By Bruce Sylvester
Reasons to love autumn are three (at least): the leaves’ glorious change of color, the pumpkin foods, and the arrival of Blues Images’ annual 12×24” wall calendar and accompanying CD – here, “23 Classic Blues Songs from the 1920’s, vol. 14.” Most months’ illustrations replicate an original ad for a a 78-RPM platter. The CD presents these tracks plus 11 bonus songs. Actually, regardless of the package’s title, the cuts extend from 1929 through 1935 plus, from 1949, two good-time retro country blues sides by the Mobile Strugglers.
To make our listening experience more like people’s experiences way back in the day, among the CD’s bonus tracks are flip sides of all but four of the 78s. Of those four absences, Texas street-corner evangelist Blind Willie Johnson’s “God Don’t Never Change,“ is already available anyhow.
The first bonus track, Blind Gussie Nesbitt’s 1935 “I’ll Just Ring My Hands and Cry,” segues well with December’s song, Willie Johnson’s spiritual “Let Your Light Shine on Me.”
The package’s creators at Oregon-based Blues Images (www.bluesimages.com) seek rare songs obtained from devoted collectors. Inevitably, rarity can go hand in hand with scratchy audio, though recent calendar/CDs have improved on this problem thanks to digital restoration not to mention collaboration with the staff of the four-part documentary “American Epic,” which PBS and BBC plan to air in 2017.
Just accept the fact that Skip James’s eerie 1931 “Illinois Blues”/Yola My Blues Away” (Paramount Records, 1931) has a lot of surface noise. The tracks come from the best of the four original copies known to exist.
“Louisiana Glide”/”Chain ‘Em Down”– the only disc that jovial barrelhouse pianist Blind Leroy Garnett cut under is own name – has surprisingly clean audio given that it too was done for Paramount, which (like Gennett) cared less about sound quality than Vocalion did.
Performers under contract to one label adopted pseudonyms at sessions for competing companies. Kansas Joe McCoy (husband of noted guitarist Memphis Minnie, who’s also in the package) became Joe Williams at a 1929 session in Memphis’s Peabody Hotel for Vocalion. (The better-known bluesman Joe Williams wasn’t yet recording.) Big Bill Broonzy became Big Bill Johnson when recording “I Can’t Be Satisfied”/”The Western Blues” at a 1930 session for Gennett. Only one copy of that platter has been located.
Each track on the calendar gets a one-paragraph description. We learn that the title of Blind Joe Reynolds’ “Nehi Blues” reflects Paramount Records’ misinterpreting his words. Nehi was a popular soft drink back then, but the calendar tells us that he was really singing “knee high” in reference to women’s skirts. After all, women are more important to the blues than soft drinks ever will be.