When it came to the compiling of this country blues album, the towering influence of a dozen or so of the giants of pre-war blues made them totally un-droppable. Therefore, with so many familiar names, the challenge lay with creating the best possible cross section of this most diverse of genres within the time constraints of a CD.
Loosely speaking, country blues is best described as the first flowering of acoustic, mainly guitar-driven forms of the blues, often incorporating elements of ragtime, gospel, hillbilly and Dixieland jazz. The term also provides a convenient general heading for all the multiple regional styles and variations (Piedmont, Memphis, Texas & Delta etc). This makes for an incredibly varied selection of tracks, from sublime bottleneck guitar playing & upbeat rags to classic songster tunes and holy blues.
Before there was the bluesman there was the songster and it was these travelling troubadours who helped lay the foundations for the development of the blues. Armed with a guitar or banjo they performed every form of popular music of the day from folk songs and ballads to rags and spirituals. One such towering figure was Leadbelly, who could supposedly draw on a wide-ranging repertoire of over 500 songs, making him a human jukebox of his time. Other featured artists including Furry Lewis and Frank Stokes leave glimpses into their songster roots, with the murder ballad variation ‘Billy Lyons And Stack O’Lee’ and good time gambling track ‘I Got Mine’.
There can be little doubt that the blues grew up in the Mississippi Delta as an elaboration on work chants, slave songs, and the lyrical and haunting field hollers. When it comes to this most influential of all the blues forms, all roads lead to its father figure Charley Patton. An immensely gifted performer, Patton was amazingly prolific and served as a major influence on other legendary bluesmen who followed including Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. He is joined by other Delta greats including Son House, Skip James and Bukka White who, unlike Patton, all lived long enough to enjoy successful second phases of their musical careers with young audiences during the folk revival of the 1960s who were thirsty for a taste of authentic Delta blues. Memphis Minnie was one of the few women to emerge from the Delta blues scene, and her fine rendition of ‘New Dirty Dozen’ includes accompaniment by her second husband Joe McCoy ‘Kansas Joe’. Fellow country blues diva Geeshie Wiley, an artist shrouded in mystery who only recorded three records, provides the perfect example of how black secular music merged with the blues in her seminal ‘Last Kind Words Blues’.
When the Country blues was first recorded in the mid-1920s, it was not only played by African-Americans but also by white performers, whose music shared much in common. Evidence of this is in the playing of the white troubadour Dick Justice, whose version of ‘Cocaine’ is undoubtedly modelled on Luke Jordan’s 1927 race recording of the same name. Likewise, the enormous influence of the great Blind Lemon Jefferson is very much in evidence in Clarence Greene’s nimble playing on ‘Johnson City Blues’.
Half a dozen of the featured artists hailed from the Eastern US states where the influence of ragtime was instrumental in creating the unique and much loved ‘Piedmont’ guitar style. Blind Blake was the first commercially successful performer of this style, whose intricate fingerstyle technique influenced many, including Blind Boy Fuller and Reverend Gary Davis. Away from the East Coast, Mississippi John Hurt was another who had a huge influence on guitarists past and present with a syncopated and danceable style of guitar playing, completely different to that of his Mississippi regional brethren. Further guitar classics abound by the likes of Blind Willie McTell, Big Bill Broonzy and Blind Willie Johnson, whose magical recordings still resonate with guitarists today, nearly a century on.