Jimmy Burns: Back to the Delta

Jimmy Burns
Back to the Delta

A little like some jazz musicians a few years older, Jimmy Burns had a mixed career in and out of music, the one big thing being a day job. Then came the dawn of middle age, more or less woodshedding, then instant status as by no means yet a veteran. He’s fresh, technically experienced, and highly accomplished.

The liner note is very interesting, about Burns’s history, even making records in the soul/R&B idiom of his adolescence, and the decision to stay in touch with music but make a decent living as a carpenter. Finally, on hearing some youngsters trying to play blues a few years back, he realised how much he knew and understood about that music. He realised what he could do — and diagnosed his guitar-playing as mostly out of practice.

Around the time Burns was conceived, Alan Lomax was in the very delta cited in this disc’s title with a Library of Congress recording machine. Until being brought north to Chicago by his parents at the age of twelve, the future bluesman had a lot of older music near him, not to mention his father, Albert Burns, who seems to have been accomplished at least along the lines of Jimmy’s older brother Eddie. Eddie’s newborn cries were roughly contemporary with the earliest recordings of people Lomax was hunting before Jimmy was ready. Jimmy was still a little boy down south when Eddie began to record in Detroit, playing harmonica very well with John Lee Hooker. Eddie’s later development as a guitarist had a bigger hearing when in 1966 he played a major part on a Chess album date with the then declining (subsequently revived, now alas departed) Hooker. It was a rare accomplishment to be able actually to play with, and I mean with, Hooker. Most of his recordings over his final forty years involved attempts to retain enough of Hooker’s brilliant idiosyncrasy to be interesting, while restraining any business liable to clash with the settings he had to be given to avoid superficial monotony.

European collectors tended to cherish the earliest often crude Hooker recordings as much better than anything Hooker did in the less ad hoc setting of his Veejay contract. Chess seemed to be after the older sound, and it worked. It’s worth mentioning this is to emphasise what musical depth Eddie Burns had, and has. His brother’s awareness has similar depth, if in less detail and (until some years back) mostly subliminal. Jimmy may not be at his best even yet, but his band’s comparable with the not-that-extensive discography of 1950s blues bands recorded before the art house type of concern began to operate. Delmark of course extended from art house to be also an exceptionally honest local concern.

“Stranded in Clarksdale” is a decent enough musical example. It might remind some listeners of Hooker, but there’s a sufficiently extensive and valuable range of precedents for this sort of two-guitar (with and without bass or bass and drums) front line and sound. The other expert guitarist is Kevin Shanahan, and while the entrance of slide guitar passages does remind me of some Muddy Waters band performances, there were quite a few by Waters’s bands no better and at times even below this. Compare the album Prestige made of the Waters band fronted by Otis Spann and James Cotton. Jimmy Burns hasn’t the Muddy Waters voice, but who ever had? This is decent stuff. “I Feel Like Going Home” is a respectable enough performance, steeped in a famous original. Vocally, the imitation of some Muddyisms holds out hopes of emulation: singers can and do get even better. Jimmy Burns does come near to apologising that this song isn’t autobiography; somebody should have him add Victoria Spivey’s “Christmas Mornin’ Blues” to his repertoire, a similar little novel in verses, seventy years older.

A little weak in the vocal part, “Country Boy in the City” does demonstrate that this band has its own identity, with or without a second guitarist, or Roosevelt Purifoy’s piano — the pianist is good enough without being sufficiently physically involved as yet. Otis Spann, Henry Gray, and Little Johnny Jones really pounded a way into the ensemble. They were as good as they were because they didn’t need to try to keep out of anybody’s way. By the highest standards the band occasionally gets a little loose because too careful.

These great Chicago band pianists couldn’t have played on things like the instrumental “Groovin’ with Jimmy”, which shift nearer a jazz direction with a sophisticated flavour of funk. For variety.

“Who’s Been Using That Thing?” is really together and the band’s at its best and first rate. “All About My Woman” is Burns self-accompanied and loosely reminiscent of Johnny Shines, say, when he did the same sort of thing in his later career. “Nice and Easy” has taken lessons in soul music, “You’re My Desire” is maybe nearer Robert Lockwood, with a kind of rock and roll lyric, and “Some Day Baby” comes nearer a sort of thing the already ancient Sonny Boy Williamson did with much younger musicians behind him in the 1960s. The influences mingle, but Jimmy Burns can hold things together on a performance very different from anything by Sleepy John Estes, the song’s composer. Some vocal mannerisms make plain that Jimmy Burns knows his Estes, and is deepening his vocal technique. He’s plainly a versatile guitarist, which can cause some people problems: too many options makes finding the exact right note no easier, and risks an unwanted slickness, here avoided: trying to be a decent blues stylist, and succeeding.

“How Many More Years” owes only words and tune to Howlin’ Wolf, no pastiche — and Purifoy comes nearest to digging in on piano.

On “Yonder Come Miss Rosie” you know Burns has heard a lot of people, but the distinctive rooted sound is his own. The pianist fits best of all here, where the guitar is quieter and more country. The dance piece that concludes this set is one to jive to. Good piano, but possibly as elsewhere a bit more sock and oomph — more freedom from carefulness from the sidemen — could have lifted this music into a class above what there’s any reason even to hope for these days.

I leave to the end the title of the CD and the opening tracks. It’s good fun having the man himself in the paperwork’s photos wearing rustic coveralls and looking like a silver-moustached business executive posing on the stoop of a few-room country shack. The stomping excellence of “Red Hot Mama” comes as a shock after the relative mediocrity of “Stop the Train” and the, well, [pardonable lapse] of “Back to the Delta”, emotionally shrill blues in sleevenotese. I won’t say don’t talk about it, do it. Jimmy Burns has been doing it for some time.