REAL FOLK BLUES! The George Mitchell Recordings

George_mitchell

There was a time when all an artist would need to make a good recording was their instrument, a microphone, and a tape recorder. In fact, some of the greatest and most influential recordings of our time were made in rural areas in the back of small country stores or small cabins on equipment that was powered a car battery.  Known as “field recordings”, these recordings were usually done by folklorists determined on documenting maters of American Roots music in a natural setting.

Personally, some of my favorite field recordings where done by music historian George Mitchell. Born in Coral Gables, Florida and raised in Athens, Georgia, Mr. Mitchell has recorded hundreds of hours of music, mostly by musicians who would’ve never been heard outside of their living room if it weren’t for him. He was the first to record Hill-Country Blues guitarist R.L. Burnside in 1967 in Mississippi, a recording session that yielded some the most heart-felt acoustic Blues ever recorded. He also was responsible for some excellent late-in-career recordings of Blues legends Fred McDowell and Furry Lewis.

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In 2008 Fat Possum records complied a large number of George Mitchell’s recordings for a massive 7-disc box-set simply titled “The George Mitchell Recordings Vol. 1-45”.  While the amount of music in this collection may have been perfect for the Blues connoisseur wanting to get completely stuffed on Mitchell’s field recordings, the collection lacked a certain intimacy you get when you focus on just one single artist’s session.  Thankfully, the good people at Fat Possum/Big Legal Mess Records realize this and over the years have released entire sessions from individual artists recorded by George Mitchell. Below are some of my very favorites… No studio tricks, no auto-tune, just a musician and their music.

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R.L. Burnside First Recordings  Recorded in 1968

A popular style of Blues played by musicians from Northern Mississippi, “Hill Country Blues” focuses more on creating a hypnotic rhythm and less on following a specific chord progression. While musicians such as Otha Turner, Jesse Mae Hemphill and Mississippi Fred McDowell (actually from Tennessee) are masters of this style, the two best known Hill Country Blues musicians are Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside.  Both Kimbrough and Burnside made their first recordings in the 1960’s with the latter recording for George Mitchell in 1968.

George Mitchell first caught wind of R.L. Burnside while recording another Hill Country Blues master, Otha Turner.  It was Turner who suggested to Mitchell that if he wanted to hear someone who could REALLY PLAY, he should check out his neighbor R.L. Burnside.  Although both Turner and Burnside where unknown to the outside world at the time they were very popular in their respective communities and masters of the their instrument.

During his session for Mitchell, Burnside performed excellent versions of Hill Country standards, “Poor Black Mattie”,  “Goin’ Down South” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin”. He also played a slow eerie-blues entitled “Just Like A Bird Without A Feather”, which is the best track on this wonderful album.

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JOE CALLICOT Ain’t Gonna Lie To You  Recorded in 1967

Recorded in 1967 and reminiscent of recordings by fellow guitarist Mississippi John Hurt,  AIN’T GONNA LIE TO YOU is a mix of Blues standards and Gospel numbers.  Also like Hurt, Joe’s voice isn’t the strongest in the world but yet it wonderfully complements his soft finger-picking guitar style. A perfect example of this is Joe’s beautiful rendition of the Folk standard “Frankie and Albert”.  While Joe’s career actually began in the 1920’s and included recording sessions and performances outside of Mississippi he was never a household name and even gave up music in the 1940’s. Fortunately for us he returned to recording after meeting George Mitchell in 1967.

 

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J.W. WARREN Life Ain’t Worth Livin’ Recorded in 1981 & 1982

 J.W. Warren was born in 1921 in Enterprise, Alabama.  Like many of the musicians recorded by George Mitchell, Warren was a farmer who mostly performed just for friends at parties and in local juke joints. The recordings on LIFE AIN’T WORTH LIVIN’ were done in Warren’s own home in Alabama by Mitchell on September 15th, 1981 and in March 27th, 1982.  Musically, Warren stuck mostly to traditional-sounding Country Blues. His powerful voice is best displayed on the tune “Hoboing Into Hollywood” and at times bares resemblance to the voice of Country Blues legend Bukka White.  Also like White, J.W. Warren was a slide guitar player who’s raw playing style helped him obtain local notoriety. He would scrap his jack-knife against the strings of his guitar to create the sound of a slide (documented here on the recording “My Mind Gets To Wandering”). Mostly a homebody, Warren never toured and rarely travelled out of his hometown. He lived out his final years at home in Ariton, AL, passing away on August 15th, 2003. Fortunately for us we can remember him through these excellent recordings.

