Worried Blues

by

MI0002325159Worried Blues (JSP 4 CD set)

edited review by Steve Leggett (allmusic.com):

Frank Hutchison of Logan County, West Virginia recorded the slide guitar piece “Worried Blues” for Okeh first in 1926 and again in 1927. The date and place of origin of “fretting” the strings with a hand-held metal bar or glass bottle is unclear, but this was a technique widely used by African American musicians by the early 20th century. A couple of such musicians, Bill Hunt and Henry Vaughn, were important local sources for Hutchison’s music.

This method of noting the strings with a steel bar, sometimes called ”slide guitar,” was also popular amongst late-19th- and 20th-century Hawaiian guitar players, who used it to make very different music that eventually spawned the many hillbilly and country music steel guitar styles still popular in the South.

Hutchison’s timing is representative of many West Virginia and eastern Kentucky musicians who add or subtract phrases in very individualistic ways.  Sherman Lawson, a fiddler who recorded with Hutchison in the late 1920s, remarked to me that Hutchison didn’t keep time very well. Lawson and Hutchison both had their own concept of time and phrasing, not necessarily the same.

In photographs Hutchison played what looks like a small Martin guitar on his lap. He used a thumb pick and probably one or two finger picks and most likely used a small extension nut device over the regular nut in order to raise the strings up high enough off the fingerboard to play with a metal slide.

“Worried Blues” is an intriguing four-disc set that collects the complete recorded works of  Frank Hutchison and singer Kelly Harrell, then splits the final disc between two very different mountain string bands, the Tenneva Ramblers and the Blue Ridge Highballers. All of these artists were active in the Virginia/West Virginia area in the 1920s.

Hutchison, in particular, was an arresting talent, with a striking and consistent slide guitar style and a rough but charmingly everyman vocal style that gives the songs he recorded for OKeh Records like “Worried Blues,” “Train That Carried the Girl From Town,” “The Miner’s Blues,” “The Last Scene of the Titanic,” and the impressive guitar instrumental “Logan County Blues,” an individualistic twist almost unique in Appalachian music. Much like banjoist Dock Boggs, he incorporated a high degree of black blues into his repertoire.

Not nearly as steady a performer as Hutchison, singer Kelly Harrell recorded 40 some sides for Victor and OKeh Records between 1925 and 1929, which was an accomplishment in itself considering he didn’t play an instrument and possessed a voice that creaked and cracked around the melodies of his ballad-based folk material. The two tracks of his that stand out the most are “My Name Is John Jo Hannah” and “Charles Giteaux.”

The former is a variant of “The State of Arkansas” set to a “Maggie Walker Blues” melody and it benefits mightily from the fiddle playing of Posey Rorer, but Harrell’s wild and loose vocal is a good part of why it works. “Charles Giteaux” has the assassin of President Garfield telling his story, and again, Harrell’s cutting, barely in control singing gives the song a haunting kinetic push. “Peg and Awl” is also interesting, since it details the effects of new technology on workers in the shoe industry, but the balance of Harrell’s output tends to the generic and maudlin. His earliest sides also suffer from being backed by big city musicians unfamiliar with the southern musical traditions from which Harrell drew his inspiration.

The Tenneva Ramblers were actually the Grant Brothers (guitarist Claude Grant and mandolin ace Jack Grant) with Jack Pierce on fiddle and Claude Slagle on banjo, and for a time they were Jimmie Rodgers’ backup band, although the Ramblers never made any recordings with Rodgers. The group, on their own, issued 13 tracks between 1927 and 1929 for the Victor and Columbia labels, most notably their haunting version of “The Longest Train I Ever Saw,” a song that has been recorded countless times and had many titles but is probably best known as “In the Pines.”

The Blue Ridge Highballers (Charley La Prade on fiddle, Arthur Wells on banjo, and Lonnie Griffith on guitar) were a hyper-charged instrumental string band that prefigured the pace of bluegrass by a quarter of a century, and they tore through their mountain dance tune repertoire like a train at full steam.

Taken together like this, these four very different acts form a kind of survey of the kinds of traditional music being played in a very specific region of the southern mountains in the mid to late 1920s, which gives this generous box set a unique horizontal and historical sweep. These were commercial recordings at the time they were made, but the record industry was in its infancy and wasn’t yet placing marketing over musical substance to the degree that would come later which gives these old 78s an added collective authenticity.

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