Memphis Blues Box

‘The Memphis Blues Box’ Proves Memphis Is the Blues Capitol of the World

The impressive, comprehensive, and massive The Memphis Blues Box includes old butt-kicking songs along with astoundingly good contemporary music.

The Memphis Blues Box - Original Recordings First Released on 78s and 45s, 1914–1969
Various Artists
Bear Family
15 December 2023

There are many excellent songs about Memphis, which David Byrne has pointed out is the “home to Elvis and the ancient Greeks”. Masterful Contemporary musicians from Chuck Berry (“Memphis, Tennessee”) to Bob Dylan (“Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”) to Tom T. Hall (“That’s How I Got to Memphis” to John Hiatt (“Memphis in the Meantime”) have written great songs with Memphis in the title, and that’s not to mention all the cover versions of these tunes by artists like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, notable other songs by wonderful talents such as Lucinda Williams (“Memphis Pearl”), King Curtis (“Memphis Soul Stew”), Chris Stapleton (” Midnight Train to Memphis”) to classic songs that take place in Memphis like Paul Simon’s “Graceland”, Joni Mitchell’s “Furry Sings the Blues,  and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary”. The list goes on and on.

Indeed there are many reasons for Memphis’ magical hold on modern musicians. Rather than pontificate, let me point you to the answer. The Bear Family record label has just released a monster anthology: The Memphis Blues Box – Original Recordings 1914–1969. It contains 20 CDs and 534 tracks, with a total playing time of around 25 hours and 20 minutes. The boxset also comes with a 360-page hardcover book and weighs close to ten pounds. It includes researched biographies of every performer and notes about each song.

These songs were initially recorded for public consumption and played at house gatherings, juke joints, bars, and nightclubs where people got together and partied. The world considerably changed during the 50 years covered, and this is reflected in the musical styles that evolved from jug bands to hard-edged R&B and everything in between. Memphis is the center of the blues world.

The amount of great music on these discs is pleasantly overwhelming. It’s not surprising that popular entrants from the far past, such as the Memphis Jug Band, Memphis Minnie, and Jimmie Lunceford, kick butt. Nor is it unexpected that more contemporary artists such as Bukka White, Little Milton, and Bobby Bland offer astoundingly material. Their names are well-known among blues music aficionados. Sides by the most famous Memphis denizens such as Elvis Presley, Ike and Tina Turner, and Albert King fit well with their regional cohorts.

The songs’ most common themes are sex and drugs and frequently include alcohol and cheating lovers. The tunes oftentimes bemoan the double standards of racism and gender relations when it comes to having fun. The performers, as are most of their audiences, are poor and black. When times are good, the singers celebrate. And when they are bad, the performers use music as a way to escape reality. Titles such as the Beale Street Sheiks’ “It’s a Good Thing” and Will Shade’s “She Stabbed Me with an Ice-Pick” boldly proclaim their topics. The songs may contain clever wordplay, but nothing is subtle about their contents.

To give a detailed breakdown of themes and trends of the more than 500 tracks would go beyond the scope of this review. Selecting highlights from the wealth of material ignores that each song is important and noteworthy. There’s a natural tendency to celebrate the songs that became famous because they were re-recorded and made popular by more recent artists, like (Gus) Cannon’s Jug Stompers’ “Walk Right In” (1929), which became a hit for the folk revival band the Rooftop Singers in 1963, or the Memphis Jug Band’s “Stealin’ Stealin'”, which has been covered by many fine artists including the Grateful Dead and the Yardbirds, or Jim Jackson’s “Hesitatin’ Blues” of which there are more than 50 renditions by everyone from Louis Armstrong to Janis Joplin to Willie Nelson to Justin Townes Earle. Several songs crossed over to the wider public, such as Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88”, Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train”, and Booker T and the MGs’ “Green Onions”.

The Memphis Blues Box is a welcome addition to those seeking to learn about America’s musical heritage without being stuffy or archival. The music is fun even when the topics are serious. The blues are at the heart of nearly all popular music today, and Memphis is where much of it originated.

RATING 9 / 10