good things come in big packages, too
As you might imagine, we receive a lot of CD releases here at the Red Rooster Lounge, ranging from the pedestrian to the truly inspiring, so it’s a red-letter day when something authentically stimulating arrives at my door. Even better is when the package is bigger than a breadbox. And even better than that is when I get two of them in the same week. Which is exactly what happened when Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933–1944 (Columbia/Legacy) and "Scramin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues": The Worlds of Charley Patton (Revenant 212) appeared within days of each other.
I have little to add to John Morthland’s appraisal of the music on the 10-disc Lady Day set (see CD Reviews) except to put in a few words about the packaging. The accompanying 120-page large-format booklet contains a detailed track listing giving all the musicians, recording/release dates, catalog/matrix numbers; a paragraph or two about each song from Michael Brooks; a biographical essay by Gary Giddins; an essay by Farah Jasmine Griffin on Holiday’s influence on the literary world; lots of cool vintage photographs and color reproductions of 78-rpm record labels featuring Ms. Holiday. It’s a handsome production (with a $169.98 list price, it should be), and exactly what a musical treasure of this quality deserves.
Revenant’s paean to Patton, however, takes things to an unprecedented level. I was pretty impressed with Rhino’s 1997 release Beg, Scream and Shout: The Big Ol’ Box of ’60s Soul (see Rooster Pickin’s, BA #32), which was made to look like a carrying box for 45s with each disc in a pseudo-record sleeve and a set of "soul trading cards" that contained photos and bios of each artist. The Patton project — a two-year labor of love from Revenant founders Dean Blackwood and the late John Fahey — doesn’t have any cards, but that’s about all it’s missing.
Fahey, of course, was a quirky but brilliant guitarist who released a long list of albums on his own Takoma Records and numerous other labels. Despite something of an avant-garde reputation, he had started out playing country music as a teenager when he bought a cheap guitar and learned a few chords from some older musicians. "I made friends with them so I could pick up girls," he told Michael Brooks in a 1972 Guitar Player interview.
Not an unusual musical motivation for a young man, but his trip got stranger when, at age 18, he was introduced to the music of Blind Willie Johnson. It triggered an intense physical and emotional response and eventually led to several trips through the Southland in search of rare blues and country recordings. It also led to his involvement in the rediscovery of blues giants Bukka White and Skip James and a master’s thesis on one long-deceased founding father of the blues, Charley Patton.
Fahey’s thesis, included with the box set and first issued as a monograph in Paul Oliver’s Isla Vista series (London, 1970), is just the jumping-off point for this rather amazing work of what our managing editor would call "extreme mental patience." The package is designed to look like an album of 78-rpm records, with each of the seven CDs fitting onto a 10-inch disc that rests inside a facsimile Paramount or Vocalion sleeve. Each individual CD is designed to look like the label of one of Patton’s best known singles (disc 7, which is all spoken word, is made to look like a test pressing). The accompanying 128-page 10 x 10" booklet begins with a brief introduction by Fahey’s record-collecting compadre Dick Spottswood. Next comes a long essay, "Charley Patton: The Conscience of the Delta," that was originally presented at a 1984 colloquium in Belgium by Dr. David Evans of Memphis State University. Evans takes issue with some of the conclusions drawn by Fahey in his earlier work, providing a springboard for Fahey’s "Charley Reconsidered, Thirty-Five Years On." Sandwiched between these two is "The Worlds of Charley Patton" by Edward Komara, until recently head of the Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi.
And that’s hardly the end of it. Spottswood provides over 30 pages of full transcriptions (important, given Charley’s thick accent and tricky diction) and notes on each song; then there’s nearly 40 more pages of appendices. Of course, who could live without peel-and-stick repros of the labels of every Patton release — both A and B sides? To complete things, there are copies of the flyers Paramount used to promote Patton’s records.
Well, not exactly complete … there is the matter of the music. Charley Patton, who died in 1934, was a diminutive man with a bullfrog voice. He played with a strident, rhythmic guitar style and a "talking" bottleneck. He lived his entire life in the Mississippi Delta, only occasionally traveling outside the region to perform or to record in places like Grafton, Wisconsin, Richmond, Indiana and, shortly before his death, New York City. He is described as a consummate entertainer who was popular with both black and white audiences. Paramount Records also enlisted him as a talent scout, and he was responsible for getting Willie Brown, Son House, the Delta Big Four and erstwhile girlfriend Louise Johnson to record for the label.
There were 52 of his songs actually released under his own name or one of his pseudonyms (Elder J.J. Hadley for some of his religious music, the Masked Marvel, Charlie Peters and two with his wife Bertha Lee as Patton and Lee). The set also contains four alternate takes plus a handful of songs where Patton is known to have provided guitar backing. Altogether, that would only be about three CDs worth of material.
