Timeless Country Blues

Various Artists – The Rough Guide to Country Blues (World Music Network/Rough Guides, 2019)

Several years ago I was at a neighborhood party where the host had tuned in a local blues to set as background music. A woman at the party asked that the music be changed because she didn’t like blues music. She said the blues sounded dated to her and the music itself implied a kind of pre-Civil Rights misery she didn’t like and didn’t want to be reminded of.

I remember being a little irritated at this commentary, but said nothing. Blues, its regional sounds, tones and its lyrics, like it or not, are all a part of a legacy about the culture from where it comes. Misery, misogyny, racial injustices, class oppression, dirty politics and bad relationships of every kind have always been part and parcel to the blues and a clever way to slip messages past the polite society censors about the culture and its people. Like most musical genres the blues is a kind of historical record, but it’s often an uncomfortable history. Fortunately, a lone person at a party not liking the genre certainly isn’t going to stop it. Have a beef? Have a broken heart or soul? Have a confession? Add a guitar and it’s magically transformed into something universal. Have blues will travel.

Various Artists – The Rough Guide to Country Blue

And the blues do indeed travel. Just one listen to The Rough Guide to Country Blues, out on the World Music Network/Rough Guide’s label, and all sorts of wonders appear. Revered rock guitar licks, jazz phrases and familiar vocal turns, growls and slides hide in plain sight on this collection of country blues that all were recorded between 1926 and 1935 by the pioneers of country blues. It’s filled with sly snatches of ragtime, gospel, hillbilly twangy goodness and Dixieland jazz.

For the skeptics who just can’t imagine why they would want to listen to some old scratchy recordings, let me remind you these songs are the real deal and, here’s the kicker, you probably already know a fair number of them. Proof is in The Rough Guide to Country Blues opening track the hauntingly good “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” by Skip James. Some of you might recognize it from T. Bone Burnett’s soundtrack from the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” as sung by Chris Thomas King.

Some might recognize Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe’s “New Dirty Dozen,” a future version of the song was used in Quincy Jones’s movie soundtrack “The Color Purple” and sung by Tata Vega. Frank Stokes appears on the Rough Guide on “I Got Mine.” Ry Cooder and Pink Anderson have cut versions of this song. Just as Rhiannon Giddens took cues from the vocals of Geeshi Wiley on her “Last Kind Words Blues.”

Halfway through the Rough Guide listeners get a sweet string laced version the Mississippi Sheiks’s “Sitting on Top of the World.” As with all things good and right with the world, what goes around comes around and “Sitting on Top of the World” has gone around and around. This song has been recorded by a few notables like Howlin’ Wolf, Doc Watson, Cream, Chris Goss & the Forest Rangers, Ray Charles, The Grateful Dead, Jack White and Janis Joplin.

The Rough Guide to Country Blues possesses some real gems, songs that just shouldn’t be missed like the sweet jaunty rag of Blind Willie McTell’s “Georgia Rag” or the guitar licks found on Blind Willie Johnson’s “God Moves on the Water” or Bukka White’s “Sic ‘Em Dogs On,” or the sheer goodness of Big Bill Boonzy’s “How You Want It Done?” or Blind Blake’s “Come On Boys Let’s Do That Messin’ Around.”

And there are some blues artists that shouldn’t be missed like Charley Patton’s “A Spoonful Blues,” Son House’s “My Black Mama – Part I” and Leadbelly’s “Packin’ Trunk Blues.”

And no listener wants to miss out on these lyrics on Tommy Johnson’s “Cool Drink of Water Blues.”

I asked for water, and she gave me gasoline
I asked for water, she gave me gasoline
I asked for water and she gave me gasoline
Lord, Lordy, Lord

Crying, Lord, I wonder will I ever get back home
Crying, Lord, I wonder will I ever get back home
Lord, Lordy, Lord

Or these lyrics from Son House’s “My Black Mam – Part I”

Oh, Lord have mercy on my wicked soul,
Wouldn’t mistreat you baby for my weight in gold,
Oh, Lord have mercy on my wicked soul,
Mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm.

Buy The Rough Guide to Country Blues in the Americas

Buy The Rough Guide to Country Blues in Europe

Author: TJ Nelson

TJ Nelson is a regular CD reviewer and editor at World Music Central. She is also a fiction writer. Check out her latest book, Chasing Athena’s Shadow. Set in Pineboro, North Carolina, Chasing Athena’s Shadow follows the adventures of Grace, an adult literacy teacher, as she seeks to solve a long forgotten family mystery. Her charmingly dysfunctional family is of little help in her quest. Along with her best friends, an attractive Mexican teacher and an amiable gay chef, Grace must find the one fading memory that holds the key to why Grace’s great-grandmother, Athena, shot her husband on the courthouse steps in 1931. Traversing the line between the Old South and New South, Grace will have to dig into the past to uncover Athena’s true crime.
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