by Bruce Sylvester
Every year, the vintage blues devotees at Oregon-based Blues Images put out a 12-inch-by-24-inch wall calendar, “Classic Blues Artwork from the 1920s.” Each month’s illustration is a reproduction of the picture on the sleeve of a 1926-32 blues platter on Paramount or Vocalion Records. (Of course, with 10-inch, 78 RPM pressings, there was enough space for art.)
For a few Vocalion acts, instead there’s a flyer for the artist including a photo. For elegant Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, we see an autographed photo (“to Palamida my gown designer”). Various days’ blocks on the calendar tell what significant blues events occurred then so you might learn that you share a birthday with a blues man or mama you dig.
As ever, the calendar comes with a CD with the songs advertised in the art – this time with 12 bonus tracks, three being B-sides of songs in the ads. We find both well known performers (Smith, Charlie Patton, the jovial Mississippi Sheiks) and obscure ones. The blues entwines with gospel on Rev. E.W. Clayborn’s “Your Enemies Cannot Harm You (but Watch Your Close Friends)” and Mother McCollum’s rock-foreshadowing “Jesus Is My Air-O-Plane.” The calendar gives a paragraph of pithy info on each month’s track.
In Furry Lewis’ 1926 “Good Looking Girl Blues” we hear the roots of Junior Parker’s and then Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train.” Henry Thomas’s 1928 “Bull Doze Blues” inspired Canned Heat’s 1968 “Goin’ up the Country” with the Heat substituting a flute for Thomas’s pan pipes.
When Papa Charlie Jackson sings, “The jails are full and the graveyard too of aggravating women just like you,” we glimpse the violence of these musicians’ worlds.
Might Patton’s “Mean Black Cat Blues” have gay references? They’re certainly found within some early blues artists’ catalogs, including Smith’s. (Her spooky “Blue Spirit Blues” for October is perfect for Halloween.)
Serious blues aficionados will forgive all the surface noise on Blind Blake’s jazzy “Miss Emma Liza” and Washboard Walter’s good-timey “She’s a Long Tall Disconnected Mama.” After all, so few copies of some songs are known to exist that we’re lucky to be able to hear them in any condition at all. Kudos to Blues Images’ leader John Tefteller and remastering man Richard Nevins for their work here.
You can check the calendar for yourself at www.bluesimages.com.