Various Artists: Blues From Up the Country

Various Artists
Blues from Up the Country

In celebrating their 50th year releasing jazz and blues, Delmark is offering a budget-priced series that is not to be missed. Blues From Up the Country is one of the albums, an unlikely contender for industry recognition outside of the blues circuit. This collection likely isn’t played much on radio anywhere, but since the news traveled out through the grapevine, more than a quarter million copies have sold from just one major online retailer. It would be fitting and fun if a miracle happens and this ends up being a million seller for Delmark. After half a century in the record business, dedicated to releasing “colloquial music” “made by unpretentious people”, Delmark is more than deserving of a framed gold record glittering down from their office wall. As to who made the cut on this outing — blues fans, take a casual scan of the 11 names on this compilation: Big Joe Williams, Robert Nighthawk, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Sleepy John Estes, Jimmy Burns, Curtis Jones, Yank Rachell, Champion Jack Dupree, J.D. Short, Jimmy Rogers, Blind Willie McTell. Just reading those names might be enough to instill a yearning that grows into a nagging desire to hear all the music on this record. It’s easy to see why anyone wanting a slice of the real old-timey deal will gravitate towards this release.

Drawn from Delmark’s impressive vault, Blues From Up the Country spotlights blues that is representative of the rural South. Take a close look at the candid photo of Big Joe Williams on the cover. Brownsville, Tennessee, 1961.

Described as a “walking musician”, Williams was as easy about playing in an alley or on a porch as he was for work camp crews or juke patrons (Barry Pearson, All Music Guide). The roughly traveled bluesman Williams is a suitable character to open this particular disc. Even though his “49 Highway Blues” will challenge any listener, as it’s impossible to make out more than half of the words he sings, the words sometimes mumbled or dropped off entirely. Yet the mood comes through the nearly unintelligible lyrics: Williams is tough enough in 1961 to deal with a chilly balled up world.

Williams carries his powerful gruff singing into an eerie falsetto as the need comes up for him. The tone of that voice together with his strong, percussive playing on that buzzing weird nine-string guitar is likely all anyone needs hear to suspect something of what he is singing about. The lyrics, his eerie atonal playing in an ordinary open tuning, the drone strings as off kilter as a life buffeted about on the road, and his brawny voice, still powerful though chipped away for years at all the edges. All combine into the sonic equivalent of a sharp icicle that slowly bumps up every vertebra in the backbone before running back down again. A major figure in Chicago’s early ’60s blues revival, Williams would often stop in and live at Delmark owner Bob Koestler’s record store in Chicago when he wasn’t on the road.

Cool as ice also describes Robert Nighthawk back in 1951, advising that “Crying Won’t Help You”. But that mood shifts when edging into the offerings by some really obscure players. They drag out their staggered rhythms on scratchy old timey country blues that sound just as strangely good today as back when they were etched into wax for posterity. Sleepy John Estes, sounding ancient by 1964, rasps out “Beale Street Sugar”, with a country sound of mandolin, harmonica, and acoustic guitar pounding out an explanation of what he might mean by “sugar” (and that’s not the “sugar” that’s put in tea). Who’d care to miss the rare chance to hear the jug band chug of Yank Rachell on mandolin and the puffing squeal of Hammie Nixon’s harmonica on “I’m Gonna Get up in the Morning” as immortalized in 1963. The first words sputtered out by Yank’s fractured voice are “Babe, I believe / And I believe I’ll go back home” before he admits “My babe says I ain’t good for nothing, but I just keep on hanging around”. Called useless and lazy by the very person who once loved him, he immediately voices a mean, honest wish to repay that hurt in greater kind, “Some of these days I’m gonna tear your reputation down”.

If a listener prefers more modern sounding blues, then Arthur Crudup’s late dated 1967 but still crazed pie-plate banjo-y sounding guitar on his “That’s All Right” can be easily balanced by the smooth, understated crooning of Jimmy Rogers. Rogers eases out his own slow turning blues, a completely different song also called “That’s All Right”, where the subdued guitar, bass, voice, and piano are woven together naturally as strands of DNA. On this song, recorded in 1949 when house rent parties existed as more than a curiosity in history books, each instrument co-exists peacefully with the others, each completely certain of its role, place, and duty, and each and every one completely devoid of any overarching display of bedazzling solos. Taken altogether, these voices combine to create a vision that is all of one piece — silky smooth, and very urbane sounding despite the spontaneous down-home eruptions, those shouts of “Glory Hallelujah!”

If a cosmopolite, the blues listener might prefer the dimly lit 1962 nightclub solo sound of Curtis Jones tripping his complicated way along the ivory and black keys. Step after step into only the bluest of modal notes make “Lonesome Bedroom Blues” a blues, but the quick shifting piano rhythm fills make the song sound a little jazzy.

If there is a single reason to grab this disc, it is to hear Champion Jack Dupree’s “Rub a Little Boogie”. This rollicking happy dance tune is a welcome chance to hear Dupree performing in a style not usually associated with him. His barrelhouse piano and upbeat singing are backed by persons unknown on old-time (for 1949) instruments of jug and washboard (or “boogie board” as Mr. Dupree refers to it in the lyrics), though Brownie McGhee was well known enough to be given credit for his guitar work.

Though a number of these tunes are ragged and raw country blues, there’s a wide range of latitude swaying in these old songs from the South. If you like the blues at all, and know how difficult (and expensive) it can be to come by these rarities bit by bit, you’ll feel a little foolish if you hesitate and let this one slip past. All assembled here in one place and for less than eight dollars, how could anyone have the nerve to complain about that?