Monday, March 21, 2011

V.A. - St. Louis Town: 1929-1933.

Review Taken from the excellent blog RECORD FIEND

This CD's first ten selections feature Henry Johnson and His Boys in one capacity or another. According to Paul Garon's booklet notes, this aggregation consisted of several top-notch musicians who evidently recorded under pseudonyms, including guitarist extraordinaire Lonnie Johnson and possibly his brother, James "Steady Roll" Johnson. Tracks 1 through 4 find them backing the strident vocals of the obscure Jelly Roll Anderson, with "Free Women Blues" and "Good Time Blues" showcasing the talents of an unidentified slide guitarist (a rarity for blues from St. Louis), and the more uptown-sounding "Salt Tear Blues" and "I.C. Blues" placing an emphasis on the piano and violin players. The next half-dozen titles are instrumentals credited to Henry Johnson's group. As their titles might suggest, "Blue Hawaii," "Hawaiian Harmony Blues," "Down Home Blues," and "Neck Bones and Beans" return the focus to slide guitar and a somewhat contrived, but no less enjoyable, rural sound that is occasionally betrayed by the musicians' obvious urban-style professionalism. "Ash Can Stomp" boasts an absolutely irresistible rhythm, and the elegant "Barbecue Blues" contains one of the few, if not only, celeste solos to be found in prewar blues recordings. Interestingly, at least half of these sides were alternately (?) issued as performances not by Henry Johnson and His Boys but were instead attributed to Terry & His Stomp Band or Watson's Pullman Porters. About the only thing we know about vocalist Bert "Snake Root" Hatton is that he had a great nickname. "Down in Black Bottom" shows itself to be a competent piano-accompanied number, while the addition of cornet and violin gives "Freakish Blues" (whose title uses an old black slang term for an effeminate man or mannish woman) a nice ensemble sound. The appealingly bizarre two-part "I Wish I Had Died in Egyptland" by Jesse Johnson comes off as New Orleans-style revival camp meeting music and includes elements of "gospel, jazz, children's counting songs, echoes of The Dozens and more," as Garon explains in his essay. If "Spider" Carter's "Please Please Blues" seems to be derivative of the musical approach taken by Peetie Wheatstraw, that's because the Devil's Son-in-Law himself is probably tickling the ivories on this song. A different musician seems to be playing piano on "Dry Spell Blues" (whose subject matter might be the same drought referred to in Son House's identically-titled piece), whereas "Don't Leave Me Blues" finds the singer backed by an unknown guitarist with a style similar to that of Charley Jordan. Ell-Zee Floyd's "Snow Bound and Blue" is another decent vocal-with-piano-accompaniment blues, while Red Mike Bailey's "Back to Memphis Tenn-O-See" and "Neck Bone Blues" offer some comic relief paired with Roosevelt Sykes' redoubtable keyboard work. Per the discographical notes, "the first grooves of the Jimmy Strange sides are missing due to a rimbite," thus the somewhat truncated nature of "Quarter Splow Blues" (what the hell is a "splow"?) and "No Limit Blues," a pity since both sides feature a pretty good singer backed by the expert guitar of Clifford Gibson and violin of Clifford Hayes. The melancholy vocals of Georgia Boyd receive sympathetic accompaniment from guitarist J.D. "Jelly Jaw" Short on "Never Mind Blues" and more of the same from Sykes' piano playing on "I'm Sorry Blues."

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