[7 September 2010]
I’m Going Where the Water Drinks Like Wine: 18 Unsung Bluesmen: Rarities 1923 - 1929 is Belgian imprint Sub Rosa’s second venture into the fraught territory of blues reissues, a stretch of ground anxiously tended by record collecting fanatics and devoted aficionados. While the label is most commonly recognized as an outlet for electronic and avant-garde, their in-house producer/researcher Guy Marc Hinant developed the “Fundamentals” series in order to shine a light on “unsung” blues performers of the prewar era. As a project, it’s clear that I’m Going Where the Water Drinks Like Wine isn’t all that different from Revenant’s pair of John Fahey-curated American Primitive releases or Yazoo’s The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of, to name just two recent examples. And while Hinant’s work generally lacks the deep obscurantist bent of Fahey’s curatorship, this collection openhandedly sets its sights on a more specific target: It’s out to expose the work of 18 unheralded blues performers from a six-year period. To be more specific, these performers are bluesmen; early blueswomen were covered on the series’ first installment, Oh, Run Into Me, But Don’t Hurt Me.
Although they appear further afield of the radar than Robert Johnson and Son House, several of the artists featured here haven’t gone entirely unnoticed. Rabbit Brown and Ramblin’ Thomas, for instance, will be familiar to listeners of Harry Smith’s folk revival urtext The Anthology of American Folk Music, while Walter Hawkins and Blind Joe Reynolds show up on 2001’s indispensible Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues. Indeed, much of this material is available on blues reissues common to many prewar blues fans, particularly those released by Document Records. All of which begs the question: What’s the use? I’m Going Where the Water Drinks Like Wine answers by putting each of these performances into conversation with one another, creating a ragged patchwork that allows this record to stand as further evidence that the blues is not one thing, but many. And although the demographic this collection draws upon—African-American men of roughly the same age, region, and period—would seem to produce predictable results, it’s remarkable to get a sense of how widely varied these performances can feel.
In line with a broader rethinking of the familiar blues narratives ushered along by writers like Elijah Wald and Marybeth Hamilton, this collection includes songsters and medicine show singers alongside street corner and juke joint performers, all under the sign of “the blues”. As these songs suggest, there isn’t simply a single emotional register that defines the blues. For instance, the notion, long encouraged by a certain strain of blues enthusiast, that there’s a requisite amount of suffering mandatory to anything bearing the blues label is roundly rejected by the dogged braggadocio of Jesse Babyface Thomas’ “Blue Goose Blues”. Neither is there a single sonic register: the blues template worked out in several of these songs is dressed up with touches of flamenco, old time fiddling, and a bounce that feels like a vestigial remainder from the minstrel shows.
Both of these points are modeled by the case of Luke Jordan, who is represented on two tracks—“Pick Poor Robin Clean”, which skips along at a nimble pace with infectious melodicism, and “Traveling Coon”, an exercise in self-determination that transforms a familiar minstrel tune, and all its attendant stereotypes, into a rousing picture of defiance. According to the song’s chorus, and contrary to its title, the subject is a “traveling man”, one “who wouldn’t give up… ‘til the police shot him down”.
Another highlight is Kid Bailey’s “Rowdy Blues”. Although the song is becoming something of a reissue compilation staple, it’s just the kind of performance I’m Going Where the Water Drinks Like Wine requires: hinging on an intricate push-pull between hope and despair, this performance remains a signpost of how philosophically subtle the prewar blues can be. And while not everything on the set reaches these heights, each track fairly thrums with a perceptible aura (or hiss, depending on the cut’s fidelity) of historical significance.
For just this reason, and in spite of some overlap with existing anthologies, I’m Going Where the Water Drinks Like Wine contains enough rough gems to satisfy even the most rabid blues fan, making it nearly essential for anyone invested in the music’s tangled roots and its undiscovered histories.