Maybe the album’s title has a fair bit to do with it, but the scene that From Richmond to Atlanta brings to mind is that of a southbound train, just rattling along down the line in the bright summer sunshine; you can almost hear the locusts in the trees and the clacking of the rails, inbetween John Cephas’ fluid, almost off-hand guitar lines. Phil Wiggins’ harmonica has something to do with it, too—on songs like “No Lovin’ Baby Now” and “Brownsville”, the sound makes me think of a train whistle blowing in the distance, a conceit supported by even some added chugging percussion on the second track. This album feels like traveling, like a lot of good “country” blues; it makes sense, in a way, because this is country blues, not Chicago-style city blues, born in the early days of the music’s history, when many African-Americans were moving to northern, more industrial urban areas and away from the homes and lives they knew. It seems sometimes like the best bluesmen were always headed somewhere, or, more often than not, running from somewhere (as shown by the duo’s rendition of Blind Blake’s “Police Dog Blues”).
Again unlike a lot of city blues, the album’s instrumentation is minimal, primarily consisting of just Cephas’ voice and guitar and Wiggins’ harmonica accompaniment. And in the hands of these two masters, that’s really all that’s needed; the results, particularly the burning, backwoodsy “Dog Days of August” and the plaintive, yearning “Roberta” (complete with beautiful harmonizing), demonstrate that much, definitely. When the album finishes with the instrumental “Blue Day Blues”, it hardly feels like an instrumental at all, Wiggins’ harmonica has such a voice of its own.
This album is so dark and old-fashioned-sounding that if it weren’t for the production (and, well, the fact that I’ve read the liner notes), this wouldn’t sound out of place on those scratchy old Library of Congress recordings. The sound transports the listener back, away from the modern era of processed crap, to a time when music was played just for the sake of playing. Even John Cephas’ guitar technique is of the old variety, a Piedmont style that can be all the way back to the Mandingo musicians of Africa. But while this is a reissue set, of tracks from the duo’s three Flying Fish records, the recordings themselves surprisingly only date from the years ‘84 to ‘92. From Richmond to Atlanta is an eye- (or ear-, I should say) opener for those like me, who fear that the only blues left these days is the electric kind.