Eilen Jewell: Down Hearted Blues

Photo: Joanna Chattman

Jewell and company offer pristine versions of wonderful blues tunes from America’s past.

Eilen Jewell

Down Hearted Blues

Label: Signature Sounds
US Release Date: 2017-09-22

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.






'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.