By Bruce Sylvester
For fans of early blues, one of the coolest wall calendars I’ve seen is Blues Images’ annual 12×24” offering. Each month’s illustration is a reprint of the original ad for a vintage 1920s-‘30s blues 78 RPM platter. An accompanying CD provides these songs plus six bonus tracks.
The 2011 calendar includes the Mississippi Delta’s primitive Charlie Patton and eerie Skip James. There’s also a previously unreleased test version of “Lonesome Home Blues” by Tommy Johnson (whom Chris Thomas King played in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”). Furry Lewis sings oft-covered bad-man ballad “Billy Lyons and Stack O’Lee” and (on a previously unissued alternate take) “Cannon Ball Blues.” December’s holiday-season offering is Atlanta preacher J.M. Gates’s “Will The Coffin Be Your Santa Claus?”
The calendar provides a 10-line description for each month’s song. It says that Kokomo Arnold’s 1935 “Sissy Man Blues” is one of the earliest blues recordings with gay references (though Ma Rainey’s “Prove It On Me Blues” preceded Arnold’s song by eight years). Rainey’s superstitious “Black Cat Hoot Owl Blues” (1928) is a perfect selection for October’s song.
The collection’s big surprise for me is 1929’s two-part “Dentist Chair Blues” by none other than Oscar-winning actress Hattie McDaniel and Papa Charlie Jackson. Victoria Spivey (“Toothache Blues”) and Dinah Washington (“Long John Blues”) too used dentistry for lascivious double entendres, but McDaniel’s rapturous moans are especially unexpected given the persona she later created as Scarlett O’Hara’s Mammy in “Gone With The Wind.” Just fogive McDaniel’s track’s scratchiness since it comes from a collector’s rare 78 platter and, besides, it was recorded for Paramount, which paid little heed to audio quality. Most of the CD’s songs have much cleaner audio, though their lyrics often aren’t much cleaner.
The 2011 calendar is volume 8 in Blues Images’ ongoing series. Past CDs remain in print for anyone who wants to order one (www.bluesimages.com), so let me close by mentioning volume 5’s surprise treasures: two 1931 Atlanta recordings long identified simply as by Mary Willis. Her duet partner turns out to be none other than Piedmont picker Blind Willie McTell.