Agony Shorthand

Friday, February 21, 2003
MAKE MINE PRE-WAR.....Quite possibly the most hackneyed, overplayed form of music ever is the BLUES. As popularly defined, and as played in American and European nightclubs, "the blues" is often reduced to the tiresome, grating closed-eyes guitar solo personified by BB King or later-period John Lee Hooker -- or far worse, the white boy bar band "party" style of blues often found in California beach town nightclubs. Blame the city of Chicago? Blame BB King? Blame the Stones? I don't know, but my motto is "Make Mine Pre-War!" -- i.e. World War II, the Mother of All Battles, the Good War, etc. That means pre-electric, pre-"party" blues, pre-influence-on-rock-music blues. (Note: there are obviously some exceptions to this maxim -- Lightning Hopkins, for example -- but it's a convenient hook for my story). Remember the scene in the 2001 film "Ghost World" when the Thora Birch character has a dumbstruck epiphany while listening to Skip James' "Devil Got My Woman"? I loved that scene, because not only is that the perfect introductory track to the haunting mysteries of pre-World War II Mississippi delta blues, but I also had a similar reaction to that very song upon first hearing it on a compilation. It helped lead me into discovery of Charley Patton, Robert Wilkins, Mississippi John Hurt, and a whole passel of other pre-WWII heroes who helped write 20th Century popular music as we now know it. I went through a period in which my rock-n-roll fandom declined precipitously, and this was pretty much all I listened to and spent my money on.

You know what's interesting, though? It really wasn't that difficult to collect all the truly great, 5-star pre-WWII stuff. I honestly think it has all been found, catalogued and released by the archivists, unless some new edition-of-100 scratchy 78s turn up somewhere in an attic and get plopped on a Document CD. Sure, I experimented and stumbled upon some rotten stuff. Buying any of these guys' 1960s live material, recorded after they were found in near-fossilized states on their Mississippi front porches and paraded in front of East Coast college crowds, is a mistake not worth making -- or at least is for completists only. If you concentrated your CD buying efforts on two labels only -- Yazoo and Document -- you'd likely find every godhead country/delta blues track every recorded, save for Robert Johnson's material. If an artist only released one or two 78s back in 1928, and didn't create enough material to merit a posthumous compilation CD, you can bet that Yazoo or Document have released his tracks on one of their many compilations. In fact, the last Document catalog I saw listed the pre-WWII blues they hadn't released at the front of the catalog. It was a single column -- all the artists or records they couldn't get the rights to. All 20 of them.

I know you didn't ask, but if I could choose the ideal "starter kit" for pre-WWII blues, I'd get it going with the following CDs:

1. SKIP JAMES "1930 -- The Complete Recordings"
2. CHARLEY PATTON "King Of The Delta Blues" and "Founder Of The Delta Blues" CDs
3. BLIND WILLIE McTELL "1927-1933: The Early Years" and "1927-1935" CDs
4. MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT "1928 Sessions"
5. ROBERT WILKINS "The Original Rolling Stone"
6. ROBERT JOHNSON "Complete Recordings" (2-CD box set)
7. BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON "Sweeter As The Years Go By" and "Praise God I'm Satisfied" CDs
8. BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON "King Of The Country Blues"
9. SON HOUSE "1928-1930"
10. VARIOUS ARTISTS "Country Blues Bottleneck Guitar Classics"

I plan on dissecting this stuff artist by artist, CD by CD, in the not-too-distant future.