David Bromberg wryly noted back in the day that as an authentic form of black expression in America, white people who sing and play the blues are really enacting “Someone Else’s Blues”. While Bromberg was (mostly) being funny in his portraits of the gap between the blues music of the poor and middle-class angst, white artists performing the work of old blues masters such as Memphis Minnie’s (“Nothing in Rambling”) and Bessie Smith’s (“Down Hearted Blues”) as Eilen Jewell does on her latest release, run the risk of sounding silly, campy, innocent, or just plain naïve. Who is Jewell to croon about the pain of a black woman during Jim Crow?
Jewell and her crack mostly acoustic instrumental ensemble (Jerry Miller, guitars; Shawn Supra upright bass; Jason Beek, drums) tackle this by playing clean and snappy. Jewell rarely lets her voice drags but jumps from syllable on cuts like “You’ll Be Mine”, but she ends sounding more like Little Red Riding Hood than the Howlin’ Wolf who originally performed it. While different artists can interpret material in a myriad of ways, Jewell’s charming rendition removes the danger expressed.
The blues often used songs about failed relationships as a metaphor for the racism and disparity of wealth in the larger society. That gave the material an added intensity. The person that done you wrong was more than just the particular cad but represented of all the pressures holding one down. The blues was a safe way to express one’s feelings of frustration and denial. Several of the songs here, like Betty James’ “I’m a Little Mixed Up”, offer confessions of one’s personal failings as a pretext for blaming the other for one’s problems.
Jewell revives old blues tunes and sings them with a sly ache in her voice. The songs may be out of context, but she makes them hers and her band’s through precise musicianship. There’s never a note of place. The original songs tended to be ragged as a sign of its legitimacy. Jewell’s not trying to be something she’s not. The songs have value in and of themselves. She presents them as works of art. The album succeeds because Jewell and company respect the source material.
For example, Jewell’s energetic take on Frankie Lee Sims’ enigmatic “Walkin’ With Frankie” will get one moving. The tension between serving one’s Lord and the feeling of desire get all confused in the name of the higher spirit; a big Amen to that. She turns Little Walter’s “Crazy Mixed Up World” into an itch one can’t stop scratching. Yeeow! When Jewell croons that she can’t control herself, you believe that just may be true.
Or not. Jewell and company offer pristine versions of wonderful blues tunes from America’s past. That’s both its strength of the record and its greatest weakness. Some people like street food and others enjoy more healthful alternatives rooted in these dishes. When Jewell asks to be buried next to the railroad tracks on Moonshine Kate’s tale of woe, “Poor Girl’s Story”, you think Jewell doesn’t mean it even if she sings otherwise. She’s no hobo. One’s enjoyment of this disc depends on how you like your music served, with a side of artifice or a slice of realism.