ROBERT BELFOUR 1940-2015

Robert BelfourSimilar Artists: Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, Lightnin’ Hopkins

 

The Beginning: Fat Possum Records and Hill Country Blues

In 1992 a small indie label called Fat Possum Records gave the American Blues scene a much needed kick-in-the-ass when they released the debut album from 62 year-old Bluesman Junior Kimbrough. Entitled ALL NIGHT LONG, the record was met with rave reviews from both critics and Blues fans and gave Kimbrough some well deserved national attention.  Shortly after the success of the Kimbrough record Fat Possum also started having success with another one of their artists, R.L. Burnside. Like Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside was in his 60’s and a resident of the area surrounding Holly Springs, Mississippi known as the Mississippi Hill Country.  Also like Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside was a master of a style of music called “Hill Country Blues”. Different then the well known Delta Blues style, Hill Country Blues focuses more on creating a groove and sometimes features other instruments such as Drums.  With both the Kimbrough and Burnside records receiving some good press, Fat Possum began recording other Hill Country Blues musicians. Unfortunately the label quickly ran into the problem that many of the musicians they recorded were usually older and in very poor health.  Sadly, many of them died before or shortly after their album got released. Down but not out Fat Possum Records kept plugging along and in 2000 they released a record by a 59 year-old construction worker named Robert Belfour.

BelfourFat Possum and Mr. Robert Belfour

Robert Belfour was born in 1940 in Red Banks, Mississippi. Growing up in the Hill Country, he was surrounded by music and learned to play the guitar by watching his father play.  As his interest in the guitar grew he began performing for friends and family at picnics. He continued his musical education by watching local legends like Othar Turner and Junior Kimbrough who both lived in the area and regularly performed at parties and in local Juke-Joints.  Unfortunately when Robert was just 13 years old his father passed away and he was forced to get a job in order support the family.  Then in 1959 Robert got married and moved to Memphis, Tennessee. He worked in construction for the next 35 years and only played music when he had time. In fact, it was until the late 80’s when he really began to take music seriously again. His first real break came in 1994 he was featured on the compilation album THE SPIRIT LIVES ON, DEEP SOUTH COUNTRY BLUES & SPIRITUALS. The recordings he contributed to the record got the attention of Fat Possum Records and in the year 2000 the label issued his debut album WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU.  A dark-acoustic record, WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU showcased Roberts percussive guitar work and rich deep voice. The album featured a mixture of  originals and covers, many of which had been made popular by other Hill Country Blues musicians. The album was a success with many Blues enthusiasts and introduced Robert to an international audience.

BelfourIn 2003 Robert released his second album on Fat Possum, the humorously titled, PUSHIN’ MY LUCK.  Like it’s predecessor, the album was primarily acoustic and pleased both fans and critics. Internationally, Robert’s popularity grew and he started to play a number of European Blues festivals. Back in the states, Robert kept his home in Memphis and continued to be a regular performer on the Juke-Joint scene in Clarksdale, Mississippi.  A dynamic performer into his 70’s, Robert’s shows would usually last late into the the night and sometimes be as long as three hours!  Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Robert Balfour passed away at his home in Memphis on February 25, 2015. Fortunately for us (and thanks to the good folks at Fat Possum Records) his recordings are still readily available and can be found on iTunes, Amazon, and at your local record store.

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LEO “BUD” WELCH: I Don’t Prefer No Blues!

Leo Welch

LEO “BUD” WELCH:  I DON’T PREFER NO BLUES

Big Legal Mess Records/Fat Possum Records

For Fans of Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, and The White Stripes

Sadly, the future of the Blues looks pretty bleak. While there are still a few living legends left in the world they rarely perform or record. Or if they do still record their record label or producer tries to place them with Classic Rockers who may not have even heard of the them.  This is why the new album from 82 year-old guitarist Leo “Bud” Welch is a such welcome release! Recorded for Big Legal Mess records in Mississippi, I Don’t Prefer No Blues is full of no-nonsense stripped-down gritty Blues. If you ever wondered what a Juke-Joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi sounds like on a Saturday night, well, here you go.

