American Primitive, Volume 2



edited from Ray Templeton (

American Primitive Vol. II: Pre-War Revenants (1897-1939) (Revenant 214, 2 CDs)

One of the great appeals of listening to older recordings is their capacity to transport you through time and space, in a sense that appears to me to be experientially quite real (and if that’s not mystical, I don’t know what is).  I can almost feel myself standing alongside Elizabeth Johnson in that studio in New York in 1928 as she sings the extraordinary Be My Kid Blues.

On the other hand, some artists seem to be speaking to us from some quite unreachable place.  I would count among these John Hammond, an almost entirely obscure traditional singer and banjo player who recorded a handful of exceptionally beautiful sides in 1927 or Moses Mason, who rails about the Mississippi floods of the same year.

I could wax quite over-the-top, for example, about some of the tracks included on these discs – like Henry Spaulding’s Cairo Blues, whose string-snapping guitar accompaniment and sudden falsetto vocals have enthralled me for many years, or William Harris’s Bullfrog Blues, with its bizarre lyrics: ‘Have you ever woke up with bullfrogs on your mind?’

It would be impossible to deny the sheer weirdness of tracks like Homer Quincy Smith’s Paramount pairing from 1929 – a wild, solo voice against a wheezing organ accompaniment.  Likewise, Cousins and DeMoss’s Poor Mourner, at 106 years old the grand-daddy of all the tracks here, sounds pretty nutty to modern ears (even the note-writers abandon their customary over-awed tones to describe the banjo accompaniment as ‘a wonderfully undifferentiated mass of plonking’), but we can probably assume that these tracks didn’t sound so outlandish when they were new.

I reckon Tommy Settlers’ Shaking Weed Blues, though, would have sounded utterly bonkers at any time in history, but surely whoever thought that this was a saleable proposition, even in 1930, was crazier still.  Mattie May Thomas offers what must be some of the most striking lyrics here, especially on Workhouse Blues where she sings, unaccompanied, of wrestling with lions, and how leaping spiders have been biting her heart.  These Library of Congress recordings, from Parchman Prison in 1939, are the only non-commercial ones included (in the sense of not having been recorded by a commercial company).

Geeshie Wiley’s Eagles On A Half and Pigmeat Terry’s Black Sheep Blues, for example, are hugely satisfying blues records, delivered with utter conviction and consummate ability.  Kid Brown’s Bo-Lita is remarkable for Ernest Michall’s inspired and entirely apposite interjections on clarinet and alto sax, as well as Brown’s high-pitched, expressive vocals.

I’ve always liked Otto Virgial, although with his rough, flailing guitar style, I’ve tended to think of him almost as a standard journeyman country bluesman of the 1930s – certainly nothing very alien or otherworldly there.  And there is much manic instrumental virtuosity on tracks like Blues Birdhead’s Mean Low Blues and the Bubbling Over Five’s Don’t Mistreat Your Good Boy.

In short, there is not a bad track on these two discs, and anyone interested in exploring some of the less familiar corners of the recorded indigenous music of the pre-WW2 era in the US can feel confident that everything included is either of the highest musical quality or (in a few cases) delivers satisfaction on some other level, usually by means of its sheer oddity.

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