Mountain Blues: Blues, Ballads and String Bands 1927-1938




Country has been called the white man’s blues, but the phrase has probably only been truly accurate when applied to the so-called hillbilly records from the 1920s and 1930s, the period and genre covered by this four-disc, 100-track anthology from JSP.

Not that everything here is actually blues (the string band selections in particular are really dance reels that happened to have the word “blues” in the title), and a fair portion of these cuts don’t have any real geographical association with the Southern mountains, either, but you have to give a box set a title, so Mountain Blues it is.

With hindsight, a lot of these performances seem a bit generic, but there is a lot here, as well, that is startling in its freshness, even at a 75-year distance. Disc A gives us “Blue Grass Twist” (which isn’t bluegrass, mind you) by the South Georgia Highballers, featuring some amazing guitar work from Vander Everidge and some stylish, almost pop guitar from Riley Puckett (best known for his work in the Skillet Lickers string band) on “I Get the Blues When It Rains.”

Disc B presents Slim Smith’s jaunty “Bread Line Blues,” Clarence Ashley’s spooky modal banjo classic “Dark Hollow Blues,” and Samantha Bumgarner’s fragile singing and strong banjo on “The Worried Blues,” a version of “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.”

Highlights of the third disc include the steel guitar work of Lemuel Turner on “Way Down Yonder Blues” and “Jake Bottle Blues,” and the zither playing of Nonnie Smith (who would enjoy a bit of a musical revival 40 years later in the 1970s) on the Perry County Music Makers’ “I’m Sad and Blue.”

The final disc features the amazing sound of Texas fiddle master Prince Albert Hunt on “Blues in a Bottle” (which the Lovin’ Spoonful — minus the fiddle — would cover successfully in the 1960s) and closes with the venerable guitar-and-fiddle team of Richard Burnett and Leonard Rutherford on “All Night Long Blues.”

Perhaps a bit too extensive for the casual listener, Mountain Blues will certainly please collectors and historians interested in the era covered, and it’s difficult to imagine a more comprehensive set of white blues 78s. The liner notes are a bit on the brief side, but they cover the basics, although the track notes that list the players and instruments aren’t always accurate. Still, there’s so much music here, it’s hard to quibble.

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