By Bruce Sylvester
As many devotees of classic blues know, the annual 12”x24” wall calendars from Blues Images (www.bluesimages.com) are a pure treat for their 12”x12” reproductions of illustrated black-and-white ads for twelve 78 RPM platters from the early days of recorded blues. Then there's the accompanying CD with each of those songs plus 12 bonus tracks.
The 2015 package is an especial wonder for bringing to our ears Tommy Johnson's rare 1929 “Ridin' Horse”/”Alcohol and Jake Blues” (Paramount 12950) taken from a 78 someone in South Carolina found in an estate sale and auctioned off on eBay. Blues Image's John Tefteller won it with a whopping $37,100 bid. The only copy of the disc that was previously known to exist was in wretched condition, so Tefteller went all out to win a better copy. “Ridin' House” (a “C.C. Rider” variant) has cleaner sound than “Alcohol,” which Johnson may have felt spoke to his own life. (Fans of the Coen Brothers' “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” may recall Chris Thomas King's fictionalized portrayal of Johnson.)
So what else do we find among the CD's 24 tracks spanning1927-35 (often both sides of a platter)?
For a start, there are two variants of “Match Box Blues” from Blind Lemon Jefferson. The first was done March 14, 1927, in Atlanta at his only session for Okeh Records. The other (the roots of Carl Perkins' and then the Beatles' covers) came a month later in Chicago for Paramount Records with plenty of different lyrics. On Okeh, the Paramount version's classic opener (“I'm sittin' here wonderin', will a match box hold my clothes?”) is pushed back to be the second verse, with Lemon later musing, “I don't mind marrying, Lord, settlin' down. I'm gonna act like a preacher so I can ride from town to town.”
Blues players often used pseudonyms so they could increase their income despite contractual restrictions with one label or another. Irene Scruggs sang as Chocolate Brown on the first (of her three) recordings of coy “You Got What I Want” with guitarist Blind Blake offering call-and-response jive. As for the Halloween month selection, pianist Roosevelt Sykes (so dapper in the calendar's photo) called himself Dobby Bragg when he put down voodoo-laced “Conjur Man” for Paramount since he was already under contract to Okeh. Later on the CD, in “Little Sow Blues” he uses barnyard animals for sexual metaphors and then sings, “I don't want no woman don't give me 15 cents a day.” Could 15 cents per diem get him very far in 1929?
Elsewhere, Blake's “Dry Bone Shuffle” is a jaunty bones/guitar ragtime duet. Cannon's Jug Stompers' good-time “Walk Right In” was adapted in 1963 into a number 1 hit by the Rooftop Singers (whose version appeared in Forest Gump).
For December's holiday selection, The Famous Blue Jay Singers of Birmingham deliver polyphonal “Clanka A Lanka,” whose flip side, “I'm Leaning on the Lord,” ends the CD. In contrast to the rough edges in the blues, their classic black gospel harmonizing is sublime.
Remastered from rare 78 RPM discs, a few tracks' audio is scratchy, but that's a small trade-off to be able to hear these songs at all.