Fourteen songs by blues greats like Buddy Guy, Otis Spann, and Lightnin’ Hopkins are enough to get my attention. Hearkening back to the earliest label anthologies, only the song titles and the names of the primary performers are listed. As there are no credits ascribed to composers or publishing companies listed, that leaves plenty of space to fill in. The liner notes prepared by Roy Trakin, the Senior Editor of HITS Magazine, devotes three paragraphs explaining the material was “culled in part from a pair of legendary labels.” Even the cover art helps set the mood, an old timeworn Dodge.
The disc is worth getting if you’ve never heard Sunnyland Slim’s “Highway 61”, as strong today as when it was first recorded. After hearing “Highway 61” many years ago, I never listened to the blues in the same way ever again. When you hear this, you will know this is the Highway 61 to be revisited, the raw music of the roadway that runs through the heart of the Mississippi Delta, and you will accept no imitations. Some blues can be such angry music. And if you had actually seen some musicians packing their amps into the trunk of a rusted out vehicle that you prayed would last long enough carry them to their next night’s work and wages, the “image” selected for cover art on this collection is apropos.
Also included here is “Train I Ride” by Mississippi Fred McDowell. Although on this song, Mr. McDowell is playing slide guitar amplified, this is the oldest, deepest sort of blues. A “primitive” song played in banjo style that reaches far back in time. Everyone now tends to associate the blues with guitar. Before 1900, a tradition prolonged in part because many guitars in the South were destroyed during the Civil War, the banjo was the primary instrument that accompanied the blues. Most every one knows that now, but even in the late ‘50s a number of blues enthusiasts and scholars were struggling to make that connection. All their dedication, travel, study and work becomes a footnote now in the histories other people write. Before blues information was so widely spread, it was amazing to hear the opening lines of this song and realize they had somehow found their way into the opening lines of a record I’d bought a few years prior, “Mystery Train”. Even though I knew that elements of one “folk” song would find their way into other “folk” songs and those in turn had echoes in popular songs, it was only one phrase. Still, you’d wonder and imagine how these songs might have traveled, why some lyrics were picked up and others discarded or rewritten.
Despite the remastering which could clean up the transfer, this rendition of “Train I Ride” sounds like you’re listening to a really old record. Fred never found his way onto those early scratchy field recordings that were turned into 78s, although his first taping by Alan Lomax in 1959 would be an “old” record today. I’m not sure, but I’m betting this is the version that was recorded on November 13, 1966. I guess that would be a “middle-aged” record today. On this cut, Fred talks like the sweet person and gentleman he was known to be. He introduces the name of the song before he starts playing just like he did when first asked to play a song for posterity by Alan Lomax, and Fred ends the song with a thank you.
I still remember listening through the skips and scratches of Overplayed blues records with friends. Some records were old, dusty, and chipped. We’d play records so old they were discolored by age and use, you could barely see a groove, listening through the pops and hisses of the needle and you’d have to work to recognize the music. But once in awhile there would be a startling moment where the pieces began coming together for someone, a dizzying moment that could border on enlightenment if not epiphany when somebody heard a possibility. There weren’t a lot of books or articles about the blues back then, the information committed to memory in the same way a player’s repertoire was. It always seemed like it might spoil other people’s fun to mention such things directly, you’d hint and let people hear it on their own the first time.
Although these liner notes mention that Lightnin’ Hopkins’ first instrument was an innertube stretched in a barn door, you don’t hear that instrument per se played on “Little School Girl”. But you might hear it if you are willing to suspend disbelief and follow the strong constant single-note thumb picked bass he plays on his guitar. Lightnin’ produced a significant body of work on a variety of labels. He typically insisted on being paid up-front for his work as he didn’t care to wait around for the royalty checks he suspected might not find their way to him.
In providing biographic data on Fred McDowell, Mr. Trakin, bless his heart, also mentions Arhoolie. If it weren’t for Chris Strachwitz back in the early ‘60s and his then young and struggling Arhoolie record company, I’m pretty certain that Fred McDowell would have been overlooked by the world at large. Although I am equally certain Fred would have continued playing at the occasional fish-fry and in front of a rural town candy store for spare change. Chris from day one paid his artists and/or their heirs the royalties from their recording income with Arhoolie because that seemed to him to be the decent thing to do.
Sometimes it can become a can of worms to try to pay those artists. Chris went to the wall to protect a song, “You Got to Move” from being co-opted for use by a big record company, whose legal squad maintained their belief the song was not covered by publishing copyright. After vigorous and expensive litigation (funded in part by donations from concerned Bay Area citizens in those yesteryears of political fury), Chris won back royalties from the corporate recording empire. He was able to present Fred with the biggest check he had ever seen in his life a short time before Fred passed on from cancer in 1972. As legend has it, Strachwitz’s only words of advice to a session guitarist who had been working and hanging out with the Stones, “Just don’t play them any more of my records”.
The blues are getting more popular again. A resurgence of interest began in the ‘90s. Simultaneous with that, the copyright clock has been ticking. In Europe, due to their limited copyright law, companies there can legally boot any US masters which are 50 years or older. While they are obliged to pay the publishing companies for the material, they are not bound legally to pay the artists. It’s legal, but still you wonder how might these masters have traveled? Then you imagine the stop where these music colonialists might get off.
The trend may be on the downswing because one of the things I’ve noticed is that morality usually follows what is legislated. Although I’d prefer it if there were more fools in the world like Mr. Chris Strachwitz. He would pay his artists when nobody else would bother even pretending they did or merely preferred not because they weren’t legally obliged to.
I’m not sure I would feel easy about picking up a European-produced compilation culled from old blues or jazz masters now, however many tracks there are or cheap the disc might be. To the European boot-smiths, we in America are working to up our morals, now up yours. And in this country, where does all the money go that the publishing firms collect on behalf of these old blues and country artists if it doesn’t go to the artists or their heirs? I’m just a member of the record-buying public, but I do hope that there are still some of those rare creatures, the bureaucrats with the heart of gold who work to insure the people who are deserving of the recognition and recompense are the ones who are really cashing in. For American ‘60s recording stars, the copyright clock is ticking for you, too, and the nostalgia wave is nearly guaranteed to build.