Singer and guitar player, Skip James. Born 1902 Yazoo County, Mississippi
In the 1920s and early 1930s *RACE record companies such as OKEH in America, went in search of the South’s most talented African-American blues artists. Musicians and singers were brought off the streets, where they had been performing for nickels at a time, and signed up for one-off recordings, some with the promise of more. Records might be produced in the space of an afternoon and then the resulting 78 records, marketed to the black community who couldn’t get enough of a music that had been in their families for several generations.
The early blues was an amalgam of musical styles: country blues, ragtime and gospel to name but a few. This I discovered when I received two cd box sets of the`Matchbox Bluesmaster series’. 12 CDs was enough to keep me busy listening for the entire Christmas period and beyond.
Presented with such choice, I found myself awed by the profusion of artists on offer. My knowledge of early blues music, was annoyingly sketchy, in my case, ending and finishing with Muddy Waters. Muddy Waters is associated with the later post war electric (guitar) blues, several decades ahead of the music I was about to listen to.
At first, I was surprised by the inclusion of ballads. Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s Mystery of the Dunbar’s Child (1927) for instance. It is a tale of a child’s kidnapping rather in the mode of a Johnny Cash, Country and Western song. Cash, like so many other white recording artists would be hugely inspired by these early ballads, sung by black and white singers alike.
Other works were more obviously bluesy. Hard luck stories of immense physical and mental suffering, and the sort my father taught me on banjo when I was young. Walter ‘Buddy Boy’ Hawkins’s renditions are of course far superior to my childhood strumming and singing. And what a voice he has. A meandering high, ululating voice. His ‘Snatch It Back Blues’ is artfully performed, his tenor so beautifully worked; sometime so delicate and smoothed over with ooohs and hmmms. Memorable too is his humorous Voice Throwin’Blues. The song is an oddity. In the entertaining sleeve notes, written by blues expert Paul Oliver, we learn that Hawkins might have performed the number on a street corner in the manner of a ventriloquist in front of a crowd. On the recording the ‘ventriloquist’ voice sounded disembodied and you could see its comic possibilities.
On the more serious side, prison songs loomed large on this album. Peg Leg Howells sings Ball and Chain with such fervour that I wasn’t surprised to read that he had spent time inside. Songs like Low Down Rounder Blues were moving and pointed to his troubled youth.
Alger ‘Texas’ Alexander stood out too and it was no surprise to read that he was one of the most sought-after blues singers in his day. His voice was his instrument and was seen singing unaccompanied out in the street or in a bar. Strongly built, he earned money, labouring in the fields or as a storeman in a warehouse. Discovered by some influential musicians in Dallas when he was singing at the Tip Top Club, he went on to perform in New York where he was hugely popular. Musicians found him a nightmare to accompany as he was known to miss out entire bars and was unable to keep time. But what a vibrato he gets out of his voice and he can hum better than anyone. In Section Gang Blues he expresses not only his pain, but all earthly suffering. As with all good singers, every word counts for him. From these old recordings, his indomitable and uncompromising nature powers through.
I would have to turn to set 2 of the Matchbox Bluesmaster Series to discover another artist with a special voice – that of Skip James (see title photograph). His beautiful, high ethereal vocals have the effect of making you stop what you’re doing to really listen. Devil Got My Woman, was one such song – but there were many more. Born in 1902 in Yazoo County, Mississippi, Nehemiah James, was the son of a Baptist minister. Though he played in many rough joints when young, the church played an important part in his life. Not only did he have the voice, he was a talented guitarist as well – his light finger picking work in tracks like I’m So Glad (1931) is a delight.
Fascinating too were the ‘Great Harp Players (1927-30) in the second box set. The harmonica, the “mouth-harp” in American speak, was introduced to America by German immigrants at the end of the 19th Century. These immigrants went to Texas, the Carolinas and Illinois – places which then had the highest concentration of harp players. In the blues, the harp can be a voice, providing the wailing and moaning effects of blues singing. It is also the ideal tool for mimicking steam trains. Railroads feature in so many blues works. Narrow Gauge Blues was a rhythmic feat played by El Watson as was the very fast MacAbee’s Railroad Piece – quite amazing! El Watson’s Fox Chase meanwhile was beautifully haunting.
Leroy Carr follows on the album with his smooth piano action. Born in Nashville in 1905 he started recording young. His records caused much excitement when they were released in the late 1920s and it is easy to see why. When singing, his phrasing and articulation are spot on and his sensitivity evident in Don’t Mean Me No Good.
All in all the Matchbox Bluesmaster Series is quite fascinating, really bringing to life the richness of the blues genre which would go on to fuel the best of our popular music
Highly recommended to blues enthusiasts and to aspiring musicians wishing to brush up their harp and guitar technique.
*Race Record Companies produced recordings exclusively by and for African Americans. The term is sometimes said to have been coined by Ralph s. Peer, who was then working for OKeh Records.
Matchbox Bluesmaster Series box sets are released January 8th 2021 and are available for streaming. https://www.wyastone.co.uk/catalogsearch/result/?q=+Matchbox+blues+masters+serie