John Long: Lost and Found

[26 May 2006]

By Robert R. Calder

Good enough

The hype that came with this CD is a distraction. So is the naïve comment likening John Long to Willie Walker.

It is welcome to encounter a reference based on what musicians have said, as when the very great Gary Davis spoke of Walker as having been his superior. Walker recorded only the two tracks, the technology and the will and the money to pay for the former were missing in differing degrees. There have always been cases of very serious neglect, musicians regrettably too much legendary for want of audible evidence. Some musicians of real ability still demand impossible audible proof, not just the recorded voice of some unimpeachable witness and fellow musician. Some dopes think talented people will always get a hearing, and some people make unreasonable claims.

And here the problem’s only a confusing one. To translate, Muddy Waters said that Long was the best of his kind he had heard. To amplify: Muddy might not have heard too many young white performers of country blues, some of whom are up there with Long (I can’t say how far up Long is, but he is up there somewhere). Besides which, Muddy might have been being nice, unlike the overpraisers whose name appear with their lies on the back of products which shouldn’t have had quite the commendation some people deliver even as often as weekly. 

Leaving aside the topic of hype, I turn at last to the music. Long might well have been recorded earlier, and delays in recognition can sometimes exact costs and cause damage that nothing can make up for and repair. But he’s here, with a good voice that sounds maybe older than Long is (although some young original bluesmen had such pipes). The basis of the music is country blues, with guitar echoes of Son House, Robert Johnson, Broonzy, singing which is good but not at its best on the opening track, and sometimes harmonica, played in the sort of rack used by Jimmy Reed, Bob Dylan (who?), Jesse Fuller, Joe Hill Louis, and Dr. Ross.

“Hokum Town” can’t be called a pastiche of the Son House/Patton/Willie Brown school. Mostly it sounds like (backhanded but fair compliment coming!) a minor member of the school singing and playing guitar; one who, without being very original, got very good. Like most of the songs, this one is credited to Long, but is rather a variant on existing elements than anything brand new (as is pretty well inevitable in blues).
“Hell Cat” has Fred Kaplan doing a bluesy equivalent to Blind John Davis on piano—very solid—and then back we are with the solo Delta singer-guitarist on “Blues and Boogie-Woogie” at a medium tempo associated with very dirty dancing. However, this isn’t quite in the same class as Long’s mentor, Homesick James Williamson, whose mighty swing probably owes a lot to his having worked in country areas in the early 1920s (and a lot also to a huge talent rather wasted on post-1950 recordings, where his wonderfully loose timing was lost in something more metronomic).

“Foot Stompin’ Daddy” also misses that (presumably unique) edge of swing, and there is only the faintest touch of an echo of John Lee Hooker. There’s more Robert Johnson: imagine a Johnsonian in Detroit in 1950? I could also mention Vern Harrison, known as “Boogie Woogie Red”, who did manage to record a few tracks of his best—to recur to the theme of Long not being recorded until now—aged fifty-ish.

Kaplan is back for the nicely named “Stranglevine”, opened by Long on rack harmonica, from which he squeezes expressive music over the solid pianist’s playing. The musical basis of this is Big Bill Broonzy’s “The Sun Gonna Shine…”, which is all right, as Long simply performs. Nothin’ to prove! “Johnny’s Jump” is a boogie-bass based harmonica-guitar instrumental, and when he pauses upstairs to let his fingers do the work, he’s not imitating anybody. “Mean Ole Rootin’ Ground Sloth” is a patent metaphor; sloths hang in trees. They do, however, have claws. The obvious echoes in a guitar part which recalls other people are Broonzy and Robert Johnson. He can play quite a lot on the harmonica: not a case of look—no hands!, but look—only two!, and be busily competent on guitar. “Greyhound Driver” is a bus blues with guitar and some touches of slide, while “Healin’ Touch” is a pop song that could be smothered in Nashville schmaltz if unlucky, of a kind also delivered with Edwardian sentimentality by Lonnie Johnson over the fifty years of his career. Long plays a more blues-based guitar style with this intriguing oddity.

“Leavin’ St. Louis” is standard vocal/guitar blues, for the first take, with some Jimmy Reed squee-eezed harmonica. The guitar on the final track,  “Leavin’ St. Louis [Piano Version]” is electric, and Fred Kaplan is stomping again behind Long’s singing and sometimes slide guitar. A nice groove is established between the two, and Long keeps time and harmony discreetly during Kaplan’s own Otis Spann-influenced foray to the front. The Spannisms come to the fore as the track progresses. Otis Spann has been dead thirty-six years! And the opening track reprises music put on disc seventy-six years ago. “Retro” is a word for idiots, salesmen, and enemies of listening and thinking. “Welcome” is not too strong a word for this music.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/john-long-lost-and-found/