In 2014 Leo Welch gave the Blues scene a much needed shot of life when he released his first album Sabougla Voices (also on Big Legal Mess Records). Like it’s predecessor, I Don’t Prefer No Blues was produced by Big Legal Mess label owner Bruce Watson. For this album Watson enlisted the help of fellow Mississippi roots musician Jimbo Mathus (of Squirrel Nut Zippers fame) and together the pair pushed Leo record a much more Juke-Joint Blues sounding record.  Featuring a number of Blues standards like “I Woke Up This Morning” and “Poor Boy”, this album might the best REAL Blues album of the year.

The album opens with the acoustic standard “Poor Boy”.  Backed by an upright bass and featuring some beautiful backing vocals courtesy of Sharde Thomas (Othar Turner’s granddaughter) this track is excellent rendition of a tune that’s been performed by delta musicians since the 1920’s.  Leo and Sharde add their own stamp to the tune that leaves us hoping they’ll work together again soon. Up next is dark funky blues tune “Girl In The Holler”. Powered by a firm back-beat the song slowly builds to a boiling point before simmering down and fading out. Dynamics are key here and the musicians backing Leo on this record are true masters of capturing the authentic electric-delta sound.

Other fine moments on the album are the boogie-shuffle “Cadillac Baby” and fuzzy slow blues “Going Down Slow”.  Both tunes should quickly become crowd favorites when they’re performed live as they feature Leo at his very best. Even though I Don’t Prefer No Blues focuses on the Blues-side of Leo’s repertoire he doesn’t totally abandon his love for Gospel music. Possibly the album’s strongest track, “Pray On” is a combination of all the things that make this album great.  Fuzzy-guitar, boogie blues, and a slammin’ band!  Llike the album, this song shows us that at 82 years young, Leo isn’t slowing down. He’s just getting started.

VISITING MEMPHIS!

Traveling to Memphis!

This past spring I had the privilege of getting to spend a few days in Memphis, Tennessee.   Let me start out by saying that I found Memphis to be a wonderful city with amazing history!  While Memphis has received a bad reputation for it’s level of crime and high homeless population at no time did I feel unsafe.  I had an excellent visit and found the locals of Memphis very friendly and helpful.   If you have any interest in American Roots music or the History of the Civil Rights movement you should start making plans to visit Memphis immediately.

 

MUST DO’s while in Memphis.

National Civil Rights Museum  450 Mulberry St  Memphis, TN 38103  http://www.civilrightsmuseum.org/

In my opinion to really understand the history of American roots music you need to learn about the struggle for Civil Rights in this country. Start your visit here! This beautiful museum will set the tone for the rest of your visit.  Located in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, the museum elegantly tells the story of the men and women that fought hard for equality in this country.  Learning about the struggle for Civil Rights will help you see why multiracial bands at Stax Records and Fame Studios were so historically significant.

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Stax Museum of American Soul Music 926 E. McLemore Ave. (901) 942-SOUL  www.staxmuseum.com

Possibly one of the best museums in the United States, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music tells the story of the little record label that could.  From field workers singing gospel music to the artists of today this museum leaves no stone unturned.  Also the museum doesn’t just stick to talking about Stax artists.  It covers artists from Motown, Atlantic, Chess, Duke, Goldwax (my personal favorite), and everything in-between!  You’ll see things like Issac Hayes’ car, Rufus Thomas Mater Tapes, and a recreation of the studio where Booker T. and The MG’s backed many amazing artists.  The museum has lots of interactive touch-screens and even a full on dance floor!  The staff are very knowledgeable and are dedicated to getting you the whole story of Soul music.  Keep in mind if you’re staying downtown you’ll have to take a cab, bus, or car to get here as it’s a little off the beaten path, but you’ll learn there’s a reason for that.  This museum is worth the short trip from downtown.  Only here will you’ll get the whole story of American Blues and Soul music.

IMG_0250 Stax Studio

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BEALE STREET

Although it’s now pretty much a tourist trap, Beale Street should be a stop on your trip.   This is the street where so many musicians got their “start”.  W.C. Handy, B.B. King, Furry Lewis, Rosco Gordon, Rufus Thomas, Memphis Minnie, all have graced the stages of clubs here on Beale.  There is still plenty of live music here but it can be very hit or miss. Luckily, I had a chance to catch the great Dr. Feelgood Potts while I was here and he didn’t disappoint!  He and his put put on a great show and had the place jumpin’! Check him out if you get the chance!

