Shining A Light
Sub Rosa just released Dr Boogie Presents Rarities From the Bob Hite Vaults: an interesting, worthwhile, but naturally uneven trawl through part of the late Canned Heat singer’s 78rpm collection. Now, Oh, Run Into Me, But Don’t Hurt Me arbitrarily gathers songs from mostly forgotten female singers of the 1920s. Yet these picks are astute in that they sound great alone and good together. The result is a collection more satisfying than the occasional shoehorning of disparate artists into a compilation under the banner of either liquor, crime, death or sex.
If you have read this far maybe I don’t need to convince you to bother with another various-artists package of early blues. Just in case, though, know that these pieces mostly avoid repetitive tedium and standard blues braggadocio. Indeed, some of the pairings of voice and piano are so beautifully balanced as to offer a timely reminder of what it is to make playing and creating music seem deceptively easy. Case in point: Rosa Henderson’s “Get It Fixed”, a track effortlessly sounding both extraordinarily jovial and coolly confrontational; as if she were playing hopscotch while berating her slacker lover. Actually, this kind of economy may be even harder to pull off today than it was 80 years ago.
Anyone thinking themselves alone, obsessed, mad with desire, overlooked or disrespected might bend an ear to the supportive voices of these long dead women. The notion that expressions of female sexuality in song began with Madonna also takes a beating. While I prefer the songs that don’t feature horns as a device to depict exaggerated sexual desire, it has to be said that Margaret Carter’s “Grease in My Frying Pan” may well be one of the most indiscreet vocals ever recorded. Metaphors such as hot dogs in buns and sugar in bowls are all effective, but surely nothing beats lard as perhaps the ultimate risqué image of well-lubricated coital ecstasy, especially in these diet-crazy safe-sex times. It tastes great in pastry too, lest we forget.
Martha Copeland’s rendition of “Stole My Man Blues” is airy, sad and complex. The narrator feels bad for stealing her best friend’s man, feels bad that her friend stole him back, yet is defiant enough to warn empathic listeners that she might steal from them, too. Similarly, Martha Johnson’s version of “Dead Drunk Blues” is an unrepentant ode to self-medication oddly reminiscent of the line in the Bonzo Band track where the winner of a prize opts for cash so that she can “become an alcoholic.” Johnson comes across rather more sprightly on “Second Hand Blues”, an astonishingly erudite admonition by someone serially disrespected.
Coletha Simpson’s bizarre “Down South Blues” oozes violence in a helium-inflected screech. Ivy Smith’s “Sad and Blue” makes me think of those stranded in the movie Casablanca, although her admitted motivation “I’d rather be in Chicago simply wasting my time” is less admirable that Victor Laszlo’s, or even Rick Blaine’s for that matter. By the way, the liner notes of Oh, Run Into Me, But Don’t Hurt Me give a well deserved shout-out to Eric Benoit and the crew at Forced Exposure as well as expressing gratitude for assistance or encouragement to Eugene Chadborne and Greil Marcus. So now you know.
I like to hear these tracks turned down so low that they almost fade away, as if trying to replicate the distance they have traveled to get here. Of course, back there in the past, “recording” meant: getting a good live rendition that they were happy with. All this may seem a far cry from the kind of busy despair on show at the gym and coffee shop, but while fashions come and go, this music won’t fade away. Maybe one day a group of musicians will play during a space walk and the computerized echo of their performance will be beamed to several planets, along with images of the biggest light show ever devised (all on pay-per-view, naturally). The day after, somewhere someone will stumble upon a song such as Lucille Bogan’s “Tricks Ain’t Walking Anymore”, and something truly elemental will once again be communicated.