Monday, December 12, 2011

Arkansas bluesman left mark

The great Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s longtime guitarist, died last weekend at the age of 80. He’d been in poor health for several years — he carried an oxygen tank with him during performances — but he was a down-to-earth character who grew up in east Arkansas before he headed for Chicago some 60 years ago. The Rolling Stones will pay for his funeral.

His obituaries mentioned he was born in Greenwood, Miss., and grew up in Hughes in St. Francis County, although he told us he was raised on a plantation in Seyypel, just this side of the Mississippi River, some 20 miles from Hughes.

It was at a jukejoint in Seyypel where young Sumlin had first heard Wolf. Sumlin was too young to go inside, so he crawled under the building to listen to Wolf’s east Arkansas musicians, who included Pat Hare and Junior Parker (Elvis later recorded Parker’s “Mystery Train”), and maybe even Joe Willie Wilkins, who was from Mississippi but hung out in east Arkansas. Wilkins was perhaps the greatest post-war Delta guitarist, but he was hardly ever recorded.

Wolf farmed north of Parkin in Cross County during the 1930s and 1940s until he started recording in West Memphis in the late 1940s and then moved to Chicago.

He hired Sumlin soon after and sent him a train ticket to Chicago, where he made a splash as Wolf’s guitarist. They often fought, but they stayed together for more than 20 years, recording such hits as “Red Rooster,” “Spoonful” and others.

Sumlin was often imitated, especially by British rockers, who thought Hubert hung the moon. He was that good.


“Goodbye, Babylon,” from the Dust-to-Digital label, is a six-CD compilation of southern religious music from the 1920s to the 1940s and includes a 200-page book in a small cedar box with cotton around the edges to remind you where the music came from. (Dust-to-Digital is based in Atlanta.)

Included here are 135 songs from 1902-1960 — that’s dating back almost 110 years — by black and white performers, including Thomas A. Dorsey, the Carter Family, Flatt and Scruggs, the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet, Blind Willie Johnson, Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mahalia Jackson, the Louvin Brothers, Charlie and Bill Monroe (before Bill started recording bluegrass), Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Stanley Brothers, Skip James, Carl Smith, Bukka White, Josh White, Hank Williams.

These are just some of the best-known performers. Dozens of less famous artists are also well represented, from the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers to the Blue Sky Boys to Heavenly Gospel Singers to the Seventh Day Adventist Choir. The sixth disc includes 25 sermons recorded between 1926-1941.

A beautifully illustrated booklet is included. Scholars who contribute to this important anthology include Paul Oliver, David Evans, Tony Russell, Gayle Dean Wardlow, Guido van Rijn and others. Indispensable.

“Goodbye to Babylon” is available for $77 from Amazon and would make a great Christmas present for anyone who loves American spirituals and the sweet sound of music before it was homogenized and commercialized and watered down. This stuff is for real.

This is perhaps the best anthology of American spirituals with outstanding sound restoration. The set, which was released in 2003, is a favorite of rock performers like Neil Young, who gave a copy to Bob Dylan. This is the kind of music that reminds them of their roots and ours. It’s the voice of America, which you can always enjoy and appreciate.


Although he did not record much religious music, Dock Boggs is often mentioned when the subject of old roots music comes up. In the 1920s, he recorded only a dozen songs, along with five alternate takes, which are available on “Country Blues” on the Revenant label.

Boggs sings country songs in a haunting voice, accompanied by his banjo. His music about love and violence is powerful. He might be the greatest white performer you’ll hear on a record.

He was born in Virginia and worked in the coal mines most of his life. His wife told him to quit his music career, and he didn’t record and perform again until the folk revival of the 1960s. He died in 1971 at the age of 73.

“Country Blues” comes with an attractive booklet and additional music by Bill and Hayes Shepherd, his contemporaries. They’re not nearly as good as Boggs, but then no one was.

This CD would also make a good Christmas present, but a better one would be Revenant’s boxed double white vinyl. You can find it online for about $50. It’s worth it.