A Salute to the Delta Blues Masters is a newly packaged set featuring today’s blues artists performing the songs of Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. This three-CD boxed set includes the recent blues tribute albums: Hellhound on My Trail (Johnson), Down the Dirt Road (Patton), and Preachin’ the Blues (McDowell). Each CD has been previously released individually by Telarc.
Each of these all-star tributes is recorded with the spirit of the legendary men behind the Delta Blues sound firmly in mind. A “who’s who” of today’s blues performers provide their passion to make a powerful statement about the origins of the blues.
The anthologies feature the music each Delta master performed by the likes of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown Taj Mahal, Paul Geremia, and Honeyboy Edwards along with such celebrated newcomers as Chris Thomas King, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Susan Tedeschi.
If the blues has a figure wrapped in mystery and myth, it is Robert Johnson. The legend of him selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads, his mysterious death, and the small number of recordings he left behind continues to make him one of the most celebrated figures in the history of the blues.
Johnson was a singer, a composer, and a guitarist of considerable skill. He produced some of the blues’ best music. With his talents taken away from the blues scene at an early age, he leaves behind an eerie figure that has become a theme for not only musicians but novelists and playwrights.
Johnson’s celebrated “Walking Blues” offers the talents of two young musicians. Derek Truck handles the guitar work, again showing that his ability allows him to cross genres to play in many styles. Truck’s wife and young diva Susan Tedeschi provides the vocals. Their combination on this disc may well foreshadow a duet CD.
Though small in number, many of Johnson’s recordings are blues standards such as “Love in Vain”, “Crossroads”, and “Sweet Home Chicago”. These were adapted by rock & roll artists from the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin to Eric Clapton, which will make the CD of Johnson’s songs familiar to many listeners.
Mississippi Fred McDowell has been quoted as saying, “I do not play no rock ‘n’ roll.” It was a statement from an original Delta bluesman. He was content using his roughed up vocals and slashing bottleneck style of guitar playing, remaining a real deal. That didn’t stop him from passing his musical secrets along to the next generation of blues players, many young, white musicians. Several of them used his style to develop slide guitar techniques of their own. Although generally lumped in with other blues “rediscoveries” McDowell was in a sense discovered. He wasn’t a full-time professional musician in the mid-’60s. Two of his albums released on the Arhoolie label in the mid-’60s had the folk-blues community taking notice. He was a bluesman with a repertoire of uncommon depth, putting it over with great emotional force.
His music and style was brought out by blues-rock artists like Bonnie Raitt, who recorded several of his tunes. And his classic “You Got to Move” was a standout on the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album.
Charley Patton is often considered Delta country blues’ first great star. Using an emotional singing style and his guitar mastery, he was more than a traveling musician. Patton was a celebrity and influenced musicians throughout the Delta. Patton did not have to go from town to town; instead, he would be called upon to play at dances, juke joints, and clubs.
In the ’20s, it was Patton’s recordings that could be heard on phonographs throughout the South. He was not the first Delta bluesman to record, but soon became one of the most popular. By the late ’20s he was a genuine star, a singing celebrity.
Patton’s “Moon Going Down” performed here by Corey Harris transports one back to a Delta street corner and gives a good indication of his talent. Unadorned by any accompaniment, it is just the guitar and the musician that makes one listen. This tune, followed as it is by Steve James doing “Shake It and Break It” (guitar and tuba), adds a more upbeat pace to the CD.
Charlie Musselwhite performs on two of the CDs. On both, he has put down the harmonica for his first instrument, the guitar. On the McDowell disk he does “61 Highway”, which was one of his featured songs in his Front Porch Blues tour last fall. On this, Musselwhite is also heard doing Johnson’s “Pea Vine Blues”.
A couple of things stand out in the boxed set. First is the quality and spirit the artists put into the project. Secondly, is the familiarity of the Delta songs, due in part to the fact they have been covered by the likes of Elvis and the Rolling Stones.
The CD’s are not an alternative to the original recordings but provide another way to enjoy and appreciate the beauty and in many cases the longevity of these songs. The collection won’t appeal to all, particularity the early blues fans. But for others, it is always a learning experience to hear these interpretations of the masters.
The anthologies also allow one to get a taste of a variety of artists. This set once again shows the talent of Kenny Neal as he frets his way through a McDowell tune called “Fred’s Worried Life Blues” playing both guitar and rack-harp.
The style of these tribute albums is good enough to have one browsing other tribute albums trying to find similar ones. As it is with many early recordings, the originals are pretty tough listening with occasional hisses and scratches and questionable sound quality. This collection moves the songs out of history and into the present and it sounds great with some very interesting tracks. This is done while for the most part sticking to the traditional instrumentation without adding additional orchestration.
As a blues offering, the boxed set can interest the committed blues fans, fans of the artists or the music fan familiar with the many covers from these CDs. The appeal to the Delta blues purist maybe limited but not because the artists haven’t tried their best.