Click on the headline to link to a YouTube film clip of Henry Thomas performing his old-time blues holla classic, Run, Mollie, Run.
Before The Blues: The Early American Black Music Scene: Classic Recordings From The 1920s and 1930s, Volume 1, Yazoo Records, 1996
Out of the back of my 1960s teenage bedroom the radio was blaring out a
midnight blues version of Howlin’ Wolf’s How Many More Years complete with harmonica-devouring accompaniment by Wolf himself (a fact, the almost eating part, not visually known to me until much later when I viewed his epic work via YouTube) on the American Blues Hour coming over the airways from sweet home Chicago (sweet home of the modern electric blues that is). Earlier in the program Muddy Waters, prince regent of the electric blues just then, had held forth with his band (made up then, and at various other times, with sidemen like Otis Spann and Junior Wells who would go on to their own blues hall of fame-like careers), with a sizzling version of Mannish Child. Ya, those were the primo hell-bent devil’s music blues days. No question.
Well not quite no question for that show, or for this review. The show had started out with a three card Monte of Dupree’s Blues, first by Lightnin’ Hopkins on electric, Brownie McGhee on acoustic and Willie Walker doing an a cappella version (which is included in this compilation) from out of the mist of blues times, or the depths of the American music night. At least of the stuff that has been recorded. That is important because prior to radio this material was handed down mostly through the oral traditions. That tradition got reflected in the Dupree’s Blues example because although the basic melody and theme were the same throughout the narratives were somewhat different. And that too reflects the blues tradition, and before the blues, the roots of the blues which is what this compilation (and two additional volumes) concentrates on.
The blues, for the most part, was a quintessential black music form as it developed out of the scorched dry plantation fields of the post- Civil War Jim Crow South, out of the moans and groans of the black church Sunday and out of the hard drinking, hard fighting, hard loving, hard partying Saturday night acoustic music (had to, no electricity) night before sobering up for those Sunday church groans. And while it occasionally moved to a respectable dance hall or movie house concert hall (segregated, no questions asked) before the age of radio that is where it developed kind of helter-skelter. This Before The Blues compilation reflects all of those trends from Rube Lacy’s Mississippi Jail House Groan to Mississippi John Hurt’s Stack O’Lee Blues to the Seventh Day Adventist Choir’s On Jordan’s Stormy Banks We Stand. So the next time you hear the Stones’ covering Wolf’s Little Red Rooster or Mississippi Fred McDowell’s Got To Move you know where it came from.