By Bruce Sylvester
“In the beginning, there were records but not yet collectors. Or were there?!” So opens the essays in Shanachie Records’ imprint Yazoo’s rustic Americana feast, The Return of the Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of”: Acoustic blues, stirring gospel, fiddle-driven hillbilly, and more from the 1920s and ‘30s. There’s quill playing from northern Mississippi and high-pitched Cajun singing from southwestern Louisiana’s bayous.
Bad men and desperados (Stack O’ Lee, Betty’s lover Dupree) and mythical heroes on the job (Casey Jones, John Henry) abound in this musical folk literature where bloodshed (“Texas Rangers”) forms our history.
The two-CD, 46-track set’s predecessor, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made of (Yazoo/Shanachie, 2006) concentrated on rarities, meaning that a collector’s scratchy old 78 platter could be a track’s only available source. Return of the Stuff is based more on artistry than rarity (though obscurities are wondrously present) so this set’s audio is often much better. Just forgive the surface noise on Geeshie Wiley’s eerie, even Skip James-like “Last Kind Word Blues” (originally on Paramount). Back in the ‘20s, Paramount made woefully little effort at clean sound as it recorded many of the greats of early recorded blues.
Folk music is endlessly recycled. Willie Walker’s “Dupree Blues” has a line that Blind Lemon Jefferson and then Carl Perkins and the Beatles used in “Matchbox Blues”/”Matchbox.” Rev. Robert Wilkins does a non-Biblical variant of his “Prodigal Son” (a future Rolling Stones cover) with the line “They treated me like my heart was made of a rock of stone.” Ernest Stoneman and Kahle Brewer’s “Lonesome Road Blues” presages Woody Guthrie’s “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad.” Lottie Kimbrough’s “Rolling Log Blues” was the basis for Buffy Sainte-Marie’s ‘60s song of the same name.
But decades after the fact, when Charlie Patton wistfully sings, “Some of these days I am going away,” it seems like he could almost be singing about his musical style.
The box also includes Blind Willie Johnson, Bukka White, Furry Lewis (of whom Joni Mitchell sang), Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers, and Tommy Johnson (whom Chris Thomas King played fictionally in O Brother, Where Art Thou?). There’s no Skip James here, but – admirably – Yazoo has already put out 18-track The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James: 1930 within its line of single-artist reissues.
Curiously – or maybe appropriately – the box’s 52-page booklet mainly delves into, not the songs or performers, but the obsession to collect back in the ‘60s, be it at flea markets or by walking door to door, ringing the bells of elderly strangers in black neighborhoods, in search of old platters they no longer wanted. An essay by R. Anthony “Flea” Lee paints quite a ludicrous portrait of the late John Fahey on his journeys seeking what were then considered to be the holy grails of early blues. (I’m too embarrassed to admit what I once did at a yard sale back in the pre-CD era in grabbing a Buddy Holly LP with “Valley of Tears” from a fellow collector who was even my friend.)
As Shanachie president Richard Nevins writes in the notes’ conclusion, “Often times at collector’s get-togethers, the question is posed, ‘What is the single greatest record of all time?’ Most temperate people tend to reply that there are ‘so many’ great records and so much is dependent on the tastes and inclinations of individuals. Not me! I always state with no hesitation or qualification whatsoever that the greatest record of all time is “Sail Away Ladies” by Uncle Dave Macon and His Fruit Jar Drinkers. No other record has ever combined in one performance such high degrees of joyous celebration, uninhibited exuberance, emotive expressiveness (especially in the tune’s transcendent high part), pure power, and infectious rhythm. This one record exemplifies what rural American music was all about and why the grand recordings that preserve it are the stuff that dreams are made of.”