EATING ON BEALE

Blues City Cafe 138 Beale St, Memphis TN  (901) 526-3637  http://www.bluescitycafe.com/

The one sure thing on Beale that’s around today is the restaurant Blues City Cafe.  Memphis has as many amazing restaurants as it does Blues legends and the Blues City Cafe is one of the best.  Late hours, great spices, amazing BBQ, what’s not to love?  I had some of the best Fried Catfish I’ve ever had in my life here!

 

Blues City Dr. Feelgood Potts

 

The Rock N’ Soul Museum

Located at Beale and Hwy 61 (across the street from the Gibson Guitar Factory)

This museum isn’t as essential as the Stax Museum but it’s still VERY good.  They have an amazing collection of stuff from Ike Turner’s Piano to part of a classic Southern style church.  They cover all the essentials from Gospel to today’s Soul and they have a really nice exhibit on Memphis’ own WDIA!  If you’re short on time and cant’s make it to the Stax Museum then make sure you hit this place up!  It also offers a FREE shuttle to Sun Records and is walking distance to lots of stuff in Downtown Memphis.

 

WDIA  Ike Turner's Piano

 

Another thing to do while in Memphis is vist The Memphis Cotton Exchange Museum.  Cotton was king in the American south and because the history of the Blues has so much to do with the life a sharecropper lived you really can’t pass up this museum.

There’s also Sun Records, the studio where Sam Phillips recorded Elvis, Cash, Jerry Lee, and many others.   Now don’t get me wrong, I like the Rockabilly stuff that was done at Sun Records but I’m personally more interested in the Blues that Sam Phillips recorded with his Memphis Recording Service.  Sadly there is little mention of the Blues at Sun Records today, but to be fair, most of their visitors don’t really seem to care about that.  Most of them probably aren’t even aware that Sam Phillips once called Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moanin’ at Midnight” the greatest recording he ever made.   So besides an original wax copy of Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” there really isn’t much about the Blues here at Sun Records.  The studio is now very touristy and has a large gift shop and cafe in it.  During my visit I tried to imagine Johnny Cash taking a break from a session to shop for a Sun Records hoodie but it made me sad so I left.  However, if you’re into Rockabilly or Elvis Presley you should make this an essential part of your Memphis trip.

Cotton Museum   Al Green's Church

 

Some other non-essential but fun spots to see Memphis 

Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church,

The Blues Foundation office (when they finish building their Blues museum this will become an essential stop)

West Memphis, Arkansas (The clubs in West Memphis were where musicians from Memphis went to REALLY show their stuff)

Also make sure you check out the site www.msbluestrail.org.  Here you’ll find information about the Mississippi Blues Trail and Historical markers that are set up at spots along the trail where Blues history actually happened!  There are a number of these markers around Memphis and they provide a nice overview of the city’s Blues history.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST…

CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

If you’re in Memphis, Tennessee then you’re only about 90 short minutes from Clarksdale, Mississippi.  I HIGHLY recommend taking at least a day and travel down to Clarksdale.    If you’re into Blues, Soul, Gospel, or History you will LOVE Clarksdale.  Here you will get your fill of NO FRILLS BLUES HISTORY.   There is so much to see and do in Clarksdale that I can’t list it all here.  So if you’d like suggestions about visiting Clarksdale please contact me through this blog and I’ll be in touch with you.  Keep in mind that many of the amazing clubs, shops, and museums in Clarksdale are disappearing due to the recent influx of Casinos along the Mississippi river.  So see them while you can!

Happy travels!

 

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BUDDY GUY “WHEN I LEFT HOME”

 

A few years ago while I was doing a blues gig in San Francisco and I got into a conversation with another musician about great Blues guitar players.  “It’s a shame there aren’t any great blues players left” he said.  “That’s not true” I replied, “There are still some of the greats left. B.B. is still around and of course you have Buddy Guy”.  The musician gave me a strange look and said “What?! Why do you like Buddy Guy?  I saw him once and he just played a bunch of Hendrix riffs”.  All I could do at that point was chuckle and reply, “Yeah, well where do you think Hendrix, got some of those ideas from?   Jimi was a student of the Blues and listened to all the blues records he could get his hands on.  The guitar player on many of these records was Buddy Guy. ”

Buddy Guy’s guitar playing has inspired guitar players in every genre of music for over fifty years. Always an exciting live act Buddy,  has taken his exciting brand of electric blues all all over the world.  He’s shared the stage with blues legends like Muddy Waters and rockers like The Rolling Stones.  He’s headlined countless festivals, performed on television and even performed for Presidents and Royalty.  That being said his impressive career isn’t limited just to the stage.  During the 1960’s Buddy was  an in-demand studio musician for Chess records and played lead guitar on many hits by the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Koko Taylor.  In short, Buddy Guy has lived enough in his 76 years for three lifetimes, and lucky for us he’s decided to tell his story.

