Mister Charlie’s Blues

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Review of “Mister Charlie’s Blues 1926-1938″ (Yazoo, 1970) from http://record-fiend.blogspot.com:

In case you were wondering, “Mister Charlie” is an obsolete African-American slang term for Caucasian male that is in the same vein as “whitey,” “honky,” “cracker,” and “buckra.” These 14 tracks are not simply hillbilly recordings. More specifically, they are examples of Southern white musicians performing material that was either blues in a technical sense or had been strongly influenced by their black counterparts. As the Yazoo brain trust discusses in the liner notes,

While the bluesman’s imitations of white and pop music always rank as his most banal work, the hillbilly’s encroachments upon a genre that has always been held as the province of blacks make for fascinating music. They also make a mockery of the old notion that no white can play country blues, and even expose the deficiencies of many contemporary whites who work the blues idiom. The usual failing of the hillbilly blues guitarist is the same that nearly always inheres in white guitar-playing of the 1920’s: a preference for limiting picking patterns that the best musicians of either race always surmounted. In general, the sensitivity of the white blues musician is remarkable when one considers the race prejudices of his class.

Even though I’m not a musician, I think what they are getting at is that the typically white obsession with rigidity and structure has often stood in the way of artistic innovation, whereas the more improvisatory approach of black instrumentalists from the 1800s and early 1900s generally led to the development of new and uniquely American styles of musical expression.

The sides presented here for the most part focus on the hillbilly anomalies (i.e. those among “the best musicians of either race” mentioned above), and what wonderful exceptions to the rule they are. Indeed, certain labels in the 1920s and 1930s felt some of these performances sounded so authentically black that they were marketed as race records.There does not seem to be much, if any, information available about guitarist Wesley Long, but “They Are Wild Over Me” convincingly demonstrates his instrumental prowess. The liner notes astutely point out that his approach is reminiscent of the ragtime material recorded by Frank Stokes, Mississippi John Hurt, and Hambone Willie Newbern as well as the playing style of Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence. Who says white people don’t have rhythm?

One listen to Herschel Brown’s breathtaking performance on spoons (which accompanies the equally impressive guitar picking of L.K. Sentell) will make you rethink any preconceived notions you might have about such things. Another biographical non-entity, Brown possibly came from Georgia, where he was the leader of a washboard band. As a recording artist for the OKeh label, his novelty sides produced significant sales figures during the late 1920s.

Dick Justice was actually a guitarist from Logan County, West Virginia and a friend of the better-known Frank Hutchison. Many aficionados of old-time American music consider them to be among the best of prewar white blues musicians, a view strongly supported by Justice’s superb “Black Dog Blues” and “Cocaine.” On the former, he turns in a performance that is similar to “Don’t Let That Deal Go Down,” while the latter compares rather favorably to Virginia bluesman Luke Jordan’s rendition recorded two years earlier in 1927.

Tennessee native and early Grand Ole Opry star Sam McGee was proficient on several stringed instruments, although he was first and foremost a guitarist of the highest caliber, which the instrumentals “Buck Dancer’s Choice” and “Franklin Blues” make abundantly clear. That’s early country music legend Uncle Dave Macon providing the vocal interjections throughout both tours de force. “Cross Tie Blues” and “Pouring Down Blues” qualify as two more phenomenal white blues instrumentals. In this case, the performers are Buster & Jack, which was the name assigned to 78s by white string band Jack Cawley and his Oklahoma Ridge Runners that were sold as race records.

Few black musicians could come close to duplicating Blind Lemon Jefferson’s nearly inimitable way of guitar playing, so it comes as quite a surprise that the most convincing cover version of his “Match Box Blues” was recorded by a white guy from Kentucky. Larry Hensley ordinarily played guitar with the string band Walker’s Corbin Ramblers, but this interpretation of the Texas bluesman’s signature piece finds him in a solo setting. According to the liner notes, “Hensley’s elaborations upon the original set him apart from Jefferson’s usual imitators, who were more apt to copy only the vocal parts of Jefferson’s blues. Unlike other white bluesmen, Hensley also imitates a black vocal style, producing a fair approximation of Jefferson’s singing.”

The South Georgia Highballers supply another pair of appealing instrumentals, “Blue Grass Twist” and “Bibb County Grind.” To my ears, they sound like guitar duets peppered with banter between the two performers who are likely brothers Albert and Vander Everidge.

The most famous white blues-playing siblings of the prewar era, however, were probably Austin and Lee Allen, who hailed from the eastern part of Tennessee near Chattanooga. Executives at their original label, Columbia Records, mistakenly thought they were black and issued their debut release from 1927 (“Laughin’ and Cryin’ Blues” b/w “Chattanooga Blues”) as part of their race series, much to the Allen Brothers’ chagrin.  After threatening the company with a lawsuit for damaging their reputations, they switched over to Victor, where they waxed the bulk of their discography, including the novelty talking blues “Maybe Next Week Sometime.”

If you can’t get enough instrumentals of this variety, the irresistible “Just Pickin'” by Roy Harvey (on loan from the Charlie Poole-helmed North Carolina Ramblers) and West Virginia native Leonard Copeland will definitely hit the spot. While no one would ever mistake the sweet-sounding vocals of the Anglin Brothers (consisting of Red and twins Jim and Jack) as those of black blues singers, the guitar playing heard on the Tennessee-born trio’s “Southern Whoopee Song” is another matter entirely.

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