Agony Shorthand

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

I flinched and plunked down the $25 or so it took to get this JSP Records four-CD box set of one of the great early bluesmen, BLIND WILLIE McTELL. Sure, I had most of the 20s & 30s stuff in other formats, but now with the copyrights expiring, it’s full throttle for cheap box sets of olde Americana, and JSP are leading the way. This set covers all of McTell’s known sessions from 1927 to 1940, including recordings issued on the sly for other labels as “Blind Sammy” and “Georgia Bill”. The draw is certainly McTell’s wholly unique, virtuoso, hammy, frenetic guitar style and his pure-as-velvet vocals. He could play the down & dirty “blues” at times, yet one gets the picture that this guy was having an absolute blast playing his music, and that he was a first-rate gentleman to boot. Classics like “Broke Down Engine Blues”, “B & O Blues” and the hilarious “Ticket Agent Blues” display a songwriter with few peers & an entertainer I’d kill to have seen. He’s also a pro as swapping double entendres with guest female vocalists “Miss Cora” and Ruth Kate Williams (who later became his wife).

This box set contains all the tracks on the Yazoo and Document “compleat” recordings and then some, 84 in all. The final disc consists of an unheard-to-me 1940 set McTell recorded for John Lomax (father of Alan) in Atlanta. As the liner notes state, “This recording was something of a swansong for the then-fading country blues. In the 1940s, an urban form was evolving as stars like John Lee Hooker emerged. Sooner rather than later, all of them would adapt to the electric guitar”. But McTell was totally on his game, doing a fair number of religious numbers as well as telling stories and shucking & jiving with Lomax in the studio (some of this banter was lifted for a White Stripes record, their second record I believe). Lomax tries to pin him down to say something about the overwhelming oppression of life in the South, and the unflappable McTell will have none of it. He just wants to keep playing. A great set to have on the shelf – and incidentally, a surprising soother for week-old babies as well.