Monday, December 29, 2008

It’s the year of the blues, or how blue can you get?

Leader editor-in-chief

This has been a tough year for almost everyone, and things could get worse in 2009. Times are bad, or in the words of the immortal bluesman B.B. King, “How Blue Can You Get?”

More than ever, this is the right time to listen to the blues, which poor black farmers created more than a century ago while they toiled the land on both sides of the Mississippi River.

You’d have to include Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett) on anyone’s list of top blues recordings. Although he was born in Mississippi, he farmed for more than a decade north of Parkin in Cross County and made his earliest records in Memphis and West Memphis. (See list below.)

Congress declared 2003 the year of the blues, but let’s declare 2008 another blues year. To mark yet another milestone, here’s a list of our favorite blues recordings:

Charley Patton: “Complete Recordings, 1929-1934” (JSP). The son of a black woman who worked on a plantation and probably a white landowner or overseer, Patton was also part Indian. Out of this mixed racial background, he created amazing music that evoked the hardships of Delta life: He growls about poverty, floods, droughts, boll weevils, troubles with the law and women. “Pony Blues” and “High Water Everywhere” are the epitome of the genre. His guitar playing influenced generations of other bluesmen: Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and many others.

Patton lived for a time on a plantation near Lula, Miss., just across the river from Helena. The late critic Robert Palmer, a Little Rock native, said Patton “is among the important musicians 20th Century America has produced” and ranked him with Louis Armstrong and Elvis Presley.

Although much of the music was transferred from scratchy 78s, Patton is indispensable. The inexpensive five-CD boxed set — it’s available online for under $30, or about $6 a CD — also includes other early Delta blues artists. Besides Son House, there’s seminal music by Henry Sims, Willie Brown, Louise Johnson and others.

Muddy Waters, “The Complete Plantation Recordings: The Historic 1941-1942 Library of Congress Field Recordings,” with photos of Muddy’s cabin and notes by blues scholar Mary Katherine Aldin.

These are Muddy Waters’ first records, made on Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale, Miss., and in front of the train depot in town, which he soon left on a train for Chicago. He made historic records there for the Chess brothers, who helped preserve Delta blues by recording Muddy, Howling Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and others.

Muddy’s Chicago recordings are available on “The Best of Muddy Waters” with Don Bronstein’s striking closeup profile of Muddy, and “Trouble No More,” a collection of his earliest Aristocrat and Chess singles. Covering the same period are two attractive collections, “Rollin’ Stone: The Golden Anniversary Collection” and “The Complete Chess Masters, Volume 2, 1952-58.” The second, from Hip-O Records, is attractively packed with a booklet that contains several rare photos and another essay by Mary Katherine Aldin. This is essential music, as important as any in the American canon.

Robert Johnson, who absorbed the blues while growing up near Tunica and created his own style before his untimely death at the age of 27 in 1938, is considered by many, especially by British rockers who copied his music, as the most important blues artist of all time. His “Complete Recordings,” a two-volume CD set, helped fuel the blues revival, although I prefer his two “King of the Delta Blues” LPs reissued by Columbia for about $10 each. The LPs sound better — he’s more youthful than on the CDs, which sound like they were transferred from tapes played at the wrong speed. Johnson was in his mid-20s when he made his records in San Antonio and Dallas, and he does sound like a much younger man on the LPs. (A new Japanese CD package is supposed to correct the problems with the complete recordings, which sold about a million copies on CD.)

Johnson’s early death has been told many times: He was probably poisoned in a juke joint near Greenwood, Miss., by a jealous husband. Johnson is said to be buried in a small church cemetery outside town and is worth going there if you loved the blues. (You could stop at the nearby Viking factory and see if they’ll sell you a stove at a discount.)

Howlin’ Wolf was a part-time musician who was farming in eastern Arkansas when he was discovered after the Second World War by Sam Phillips of Sun Records. Phillips recalled, “When I heard Howlin’ Wolf, I said, ‘This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.’”

Wolf’s earliest recordings appear on two CDs, “Memphis Days” Vol. I and Vol. II, which include his complete Sun recordings with several alternate takes. They were sold to Chess in Chicago and the Bihari brothers in Los Angeles, which released them on their own labels.

The brothers were Hungarians who had been in the jukebox and record business on the West Coast, although one of them set up an operation in Memphis and often recorded in Arkansas.

The Biharis also recorded the Wolf in West Memphis. Those records appear on “ Howling Wolf Sings the Blues.” His “Moaning the Moonlight/Rocking Chair” CD from Chess is also essential. You might also consider the three-CD “Chess Box,” if you like this kind of rough, gruff music.

Wolf modeled himself after Charley Patton, who taught him the blues back in the 30s at Dockery Plantation near Drew, Miss. (where the quarterback Archie Manning, the father of the Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Peyton and Eli, was born).

B.B. King, the biggest blues star of all time — one of the few who became a millionaire and who is still performing at the age of 83 — did his best work, in my opinion, back in the 1950s and early 1960s, when he recorded for the Bihari brothers, a family from Hungary who had been in the jukebox and record business on the West Coast, although one of them set up an operation in Memphis and often recorded in Arkansas.
B.B. thought they were the best at recording blues and considers his “My Kind of Blues” on the Biharis’ Modern label his favorite record, which has been reissued on the British Ace label.

His “RPM Hits, 1951-1957,” also from the Biharis, has also been beautifully remastered by Ace and contains some of his most important numbers, including “Three O’Clock Blues,” “You Upset Me, Baby,” “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Sweet Little Angel,” “Troubles, Troubles” and much more. This is the work of an artist at the peak of his powers.

The harmonica player Little Walter Jacobs also recorded for Chess and is considered the greatest blues harp player of them all. His “Best of Little Walter” is terrific, but so is everything he did for Chess, although as a singer he was just so-so. (Of the many harp players, George Harmonica Smith, who was born in Helena, sang the best, although Junior Wells, from West Memphis, and Sonny Boy Williamson II weren’t far behind.)

Otis Rush is one of the great blues artists alive, although, sadly, he stopped performing after a recent stroke. We caught him Helena just a few months before he fell ill. But almost everything he’s recorded is worth hearing. His “Classic Cobra Recordings,” made in the late 1950s, was an astonishing debut and is as as impressive as ever. You get the feeling Eric Clapton has worn this record out.

John Lee Hooker’s “Legendary Modern Recordings” also belongs on any Top 10 list. According to Muddy Waters — they were born in neighboring counties in Mississippi —the original boogie man looked and sounded more African than any of the top bluesmen. His beat helped create rock-and-roll.

Rounding out our Top 10 list: “Bessie Smith: The Collection” and Elmore James’ “The Sky Is Crying.” Just hearing their music will help make your blues go away.
(Next: Beyond the pantheon — 10 more recommendations.)