Chris Cotton,
I Watched the Devil Die
(Yellow Dog, 2005)

In some ways, the San Francisco-based Chris Cotton sounds about a hundred years old, but always in the way you want somebody to sound a hundred years old. When aged rural bluesmen were being rediscovered in the 1960s and rushed into recording studios, some were close to a century on in a not-so-good way. In other words, trapped in that dreaded state known as "of purely ethnomusicological interest." Not, of course, that there is a thing wrong with ethnomusicological interest; but if you're an average consumer who has invested your hard-earned in something to enjoy at home, you want to listen to the stuff, as with anything else musical that wafts into the air around you, for the sheer pleasure of fully realized performance.

I Watched the Devil Die will end up deservedly on many, maybe most, perhaps just about all, best-blues-recordings-of-2005 lists. A shockingly self-confident Euro-American acoustic guitarist rooted in the Piedmont style associated most prominently with the Rev. Gary Davis, Brownie McGhee and Blind Boy Fuller, Cotton manages to produce a deeply traditional sound without giving off the impression of being a musical stenographer. It is hard for me to imagine listening with much satisfaction to anybody but Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt doing, respectively, "I'm So Glad" and "Louis Collins," but here it is. (OK, Lucinda Williams does a pretty impressive take on the latter, as "Angels Laid Him Away," on the 2001 Vanguard MJH tribute Avalon Blues. Still....) Cotton just plain nails Blind Willie McTell's "Dying Crapshooter's Blues," one of the endless Unfortunate Rake/St. James Infirmary/Streets of Laredo/et al. variants, and wields the hammer with equal precision on the Mississippi Sheiks' "That's It."

Some of the cuts are solo, and some aren't. Cotton has assembled a bunch of spirited players as steeped in blues language and folk tradition (such as old-time string and jug bands) as he is, plus the Mississippi-bred blues giant Big Jack Johnson, who provides slide guitar on "Black Night," one of Cotton's seven originals among the dozen numbers. That particular one resonates with the ragged hill-country band sound of Fat Possum discs, where the blues is served up straight up.

While I have your attention, permit me to praise Cotton's original material, written with no discernible artifice in the style of what Mississippi Fred McDowell liked to call the "straight and natch'l blues." Aside from its intrinsic high quality, it draws no distracting attention to itself; it is neither more nor less Cotton music than anything else here. Cotton is not the first white bluesman to accomplish something like that -- the ability to speak in a perfectly articulated voice that renders the identity of the particular vocal chords from which the words spring not an immediate concern because that identity is relevant to nothing; one thinks of Harmonica Frank Floyd, Dave Ray and a handful of others in that regard -- but it is a rare gift and always to be treasured when encountered.

And before leaving, I would like to express my gratitude to Cotton for giving the most important forgotten bluesman of them all his due in "Blues for Big Bill." Besides all else that pleases here, there's that nice touch of class.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 9 July 2005

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