various artists,
The Land Where the Blues Began
(Rounder, 2002)

This CD has been released as an audio companion to the reissue of Alan Lomax's book of the same name, one of those essential volumes for any fan of the blues or southern folk music in general. As such, its 28 tracks are all over the map, and you'll hear everything from children's play chants to Memphis Slim. As the CD states, there are "work songs, field hollers, hymns, ballads, fife-and-drum music, sermons, stories, and barroom toasts." All of the tracks here are discussed in the book, and the 40-page booklet that accompanies the CD is loaded with photos, discographical information and excerpts from the book itself. There are also complete lyrics offered for all the tracks, including even spoken asides. For those with an interest in southern African-American music, it's a treasure trove.

Space prevents me from discussing every track, but I'll touch on a few highlights. Willie "61" Blackwell's "Four O'Clock Flower Blues" is a primitive gem, and hearing Blackwell discuss the provenance of the song only adds to the experience. There's an early track by Son House, who sings, as Lomax says, like a man possessed, and some ragged and literally awesome spirituals, like Turner Junior Johnson's "When I Lay My Burden Down" and Charles Haffer Jr.'s "Strange Things Happening in the Land," a bizarre and chilling look at African-American rights. The field recordings of sermons and songs in the black churches are rousing and rhythmic, and most of the spoken word recordings are fascinating in sociological terms, such as the "Toast to Bud Doggett," a man who led a lynch mob, but who was still respected by blacks for the generous way he treated his workers. There's a splendid example of black bravado in "I'm Going Home," a recording of prisoner W.D. "Bama" Stuart singing a song that makes fun of whites to a white guard at Parchman Farm.

There are also some real off-the-wall tracks, like "Emmaline, Take Your Time," played on 10-hole quills by Alec Askew, and "Jim and John," played by cane fife, bass drum and snare drum. The CD concludes with six tracks by better-known bluesmen: the earliest recordings of Fred McDowell, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim and the lesser-known but still superb Forrest City (Joe B. Pugh).

This CD offers a wide look at many different aspects of African-American culture, and as fine as it is to read about these things in Lomax's book, it's far better to hear them. There are some tracks which have been previously released on other Rounder/Lomax CDs, but there's still a wealth of material previously unreleased on CD. The disc effectively shows how the blues entered into every aspect of black life in the south work and play, sacred and secular. The sound engineering is flawless, and tracks recorded as early as 1933 sound bright and fresh. If you have only one CD as a representation of pre-1950s African-American music, this should probably be the one.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 17 May 2003

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