Louisiana Red, |
When My Mama Was Living
Iverson Minter, the musician better known as Louisiana Red, died in 2012 after releasing a final album of electrified country blues, Memphis Mojo, which I reviewed here on 10 December 2011. The 16 cuts that comprise When My Mama Was Living were, the liner copy notes vaguely, "recorded in the mid-1970s." They're being released for the first time, and about time.
Red, whose career as a blues singer and guitarist started when he was in his early teens, was in top form during these sessions. His vocals communicate unvarnished emotional truth, the playing is richly evocative and the songs -- drawn from tradition, other blues artists (Slim Harpo, Gary Davis, Mississippi Fred McDowell) and occasional originals (including some co-writes with Kent Cooper) -- are exemplary.
This is country blues in the old-fashioned sense, emanating from acoustic guitar, slide and harmonica. Peg Leg Sam assists on four cuts, Lefty Dizz on two; otherwise, it's just Red.
The sound is stark, the stories mostly dark. Which is to say this is not good-time blues but the reflective, regret-heavy kind made not for juke-joint carousing but for more private, dark-night-of-the-soul moments. Its themes are the eternal ones, there as long as the blues itself (as well as the African-American folksong tradition from which it emerged) has been: women troubles, rambling, religious solace, prison and work (an unusual version of the venerable ballad "John Henry"), leavened with occasional flashes of rueful humor.
This is an exceptionally moving album, and it occasions wonder at the sad fact that Louisiana Red remained a largely unrecognized, under-appreciated blues figure in his lifetime. Listening to Mama, even someone with no particular interest in the blues would recognize the quality of Red's performance. You could put it up against just about anybody else's, and Red would hold his own. One wishes there had been a whole lot more where this came from.
by Jerome Clark
Louisiana Red (birth name Iverson Minter) was the poster boy for the hard luck blues. Born in 1932 in Bessemer, Ala., his mother died of pneumonia when he was 5, shortly after his father was lynched by the Ku Klux Klan. He was raised by a series of relatives, enduring a childhood of being moved from home to home and city to city until he entered the army in the late 1940s. By the late '50s, he was out of the service and centered in Detroit, where he played with John Lee Hooker.
In 1963, he cut his first album and began touring, winding up living in Hanover, Germany, where he, like many other African-American musicians, found a more welcome home for themselves and their music. In the mid-'70s, producer Kent Cooper found him working at the Bayonne Barrel Co. in New Jersey, so far out of the music business that he didn't even own a guitar anymore. Cooper recorded him for a boutique label he was forming. The songs on When My Mama Was Living are from these sessions.
And these songs indicate why he was not more successful in the marketplace. This is the music of a man who has lived the blues deeply, a man who has suffered and is recording not to entertain an audience but to share his pain with one. The music is cutting, stark and troubled -- in a world of cotton-candy blues, Red's album is kale, strong and bitter to the taste, gritty and potent. It's not background music. If you're going to listen to Louisiana Red, you need to be right there in the room with him, attentive and participating.
He goes deep:
When my mama was living, I was loved just because of me
Those lyrics, from "When My Mama Was Living," are typical. He writes in "Cold, Cold Feeling," about his world being empty so that he has to get along somehow.
Even when he lightens up, as in "I'll be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You," he sounds like the only thing he has to look forward to is the death of the rascal he's singing about. The song, normally a lightweight joke, takes on a tension that is not at all relieved by his occasional laughter; you feel he's laughing at the idea of his enemy's death.
This is powerful stuff.
by Michael Scott Cain