CD of the Month

HENRY TOWNSEND: Mule

Omnivore OV-309 (76:45)

Bad Luck Dice/ Nothing But Trouble/ Things Have Changed/ The Old Man’s Soul/ Tears Come Rollin’ Down/ It’s A Hard Road To Travel/ Talkin’ Guitar Blues/ I’m Just An Ordinary Man/ Alley Strut/ Can’t You See/ Dark Clouds Rising/ The Train Is At The Station/ Overstayed My Time/ The Other Night*/ Broken Home Blues*/ Going Back To My Baby*/ Nice And Kind*/ Goin’ Back Down South*/ Turned On And Off*/ Look Over Yonder*/ Since You’ve Come Back Home* 

* = previously unissued

In 1979, when ‘Mule’ was released as a thirteen-track LP on Nighthawk, its claim that Henry Townsend was ‘perhaps the greatest living country bluesman’ caused a certain amount of surprise. The point of contention was ‘greatest,’ of course, not the description of Townsend, then sixty years a resident of St. Louis, as ‘country;’ but there’s no dissenting from Tony Russell’s judgement in Blues Unlimited 141 that the LP ‘makes a strong case’. This reissue adds eight tracks to the original running order, and it seems obvious that if the CD format had been available in 1979, they would have been included at that time. ‘Bonus tracks’ is an accurate description: the new titles are all finished originals, with not a warm-up, try-out or chestnut to be heard.

The other aspect of ‘Mule’ that startled on its first appearance was that Townsend, then chiefly regarded as an outstanding guitarist on the strength of his early recordings, revealed himself to be an equally outstanding pianist. He plays guitar on only four of these 21 tracks, on two of them accompanying his wife Vernell’s pleasant singing, and on the other two duetting with Yank Rachell. (Rachell’s mandolin adorns another three titles.) Townsend was as good a guitarist as ever, and the piano’s predominance evidently reflected a conscious shift of artistic preference. He’d been playing piano since the ’30s, and in 1937 had recorded on it, accompanying himself, Robert Lee McCoy (‘When I first knew Nighthawk I was beginning to be bold on the piano’) and Sonny Boy Williamson.

Townsend worked quite extensively as Walter Davis’s backup guitarist, and at times one hears something of Davis’s deliberate harmonic instability in his piano playing; but as he says in his ‘as told to Bill Greensmith’ memoir, ‘A Blues Life’, ‘I am the one who started Walter on the piano. … Most people ask me when did Walter Davis teach me piano … but they got it backwards.’

Townsend’s primary influence and teacher on piano was clearly Roosevelt Sykes, and nowhere is this more apparent than on ‘I’m Just An Ordinary Man’, where his singing echoes Sykes’s stentorian-but-intimate delivery. Usually, though, Townsend is a more introspective singer, appropriately for one whose contemplative, philosophical lyrics are not the least notable aspect of his art. Even a recycled stanza from ‘Rock Me Baby’ becomes a Henry Townsend original: ‘Takes a rubber ball, baby, takes a rubber ball to roll/It takes a whole lot of carryin’ on, to satisfy the old man’s soul.’

Born in 1909 Townsend had another 27 years ahead of him when he recorded ‘Old Man’s Soul’ as part of the ‘Mule’ sessions. He was still in full command of both his instruments when I saw him in St. Louis in 1997, although his set was understandably brief. The reprinted notes with the CD claim that he laid down his guitar ‘disgusted’ because he didn’t get gigs in the so-called ‘blues revival,’ but this is incorrect: as he himself said, ‘my income here [as a debt collector] exceeded anything I could get out there. … I could have been in on the ground floor, but I didn’t want to. … I really didn’t get into it until I retired.’ We can only be grateful, both that he did so, and that Leroy Pearson of Nighthawk recorded this excellent account of an exceptional talent.

Chris Smith

JIM ALLCHIN: Prime Blues

Sandy Key Music CD-JA005 (53:24)

Give It Up/ Devil Don’t Sleep/ Voodoo Doll/ Snuggle Up/ Jimmy’s Boogie/ Summer Sunrise/ Enough Is Enough/ Found The Blues/ Two Bad Dreams/ Pawn Shop Man/ Lost My Mind/ Up To Destiny/ Tech Blues/ Logoff 

The title and story line of the great swinging autobiographical ‘Found The Blues’ sums up Florida-born guitarist and singer Jim Allchin’s love of blues music. He has surrounded himself with mighty fine musicians for this, his latest album. 

Tom Hambridge produced the set and also plays drums throughout. The Memphis Horns, who include Charles Rose, Jim Hoke, Steve Hermann and Douglas Moffet, appear on some numbers and guest Bobby Rush makes an appearance on vocals and harp on the tough sounding blues of ‘Two Bad Dreams’. Another guest, this time Mike Zito, takes vocals on the up-tempo rocking and rolling ‘Enough Is Enough’ that has an infectious heavy riff running through the track. 

It’s clear from the get go that Allchin is a very gifted guitar player who can turn out some heavy sounds with ease. As an example, give a listen to the easy swinging ‘Devil Don’t Sleep’ which opens with some Albert King licks before he develops an impressive midway guitar solo that will please guitar loving folks out there. It gets heavy on the powerful sounding ‘Snuggle Up’ and the short instrumental ‘Jimmy’s Boogie’ is exactly what it says it is. 

The pace settles nicely into a lovely soulful outing that has the brass parping in all the right places on ‘Summer Sunrise’, which is a great track and which features a restrained and impressive guitar solo from Jim. ‘Pawn Shop Man’, a sorrowful tale of hardship due to gambling addiction is set to a relaxed semi-acoustic sound. ‘Lost My Mind’ starts off in honky tonk fashion before the song develops an infectious mid-tempo groove. 

The variety of music continues with the subtle soulfulness of ‘Up To Destiny’, a song that develops a head of steam as it progresses. ‘Tech Blues’ starts off in semi acoustic outing and then switches between that style and a mid-paced full band outing. There is, from the evidence of this disc, more to Jim than being a fine guitarist. His song writing skills are very good indeed and his willingness to adopt various musical styles from the blues heritage is impressive as well. It’s a fine album from a very talented artist. 

Mike Stephenson

 Reverend Robert Wilkins : Prodigal Son
Bear Family BCD16629AH

Robert Cray: In My Soul
Provogue Records

James Armstrong: Guitar Angels
Catfood CFR20

John & Sylvia Embry: Troubles
Delmark 832

Peabody Blues
Nehi 01

Harmonica Shah: Havin’ Nothin’ Don’t Bother Me
Electro-Fi Records 3436

Sorrow Come Pass Me Around: A Survey of Rural Black Religious Music
Dust to Digital DTD-31

Beating the Petrillo Ban: The Late December 1947 Modern Sessions
Ace CDTOP2-1273

Bluesin’ By The Bayou
Ace CDCHD 1368

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