various artists,
Catfish Blues: Mississippi
Blues Vol. 3 (1936-1942)

(Document, 2002)

What makes Document Records so fascinating is that, in their goal of preserving every extant early blues recording, they uncover the "one-hit wonders" of the blues, performers who wandered away from their farms or the plantations just long enough to press a few records and then re-enter obscurity. Document has preserved a number of these little-known artists in their Mississippi Blues volumes, and this particular release contains the complete recorded works of three such blues singers: Robert Petway, Mississippi Matilda and Sonny Boy Nelson.

Robert Petway's 14 tracks, recorded in Chicago in 1941-42, are the pride of this collection. Petway has a great singing voice, and it was recorded very well. There are a number of fine songs here, including "Ride 'Em On Down," a rocking, driving blues, and "Rocking Chair Blues," a more laid-back song with some serviceable guitar work. His best track is perhaps "Boogie Woogie Woman," filled with rhythm and energy. There's a lot of humor in Petway's singing, a good antidote for too much Skip James or Robert Johnson, but his guitar work is only yeomanlike, and his bag of tricks contain mostly repetitive riffs, but they're always strong and powerful.

Matilda Witherspoon, who recorded as Mississippi Matilda, has three tracks here, her entire surviving recorded output, all cut in New Orleans on one October day in 1936. Unfortunately it's difficult to judge her "A&V Blues" fairly, since the recording quality is so poor. Such is not the case, however, with "Hard Working Woman," on which the sound is quite good. Matilda's voice is high and feminine, with little of the gutsy quality that the more popular female blues singers of the era had. It's rather high and squeaky, making these surviving recordings artifacts rather than treasures.

Sonny Boy Nelson, whose real name was Eugene Powell, recorded the six tracks that survive him on the same date and place as Matilda, with whom he was living at the time. Nelson has a fine, melodic voice, with some true depth and resonance. Willie Harris sings lead vocal on one of the tracks, and his voice, like Nelson's, is quite mellow. Most of the time, however, Nelson is too mellow. His vocals, though technically assured, are uninspired and lackluster, making for a more casual blues, restrained and resigned, perhaps too beaten down by life to shout against it. Nelson and Harris's guitars work well together, however, and the songs are never less than good, if not great.

Chris Smith provides excellent biographical and musicological liner notes, and there are several surviving photographs of the artists. It's always fascinating to put voices with what have been almost mythical names, and even though these "second-stringers" may not have the fire or the genius of the true delta blues immortals, they're well worth hearing, and we can be grateful that Document has taken on the task of preserving them for all time.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 5 October 2002

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