends up being pure Geremia. (Though often retaining guitar licks from the original.) He combines the swing and humor of Willie McTell with the virtuosity of Lonnie Johnson, and an insistence on keeping the music alive and contemporary. This, his latest album, is an excellent introduction, ranging from Jefferson to Mayfield to Geremia's own compositions. Playing solo, on guitar, harmonica, and occasionally piano, he remains the most consistently satisfying artist on the acoustic blues scene.