Frank Hutchinson
Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order 1926-1929
Document 8003
If there was any life left in the moldering old saw that whites are unqualified to play the blues, a steady stream of reissues in recent years of hillbilly blues from the 1920s and '30s have shown just how empty that claim always was. The crying steel guitar and mournful Appalachian vocals of Frank Hutchinson stakes as strong a claim for the unbridled blues power of his mountain music as Kokomo Arnold's or Bukka White's made for their Delta tradition.

Hutchinson was a former West Virginia miner who reportedly learned turn-of-the-century blues standards and copped slide licks from Bill Hunt, a disabled black man he met in his youth. A brace of recordings for Okeh in the late '20s was followed by anonymity, but his hurdy-gurdy rendition of "Stackalee" turned up on Harry Smith's influential Anthology of American Folk Music and later shaded Bob Dylan's take on the old classic on his World Gone Wrong.

On Complete Recorded Works 1926-1929 Hutchinson's 24 recordings for Okeh come off sounding both strangely alien and familiar. The stark, floating quality of Hutchinson's lap steel guitar on the cleaned-up old 78s (a few are beyond all help) sounds like it could be emanating from Arnold's fingers. Yet the thin, reedy voice clearly belongs to a white mountain man.

The combination is unsettling, as if hearing, say, Robert Johnson, playing Western swing.

Hutchinson's first two recorded tracks, "Worried Blues" and the classic "Train That Carried the Girl From Town," are underpinned by his ghostly slide and parched vocals. The story lines are old and obvious -- faded love and departure -- but convey a sense of the future as doomy as Johnson's "Love in Vain."

But there is also a sense of deja vu to Hutchinson's deliberate mixing of white and black musical genres. Not because of his own presence -- after his death in 1940, Hutchinson was lost to the world until Columbia released several of his old records on compilations in the '90s. But rather because so many successful white artists since -- Jimmy Rogers, Woody Guthrie, Dylan -- have plucked from the same tree.

Listen to the filigreed strains of "Logan County Blues," and you'll hear echoes of Leo Kottke, anticipated by a half-century. "Coney Isle" has the gentle fretwork of Mississippi John Hurt and the braying vocals of Dylan. There are raucous harmonica breakdowns and stirring slide guitar workouts.

But trying to find latter-day comparisons to explain Frank Hutchinson's strengths as a singer and musician is a fool's exercise. The man was as authentic as any of his black contemporaries working the Delta in the late '20s. They were all bluesmen.

-- Steve Braun

This page and all contents are © 1998 by Blues Access,
Boulder, CO, USA.