In “When I Left Home” Buddy (with help from David Ritz) takes us from the farm he grew up on in Louisiana to the streets of Chicago.   A master storyteller, Buddy doesn’t hold back when talking about the ups and downs of life as a blues man. With a mother in need of extra medical attention after suffering a stroke, he left Louisiana for Chicago in search work that would able him to not only support himself but also send money back home to Louisiana.  Already proficient on guitar from playing around clubs in Louisiana, Buddy worked himself into the Chicago scene with the help of some local blues fans and eventually with help from the great Muddy Waters.  One would think that this would be the ending of our story, but this is only the beginning.  Over the next several years Buddy works hard to establish himself as one of the premier Blues guitar players on the Chicago scene.  Working as a tow-truck driver in the day, playing clubs and doing recording sessions at night he found himself working night and day to make his dream happen and take care of his family.  “When I Left Home” is the no-nonsense story of George “Buddy” Guy, and like it’s author, this story is THE REAL DEAL.

 

Not familiar with the music of Buddy Guy? Here are some albums I think you might enjoy. There are also many single recordings featuring Buddy, more information on these recordings and the albums listed below can be found in the back of the book “When I Left Home”.

Artist/Album

BUDDY GUY ALBUMS

“Buddy’s Blues” (Best of his Chess recordings)

“A Man and The Blues”

“Buddy and The Junior’s” (Buddy Guy with Junior Wells and Junior Mance)

“Damn Right I Got The Blues”

“Sweet Tea”

“Blues Singer”

“Can’t Quit The Blues” (Box Set)

RECORDS FEATURING BUDDY GUY

JUNIOR WELLS “Hoodoo Man Blues”

MUDDY WATERS “Folk Singer”

Preachin’ The Blues: The Life and Times of Son House

Preachin’ The Blues: The Life and Times of Son House

Written by historian Daniel Beaumont, Preachin’ The Blues: The Life and Times of Son House provides a well researched, in-depth look at the life of one of the most important figures in Blues history – Eddie “Son” House. Born in 1902 in Lyon, Mississippi, Son House grew up very involved in the church and didn’t embrace the Blues until 1927 when he heard a guitar player at a house party. Moved by the sound this guitar player was getting out of his instrument with the use of a bottleneck slide, House decided to pick up the guitar and start playing the Blues. Starting out by performing at parties, Son House grabbed the attention of those in attendance with his larger-than-life voice and commanding guitar strumming style.  It was performances like this in the 1930’s that would inspire and help shape the playing style of both Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Even now the music of Son House is still inspiring musicians.  Artists such as The Black Keys and The White Strips both cite Son House as a major influence on their careers. But Preachin’ The Blues doesn’t just focus on Son House the musician. Son was many things in his life – a preacher, a farmer, a husband, even a murderer. Needless to say, his complex life gave him much subject matter to sing about.
While many books on the History of the Delta Blues include information on Son House, there really hasn’t been a book that dives this deep into his individual story. One of the main reasons for this is probably because large sections of House’s life are a complete mystery. Only one copy of the first recordings Son House made for the Paramount Record label in 1930 has ever been found. Even interviews that House himself gave after being rediscovered by three college-age blues fans in the early 60’s were sometimes hard to decipher. During these interviews House would occasionally mix up dates and times from his own life. Taking all of these factors into account, it isn’t a surprise that the name Son House isn’t really know beyond serious music fans. Hopefully, this book will change that.

Essential Reading: “Delta Blues” By Ted Gioia

The book “Delta Blues” by Ted Gioia is by far the most comprehensive book available on the subject of the delta blues.  This is a great book for new and veteran blues listeners.   This information in this book is well researched and presented clearly.  I consider this to be ”the bible” of books on the blues.   This book not only talks about the history of African American folk music but also about the day to day life of African Americans living in Mississippi during the first half of the 20th century.  The book starts “where the southern crosses the dog” and follows the blues all the way to Chicago and then back home to the hills of Mississippi.  This is essential reading for blues lovers or anyone who wants to hear one of the most amazing stories in American history.