Whatever the worldly origins of using a glass or metal object to slide across the strings of a guitar, this style has become famously associated with the blues. For many of the finest early blues practitioners it was the ultimate mode of musical expression as it could emulate the sound of the human voice to great effect. Employing open tunings, guitarists would use anything that they could find to produce the desired sound, ranging from pocketknives to medicine bottles and even bones, but because using a broken bottleneck (without the sharp edges) was probably the most popular method, the term ‘bottleneck’ has endured.
The profound effect of the bottleneck style on the Mississippi Delta blues is demonstrated by legends such as Charley Patton, Son House and Bukka White. They were able to harness the heightened resonance and volume that it allowed, and create extraordinary effects such as that of a train whistle. Bukka White’s ‘Jitterbug Swing’ shows how his guitar style was influenced by playing the diddley bow or jitterbug as a child, a single-stringed instrument played using a slide and thought to derive from West Africa.
Far away from the raw intensity of the Delta blues sound, both Barbecue Bob and Curley Weaver were prominent figures on the East Coast who displayed bottleneck finesse with an incredible rhythmic feel. Also from the East Coast, Darby And Tarleton were a white, early country music duo whose playing was heavily influenced by the Hawaiian guitar style popular in American mainstream culture at the time, and largely responsible for spreading the slide guitar craze throughout the country. The Genial Hawaiians (Jim & Bob) were native islanders of Hawaii before moving to the US to seek their fame. Many feel that the duo’s technique was never topped, which is clearly demonstrated by Bob Pauole’s (Bob) improvisational mastery on ‘Hula Blues’. The Hawaiian style was adopted by an important set of featured blues guitarists in the 1930s including Kokomo Arnold (Gitfiddle Jim), Casey Bill Weldon, Oscar Woods, Tampa Red, and Black Ace who incorporated the Hawaiian practice of playing long melodic lines, as opposed to a blues style defined by short, staccato riffs.
Significantly, most blues players of the era held their guitars in the upright position, in contrast to the Hawaiian style in which the instrument is rested on the performer’s lap. Charley Patton was an exception who played in both styles and here, ‘The Father of the Delta Blues’ gives us a prime example of how country blues and gospel have long been intertwined with his version of the spiritual ‘Prayer Of Death’. The truly magnificent Blind Willie Johnson gives further evidence of this with his much covered opener ‘It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine’, undoubtedly one of the finest bottleneck recordings ever made. He is joined by fellow guitar evangelists Rev. Edward Clayborn and Blind Willie Harris.
Sylvester Weaver was a true pioneer and the first to record blues songs and instrumentals using the bottleneck style. Here he teams up with Walter Beasley for the appropriately titled ‘Bottleneck Blues’. Also included are songsters such as Leadbelly, Gus Cannon and Furry Lewis who bridged the gap between the country blues and its earlier musical traditions and who show an adept use of the slide in their variations on classic country blues standards.
Much less is known about the featured trio of backwoods blues artists Bo Weavil Jackson, King Solomon Hill and Bobby Grant whose few dazzling recordings continue to fascinate blues scholars. Bobby Grant’s ‘Lonesome Atlanta Blues’ is a fitting closure to the album, with his guitar imitating the cries and moans of the human voice with a haunting quality and expressiveness unique to the sound of the bottleneck.