By Bruce Sylvester
Besides the Northeast’s color-drenched fall foliage, one of every October’s delights for me is the arrival of Blues Images’ annual 12×24-inch wall calendar for the next year. As ever, each month’s illustration is a reproduction of the original ad for a vintage blues 78 RPM platter. An accompanying 20-track CD presents these songs plus eight bonus tracks – some the flip sides of songs on the calendar, while others are back-to-back sides of a rare vintage disc that isn’t on the calendar. The 2016 CD, 20 Classic Blues Songs from the 1920’s, Vol. 13, can also be bought separately from the calendar through blues devotee John Tefteller’s Oregon-based Blues Images (www.bluesimages.com).
Since the obscurities generally come from collectors’ 78s, the audio can be scratchy. This year’s good news is that Blues Images has teamed up with the creators of American Epic, a three-part documentary on 1920s-’30s music that will air early next year on PBS and the BBC. The American Epic’s crew’s work cleaning up some (not all) of the 2016 CD’s songs is superb.
The 2016 calendar and CD extend from 1927 to 1933. We hear the famous (Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Barbecue Bob) as well as lesser-known artists such as Hattie Hyde (recording with Memphis Jug Band) and Charlie Kyle. The two sides from a 1930 Jaydee Short.78 come from the only copy of the disc known to exist.
The lyrics can be surprising. One of Johnson’s few topical songs, “When the War Was On” (recorded in 1929 with his wife) revives a World War I-era lament of wartime shortages, inflation, and rationing. (“President Wilson sitting on his throne/Making laws for everyone.”) Johnson’s audio is far better than Jefferson’s on “’Lectric Chair Blues” (August’s song) and its flip side “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” (a bonus track). Fortunately for us, Johnson recorded on Columbia (which sought clean audio), whereas Jefferson was on Paramount (which paid little attention to audio quality), so it’s likely that Johnson’s original 78s sounded much cleaner than Jefferson’s when they were brand new.
October’s Halloween-fitting track is Spark Plug Smith’s soft-spoken “Vampire Woman.” Did he treat the word vampire as if it’s interchangeable with vamp?
December’s track, as ever, is religious. This time it’s “The High Cost of Sin” by Black Billy Sunday (Rev. Dr. J. Gordon McPherson in real life) followed by its original flip side, “Will You Spend Eternity in Hell,” which opens with women happily singing “Ain’t gonna study war no more” (a line the Weavers turned political in their “Down by the Riverside”) before Sunday delivers a fearsome fire-and-brimstone sermon. To some listeners’ minds back then, blues and religion could go together. To some other listeners’ minds, they couldn’t. They go together quite well on Blues Images’ 2016 calendar/CD.