Barrelhouse Buck McFarland,
Alton Blues
(Delmark, 2007)

In the late 1950s in St.. Louis, a city detective named Charlie "Lindy" O'Brien tracked down Speckled Red, an oldtime blues pianist and brother of the bluesman Piano Red. O'Brien wasn't out to arrest Red. No, he was a member of the St.. Louis Jazz Club and had been searching for all of the old forgotten bluesmen who had made the city a haven for the blues in the 1920s and '30s. One of the men Speckled Red led O'Brien to was Barrelhouse Buck McFarland.

McFarland, who had been an important part of the city's blues and jazz scene, had been a member of Charlie Creath's Jazzomaniacs and Peetie Wheatstraw's Blues Blowers. He also led his own bands under a variety of names. Between 1929 and 1934, he made 10 records. Then he disappeared, just faded from the music scene and was gone until O'Brien tracked him down. A poorly recorded comeback album for Folkways followed his rediscovery, and that seemed to be it until St.. Louis Jazz Club members Bob and Vivian Oswald gathered together some better equipment and made this album, which has now been finally reissued.

Buck sounds great here. He has a steady, thumping percussive left hand, which lays down a bass line, while his right hand dances around the melody. His voice is a thick growl in which the joy of being alive and performing mingles with the dark depths of the blues. In fact, that's what makes Buck so unique; he is boisterous but blue, using the joy of the music to deal with the pain. "Lamp Post Blues," in which the singer claims the lamp post is his only friend, is one of the best down and out songs of all time, but Buck's singing makes the situation sound more than tolerable.

His left hand is more rhythmically varied than the playing of many of his contemporaries. On "Railroad Blues," the bassline imitates a rolling freight train, and on the uptempo numbers, it thunders.

Alton Blues is not only a very good album, it's an important piece of cultural history, a fact the extended interview track makes clear. On it, McFarland remembers the old days and old players. He discusses the old days as though they were still current and makes you wish you'd been there. You can learn a lot about the blues while listening to a fine package here. Alton Blues is highly recommended. It's fine music and it's a wonderful musician's legacy; right after it was issued, Barrelhouse Buck McFarland died. Pick it up and he'll live a little longer.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

11 August 2007

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