By Bruce Sylvester
Among fall's annual pleasures is the arrival of Blues Images' 12x24” wall calendar/CD package. Each month's 12x12” illustration is an original ad for a vintage country blues platter or a publicity portrait of its performers with an accompanying paragraph on the cut.
Besides the 12 songs on the calendar, the CD also boasts 11 bonus tracks – some a featured song's flip side. They range from the relaxed, good-time Piedmont blues of Blind Blake to the dark Mississippi Delta blues of Charley Patton. We hear little-known performers (Otto Virgial) along with blues heroes (Blind Lemon Jefferson). The CD closes with both sides of a rare 1928 William Harris 78 RPM platter.
Tracks' audio quality ranges from excellent to dicey. Blues Images head John Tefteller says of Patton's scary “Oh Death” (October's song), “Recorded with his wife, Bertha Lee, in New York City on Wednesday, January 31, 1934, 'Oh Death' is Charley Patton's gospel masterpiece! Surprisingly, it sold almost nothing when first released, which explains why there are only two known surviving copies – both in beyond beat-up condition. Blues Images, wanting to showcase this record since beginning our calendar series in 2004, has waited in vain for a clean copy to surface. Even spending a boatload of money for the best possible restoration couldn't fix all the problems because sound cannot be recovered in spots where the grooves are literally wiped off the disc. Though we are never going to stop searching for a clean copy, fans of Charley Patton may find that this latest restoration of 'Oh Death' is probably as good as it gets.” Devotees such as me will gladly suffer through the surface noise in order to hear the gripping song at all.
Yes, we also get its flip side (“Troubled 'bout My Mother”), and no, in terms of lyrics Patton's “Oh Death” is nothing like the bluegrass standard of that title. Similarly, Harris's “I'm a Roamin' Gambler” has no similarity to the white folk song “Rovin' Gambler” done over the decades by Tennessee Ernie Ford, the Everly Brothers, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, and others. A song title can be reused on totally dissimilar ballads, as can lyrics in traditional songs. Sam Butler's line about the chilly Jordan River resurfaces in “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.”
Similarly, Virgial's “Got the Blues about Rome” recycles a verse of “Matchbox Blues.” Talk about strutting, he then brags, “I got 19 women, I believe I want one more. That one more'll suit me, gonna let the 19 go.” As for laments, Memphis Minnie tells the sad news of the day on “Ma Rainey” (recorded in Chicago in 1940 for ARC) and elegizes her inspiration, Rainey, who'd died the year before. (“She left little Minnie to carry her good work on.”) Including a Rainey cut among the CD's bonus tracks would have given more context to Minnie's tribute.
Despite the package's 1920s date, it reaches as close to today as 1955. Tefteller writes in the calendar's introduction, “As the owner of many of the world's rarest records, I say it's high time to include postwar blues – at least the super rarities. That's why January features an exclusively postwar artist, Papa George Lightfoot, with his debut disc – rumored about for decades but surfacing just 10 years ago. Recorded in his hometown of Natchez, Mississippi, for Sultan Records, 'Winding Ball Mama'/'Snake Hipping Daddy' has been dubbed from the only known copy.” Yes, it's good.