So what’s on the other discs? Since Revenant has titled this The Worlds of Charley Patton, they also give us the results of the recording dates for the artists that Patton brought to Paramount: Brown, House, Delta Big Four and Louise Johnson. There are some sides by St. Louis singer Edith North Johnson who was in the studio in Grafton at the same time as Charley in 1929. Disc Six, "Charley’s Orbit — Songs," is meant to give a sense of time, place and influence, with tracks by artists who knew Patton, were in the area at the same time or whose songs influenced Patton’s material or vice versa. Among these are Ma Rainey, Furry Lewis, Rube Lacy, the Mississippi Sheiks, Bukka White and Howlin’ Wolf. The last disc contains interviews with musicians Pops Staples, Rev. Booker Miller and Howlin’ Wolf, along with talent scout H.C. Speir, who got Patton his first recording contract.
The aural quality, given that all of Patton’s recordings were made between 1929 and 1934, is generally listenable and a vast improvement over what these tracks sounded like when they were first put out on LP. Even given the limitations of the era, the labels Patton recorded for were hardly using the best equipment available, and Paramount is especially known for the poor quality of its pressings, so no amount of filtering or digital wizardry will ever make them sound remotely modern.
As with the Billie Holiday box, there is a Hyundai version to choose if you don’t want the Rolls Royce. Earlier in 2001, Catfish Records (UK) put out The Definitive Charley Patton on three discs containing all the originally issued recordings. At £13 (less than $25) from Amazon.com in the UK, the Catfish option is attractive when compared to Revenant’s heavy tariff of $155. Both labels used digital remastering, and in comparing the two there is quite a bit of variation from song to song, depending on who had the better original to work from. Overall, I would say that the Revenant versions, done by Grammy-winning Airshow Mastering, Inc. here in Boulder, Colorado, have a bit brighter sound to them. The key decision for Patton fans is whether you just want the music or a keepsake that you’ll continue to dip into, with packaging that will amaze your friends and keep you entertained for years to come.
Some other big’uns we’ve seen lately are of the read-only variety, and all of them commendable. The title of the coffee table book Bill Wyman’s Blues Odyssey: A Journey to Music’s Heart & Soul (DK Publishing, NY, 400 pp., $40) does not lie. Rather than a straight narrative, this is indeed a blues odyssey, and a meandering one at that. While the chapter structure looks fairly linear — 13 steps from Africa through ragtime, the classic era of women blues singers and early country blues to World War II, the "Fabulous Fifites" and rock’n’roll — there are plenty of diversionary sidebars and sections (like "Great Blues Legends," quick bio sketches of various performers) that are scattered around out of synch with the timeline. And while Wyman is clearly a devoted student of the blues, it’s also clear that he comes from a rock framework. For instance, in an essay on the Civil War we get treated to a factoid about Stephen Stills drawing the title of his third album from the location of the Battle of Bull Run. And in sharp contrast to the Patton and Holiday collections, the essays by co-author Richard Havers are usually only one to three pages long.
Not that there’s something wrong with any of this. After the micro-detailed analyses of Patton’s works, my brain was ecstatic for data it could process in smaller bites. And most of today’s blues fans came to the music via rock’n’roll, so only the purest of the pure will be offended by the occasional tidbit about Derek & the Dominoes, Blodwyn Pig or even Lonnie Donegan. Generically speaking, this type of book is not meant to be read straight through. Rather there’s something to catch your eye (and your imagination) every time you open it. I particularly like the illustrated maps that provide good graphic context for the artists being discussed. There’s lots of solid information and a colorful design, though, like hypertext on a web site, the many little drop-ins may send you scurrying off in unexpected directions.
American Roots Music (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., NY, 240 pp., $49.50) is the companion book to the acclaimed PBS series of the same name. Edited by Bob Santelli, director and CEO of Seattle’s non-profit Experience Music Project, writer Holly George-Warren, and documentarian Jim Brown (who produced the TV series), ARM fits blues into a larger canvas that includes early country music, the folk revival of the ’60s, black gospel, Cajun and zydeco, Tejana, Native American and, inevitably, rock’n’roll. It’s obvious that the project was conceived in visual terms: There are 275 illustrations (90 in full color) and many of them are BIG. I love that you can virtually count the pores in Skip James’ face when you look at David Gahr’s 1964 portrait.
Each chapter is written by a different scholar, including the ubiquitous David Evans (early blues), Charles Wolfe (early country), Ann Allen Savoy (Louisiana) and Santelli (post-war blues).Taken as a whole this is a lush and loving look at the solid foundations of American music.
We would be remiss in overlooking Irwin and Lyndon Stambler’s Folk & Blues: The Encyclopedia (St. Martin’s Press, NY, 792 pp., $49.95). Whether your tastes run to Dock Boggs, Doc Watson, Leo Kottke, Richard Thompson and Almeda Riddle or Willie Dixon, Dr. John, John Lee Hooker, Skip James and Big Joe Williams (or, in my own case, all the above), you’ll find hours of captivating reading here. The word "encyclopedia" may conjure up images of rather dry text, but that’s not at all the case with this one. The Stamblers manage to be both conversational and highly informative. One caveat: The predominant thrust does lean in the folk direction; while there is a wide representation of established blues musicians, there are way more lesser-known folk artists. But then that’s what you’ve got BLUES ACCESS for!