By Mike Greenblatt
In 2002, blues fan and record dealer John Tefteller heard about a stash of rare images and ads for pre-World War II blues artists that literally had been rescued from the trash years before by a pair of history-minded newspaper reporters in Grafton, Wis. Tefteller acquired the collection and knew he wanted to share the historic photographs and artwork from the Paramount Record Company with other fans of the blues. He settled on a wall calendar format, and the first Blues Images calendar arrived to mark the days in 2004.
For 2013, Tefteller’s Blues Images calendar celebrates its 10th anniversary in fine style. The cover features a 1930 ad for “The Devil And God Meet At Church,” taken from a sermon by The Rev. Emmet Dickenson. (Most of the blues singers of the era also recorded gospel material. Apparently, you could sing about liquor and women on Saturday night and Jesus on Sunday morning, and it was all good.)
“This year, I dipped a little bit more than usual outside the normal Paramount catalog,” he said. “The picture of Memphis Minnie is from Vocalion Records, and there’s ‘new’ portraits of Blind Willie Johnson (Columbia) and Clifford Gibson (Victor).”
A 21-track companion CD brings these long-ago and far-away sounds from their original 78 RPM discs — for which only one or two copies may still exist — to the modern ear with as few scratches, bumps and clicks as possible.
“We try to make each calendar unique unto itself to feature discovered items,” Tefteller said. “Richard Nevins’ mastering techniques are the best. His work at Yazoo had the best sound quality of all the pre-war blues records, and that’s why I went to him to ask if he’d work on these recordings 10 years ago when we first started. As he’s continued to work over the years, he’s been refining his techniques, and it’s simply astounding the kind of sound he gets even on battered-up records.”
The CD starts with 1927’s haunting “Dark Was The Night Cold Was The Ground” by Blind Willie Johnson, a lyric-less burst of moaning that was one of a few pieces of important music launched into space a few years back. Johnson, born in 1897, refused to move out of his house that burned to the ground in 1945, preferring to live amid the ruinous ashes; he died months later of malaria and syphilis.
Historians disagree whether Blind Lemon Jefferson had a heart attack on the cold Chicago streets or simply froze to death on Dec. 19, 1929. But a few months before his death, he recorded his “Peach Orchard Mama,” a hot, sexy stew that’s bursting with life.
Blind Blake’s very last record was as backup guitarist on Laura Rucker’s “Fancy Tricks.” There is only one known existing original 78 RPM recording of this song.
Ardelle Bragg’s “Pig Meat Blues” is a nasty, delicious invocation of sexuality that has nothing whatsoever to do with pork; in those days, “pig meat” was a slang term for slut. Paramount’s ad, however, shows a woman dishin’ out slop for her pig to eat. The song alone is worth the price of admission: Bragg is backed by jazz piano player Tiny Parham, and she gets her point across with a sassy, ballsy swagger. Bragg only recorded eight sides in her whole career.
Paramount Records made sure it had a lot of whiskey on hand when Big Bill Broonzy, Georgia Tom Dorsey and Mozelle Alderson, known collectively as Harum Scarum, recorded their “Alabama Scratch Parts 1 & 2” in January 1931 at Paramount’s Wisconsin recording studio. The musical melee that ensued is the direct result.
“If you went out to buy the original 78s in nice condition of all 21 songs,” says Tefteller, “that is, if all the planets aligned and you could actually find them for sale somewhere, it would cost you almost $100,000 for what you’re hearing on this CD.”