Seems you can get the blues just about anywhere these days: PBS documentaries and Starbucks checkout lines, via low-budget CD compilations and neighborhood dive bars with varying degrees of mediocrity. As a definition of sound and genre, “the blues” has broadened over the years — perhaps too liberally, for it’s now so oversimplified a term that Huey Lewis & the News’ “Bad Is Bad” would most likely (and most erroneously) fall under its jurisdiction. Truth is, the blues is more than 1-4-5 chord progressions and pentatonic scales, more than hard-luck pity narratives, more than Stevie Ray Vaughan-certified guitar licks and simple boogie struts. The sincerity of legitimate blues music transcends mere formalism and woe-is-me lyrical content; as Buddy Guy once told Rolling Stone magazine, “The blues is the truth.”
World Music Network’s The Rough Guide to the Blues does a decent job finding true blues manifestations throughout the decades. The compilation shoots for an ambitious, 86-year overview in the span of just 22 tracks, beginning with Mamie Smith’s 1920 hit “Crazy Blues” (the first vocal blues recording ever by a black female singer) and ending, in Africa, with Ali Farke Touré’s “Erdi” from last year. For neophytes, it offers a crash course in blues history and iconography, spanning Delta blues (Charley Patton, Robert Johnson) and other early 20th Century Southern blues guitarists (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell), Chicago electric blues (Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy), and even latter-day players like Alligator Records artists Albert Collins and Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers, whose “Give Me Back My Wig” (1971) is a rowdy blast of garage blooze. Elmore James’s “It Hurts Me Too”, recorded in 1963 just three months before his death, is an unexpected highlight; it has just as much in common with soul music as it does the blues — to put it another way, it carries that blues truth over to a less rugged sensibility. Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s original version of “That’s All Right”, a song co-opted by a young Elvis Presley, is one of the compilation’s many reminders of the blues’ place in the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll. Besides the Touré track, the only other contemporary inclusion on the compilation is “Goin’ Down South”, Lyrics Born’s 2004 hip-hop-inspired makeover of R.L. Burnside’s song, and it hauls the blues unapologetically into the present.
While many of the biggest names in blues history are duly included on The Rough Guide to the Blues, some song selections seem a little too obvious, even for those just discovering the genre. John Lee Hooker is represented by his boogie-drowse archetype “Boom Boom”, for example; the Waters tune is “Mannish Boy”, of course, but curiously the version used is from a 1979 live record, not the superior 1955 Chess single. Other selections are just downright puzzling. B.B. King’s “Ain’t Nobody Home” is taken from a live performance, and the entire second half of its seven-minute runtime is devoted to introductions of band members. The version of Albert King’s trademark “Born Under a Bad Sign” comes from the 1979 Allen Toussaint-produced New Orleans Heat record, and pales in comparison to the sizzling original Stax single.
It’s difficult to recommend The Rough Guide to the Blues to one particular audience. There’s little here for aficionados, and as an introductory piece, a few misleading examples are set. Still, you could do far worse for preparatory genre compilations, and for all its missteps, The Rough Guide to the Blues has more than a general idea of where the good stuff can be found.