CLASSIC FIELD RECORDINGS 1936 to 1940 – LANDMARK COUNTRY SESSIONS FROM A LOST ERA (JSP77131 4 cd set)
Johnnie Barfield, McLendon Brothers, Dewey & Gassie Bassett, Roy Shaffer, Four Pickled Peppers, Tennessee Ramblers, Pine Ridge Boys, Happy Valley Boys, Pete Pyle, Walter Couch & The Wilks Ramblers, JH Howell, Walter Hurdt, George Wade & The Caro-Ginians, Hinson Pitts & Coley, Smith’s Carolina Crackerjacks, Julian Johnson & Leon Hyatt, Grady & Hazel Cole, Hill Brothers with Willie Simmons, Blind Fiddler, Jack Pierce, Lester Pete Bivins, Gwen Foster, Louisiana Lou, The Southern Melody Boys, The Rouse Brothers.
The records used on this 100 track box set were made on various field trips organised by the RCA Victor Company in the 1930s for release on their brand new Bluebird label. Sales in country music had dropped dramatically since big sellers like Jimmie Rodgers, Gid Tanner and Fiddlin’ John Carson had died or retired and times were tough so record buying was a low priority for southern folk. It was a risk, but Bluebird knew that in the hills and hollers of the southern mountains there were some great musicians just waiting to get on record and hit the big time.
Auditions were set up in New York, Chicago, Charlotte and Rock Hill, North Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia. Most of the new discoveries never made the big time but they did sell well in their own territories and, thanks to collectors like the award winning recording engineer and record producer Chris King, they’ve been preserved and are now getting another moment in the spotlight thanks to this box set.
It is a box full of obscurities and unknowns but the eagle eyed among you will pick out Gwen Foster, late of the Carolina Tarheels and Clarence Ashley outfits on two songs; the chirpy How Many Biscuits and a re-make of his old hit Sideline Blues with, it’s assumed, The Three Tobacco Tags as backing musicians. Foster fills both tunes with his hundred miles an hour harmonica solos and there’s some pretty hot fiddle in there as well.
The perky, jazzy interplay in the music of the Four Pickled Peppers comes from the agility and virtuosity of guitarist Norman Woodlief and fiddler Lonnie Austin who both played with Charlie Poole’s North Carolina Ramblers – and yes, that is Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith slamming out the mandolin licks on There Are No Disappointments In Heaven/Your Soul Never Dies by Smith’s Carolina Crackerjacks in Rock Hill, South Carolina 1938.
The original rollicking Orange Blossom Special was written by the Rouse Brothers and their rattling version is a real delight here. The boisterous fiddle and chunky guitar roar along while brothers Ervin, Gordon and Jack bawl out the lyrics with gusto and plenty of humorous spoken interjections. Johnny Cash, who had the big hit with this tune, gladly acknowledged that the song came direct from Ervin Rouse and even invited Ervin to guest on his stage shows several times during the 50’s.
After a few sentimental numbers and bar-room ballads, Johnnie Barfield comes up with a track is a revelation. It’s titled Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby and it just has to be the song that Carl Perkins released in the late 50’s on Sun. This version rolls along at a steady clop while Carl’s fairly zooms but he must have nicked it. Johnnie Barfield’s good friend Rex Griffin wrote it in 1939 but that naughty rockabilly king Carl Perkins copyrighted his version in 1958…
The McLendon Brothers are an Alabama string band who had a small repertoire of excellent songs, some featuring Georgia Dell, an average vocalist whose not-really-quite-flat voice has more than its fair share of charm but their best number is Love Hunting Blues sung by guitarist Jesse Bassett who plays in an unusual style that mixes a boogie rhythm with a complicated sets of licks shuffled around before every verse. Jesse could be related to the severe looking Dewey and Gassie Bassett who play guitars and sing in harmony on the religious and sentimental songs that follow. My favourites, Blue Moon and Backwater Blues have a Carter Family feel with Dewey’s slightly nasal baritone competing with Gassie’s blessed back country vocals while the guitars pick out some surprisingly nimble licks in the background.
Jack Pierce is a bit of an enigma, the sleeve notes don’t mention him except in the discography where he’s listed as Slim Mays and all we know is that his two tracks here were recorded in New York in 1936 and that he can sure sing the blues! Soap Box Blues and Rabbit Blues feature him howling in a voice that is a mix of Chet Baker and Al Wilson of Canned Heat while picking out irresistible high pitched, clanging licks and short, low-note percussive runs on the guitar.
Lester Pete Bivins opens his six song set with Big Fat Gal – a talking blues that sounds like something Chris Bouchillion invented and he continues in a light hearted style with the rural hokum piece Knocking On The Hen House Door, and then plays some inspired guitar licks on the yodelling Minor Blues but he proves his real worth as a guitar player when he lets rip on Frank Hutchison’s Back In My Home Town.
Walter Couch and The Wilks Ramblers were unknown to me but their combination of fiddle, banjo and guitar sure make the green woods ring. Fourteen Days In Georgia is a rolling, riotous mess of instrumental music that never gives up for a second and is just as exciting as their second item Chesapeake Bay which contains some spectacular fiddling, especially on the passage that floats into some kind of discordant circling motion that makes you want to play the track again and again. I’m delighted to have found the Wilks Ramblers, they make some of the best old-time music I’ve heard and it sits beautifully with the other terrific stuff in this wonderful 4CD box.