CD of the Month

BLUE 88s: Unreleased Piano Blues Gems 1938-1942

Hi Horse Records HHO 19001 (48:00)

CURTIS JONES: My Blues Is Risin’/ Levee Side Blues; WILLIE ‘BOODLE IT’ RIGHT: Xmas Blues; POOR BOY BURKE: Your Loving Ways/ Bad Condition Blues; ROOSEVELT SYKES: Mellow Queen Swing/ Floating Power Blues/ Make Up Your Mind/ Training Camp Blues/ Back Biting Snitchers/ You Got To Run Me Down/ From The Cradle To The Grave/ Motherless Child/ Sugar Babe Blues/ The World Is Upside Down/ I Got You Figured Out/ You Done Got Hip

The core of this seventeen track CD is the Roosevelt Sykes sessions of 21st November 1941 (two weeks before Pearl Harbor) and 16th April 1942, two eight-title sessions from each of which only one title was issued at the time. The notes speculate about why this should have been but in truth no one knows. Some writers on social media have claimed to detect technical faults in the masters, but thankfully I can’t hear them if they are there. ‘Motherless Child’ has a rough ending but that seems more likely to be due to damage sustained after mastering. Otherwise the sound reproduction is to my ears exemplary.

The CD includes the two originally issued titles but everything else is appearing for the first time. As a result, only four of the eight April 1942 titles appear, three of the others having previously been issued on collector labels. As there would have been plenty of room for it one must assume that the remaining title, ‘The Old Hog Pen’, is no longer in the vaults, but the notes do not mention its absence and inquiry has met with no response.

What we get is of transcendent quality and whatever the original reasons for not issuing this material they were certainly not musical. They do nothing but confirm Roosevelt’s already considerable reputation as both a singer and a pianist. In November 1941 he was accompanied by a bass player, confidently identified in the notes as Alfred Elkins, whereas he is noted as a mere possibly in ‘Blues & Gospel Records’. Our caution was wise and it would have been wise to imitate it, seeing that the player is twice addressed by Sykes as “Henry” in the course of ‘Mellow Queen Swing’. (Research has been attempted but has so far failed to uncover a bass-playing Henry working at the right time and place, so ‘unknown’ remains the just description.)

In April 1942 they are joined by an electric guitarist who is using a tremolo device apparently first marketed in 1941 to muffle his sound in an oddly effective manner. Mark Humphrey’s notes wager that the culprit is Lonnie Johnson (who was under contract to Victor at the time). I can hear the runs on ‘The World Is Upside Down’ which led him to this conclusion, but I’m afraid they would be easy to imitate, to put the problem no more strongly.

Memorable images abound. “She got no speed limit, she can just roll all night long” (‘Floating Power Blues’); “I was raised by a box car, I was schooled by a hobo” (‘Motherless Child’); “I used to lay on the railroad and watch the sun go down” (ibid); “You’re just rockin’ in rhythm, baby, havin’ your fun, So now you ain’t got your husband’s supper done” (‘You Done Got Hip’). In ‘From The Cradle To The Grave’, Sykes is “The best mind reader in this man’s town, I can read way back about an old slave.” ‘The World Is Upside Down’ uses baseball metaphors to lead into a political point eternally timely, “Don’t matter who’s elected we got to hold up for our rights.” ‘Sugar Babe’ is an obvious ancestor of Little Walter’s ‘My Babe’. A complete set of lyric transcriptions appears in the insert (but all those in this review are mine).

The first five tracks, all previously unissued, risk being dismissed as space fillers, which would be musically quite unjustified. Curtis Jones is the best known of the three artists sampled, working first with an assertive drummer that I am inclined to agree is Fred Williams and then with the bass of Ransom Knowling. “When I die, bury me on the levee side, so that my travelling spirit can catch a boat and ride,” reworks an old image. Willie Right’s weird ‘Xmas Blues’ is a solemn warning, “If you give a woman everything she needs, she will cause you to take Christmas in your BVDs” meaning presumably that she will clean you out. The pianist here is generally thought to be Joshua Altheimer. Poor Boy Burke is widely and credibly believed to be St. Louis Jimmy (James Oden) working under pseudonym and this is stated as a fact in the notes. Composer credits have been used in the past to support this identification and the songs here are credited to James Burke Oden but the foundation for this is not known either. His unknown pianist is a very deliberate and thoughtful player.

This compilation has been widely previewed over the past months and has been available for pre-order on the web for a long time, without anyone mentioning as far as I know that it is a Sony issue. This almost certainly means it will be deleted as soon as the bean-counters realise that it is not going to outsell Bob Dylan. If you don’t get it in time, expect to regret your indolence (expensively).

Howard Rye

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