Various: Matchbox Bluesmaster Series – Set 6

Matchbox's sixth volume - including Papa Charlie Jackson on unlikely blues axe the banjo - has more of a good-time feel than its companions

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If you have read my previous reviews of this series, you will know by now that I am a big fan. Set 6 contains recordings by Papa Charlie Jackson, Memphis Jug Band, Barbecue Bob, Leecan and Cooksey, Roosevelt Sykes and the Mississippi Sheiks.

The one has more of a good-time feel than previous sets and opens with some splendid banjo playing by Papa Charlie Jackson. Jackson was prolific, with some 60 titles issued. Godrich & Dixon (Blues & Gospel Records 1902-1942) also list him as a session player with numerous other artists including Blind Blake, Ma Rainey and Big Bill Broonzy. The banjo is not the first instrument of choice when playing the blues. By default it adds a bouncier and more optimistic feel to the music. Jackson has a fine voice and was more than capable on the guitar; but it is his banjo playing that really stands out and the tracks Mama Don’t Allow It, Look Out Papa Don’t Tear Your Pants and Lexington Kentucky Blues are fine examples.

The Memphis Jug Band add more hokum to the set. One jug was all that was needed to convert a string band to a jug band and these bands generally had a sound closer to the minstrel shows and jazz, rather than the blues. However, the Memphis Jug Band was far more of a folk group, albeit an urban one. Notable tracks are Kansas City Blues, I Packed My suitcase and Jug Band Waltz.

Unknown to many, Barbecue Bob was (for a time) Columbia’s bestselling folk/blues artist. With a warm baritone voice and some accomplished guitar playing he was destined to have a good career. However, he died of influenza at the age of 29 and never survived long enough to be rediscovered in the 1960s. Goin’ Up The Country and Ease It To Me Blues are worth a close listen.

As a fan of the harmonica, I was particularly pleased to discover the work by Robert Cooksey. These sessions were recorded with Bobby Leecan on guitar and are a treat. However, little is known about the pair. Cookey’s harmonica playing is characterised by a pronounced warble, and phrasing closer to jazz than the blues. Roosevelt Sykes is far better known and better documented. He recorded with many artists as well as under his own name. He also adopted several pseudonyms to allow him to record with multiple recording houses. He was reported to be a natty dresser and acquired the nickname “The Honeydripper”. Despite this he was perceived as an intelligent, sensitive and imaginative musician. Black River Blues and Don’t Rush Yourself showcase his style nicely.

Last, but not least, are the Mississippi Sheiks. They featured extensively on Set 5 and made quite a reputation for themselves as a string band. They had by necessity a wide repertoire, as they played to audiences on both sides of the track. It is likely that their records were bought predominantly by a black audience, but they played extensively (but not exclusively) for white audiences. This was more common than is often thought possible today; but it required a skilful balancing act to succeed. The combination of fiddle and guitar runs played in a 19th-century waltz style was sure to get the crowds (on either side of the track) dancing.

Once again Matchbox have excelled themselves. As I have said previously, this music has appeal beyond the blues enthusiast and historian. It is the birthplace of all modern music and needs to be better appreciated. Thankfully, Matchbox and Nimbus are working hard to ensure that we all have easy access to it. The good news is that Matchbox are planning to release a further five volumes (each of 6 CDs) of all the earlier vinyl blues releases that Saydisc/Matchbox made or planned in the 1970s.

Discography
CD1: Mostly New To LP, Papa Charlie Jackson 1924-29 (54.55)
CD2: The Remaining Titles, Memphis Jug Band 1927-34 (55.52)
CD3: The Remaining Titles, Barbecue Bob (Robert Hicks) 1927-30 (51.19)
CD4: The Remaining Titles, Bobbie Leecan & Robert Cooksey 1926-27 (49.05)
CD5: Mostly New To LP, Roosevelt Sykes 1929-1934 (57.19)
CD6: Mostly New To LP, Mississippi Sheiks, Volume 2, 1930-34 (59.26)
CD1 Papa Charlie Jackson (v, bj, g). Chicago 1924-29.
CD2: Will Shade (v, g, hca); Ben Ramey v, kazoo); Will Weldon (v, g); Charlie Burse (g); Charles Polk, Jab Jones (jug), Milton Robie (vn). Atlanta, Memphis, 1927-34.
CD3: Barbecue Bob (Robert Hicks) (v, g); Charlie Hicks (v, g). New York, Atlanta 1927-30.
CD4: Bobbie Leecan (g); Robert Cooksey (v, hca). New York, 1926-27.
CD5: Roosevelt Sykes (v, p); Johnnie Strauss, Isabel Sykes, Clarence Harris, Charlie McFadden (v). Chicago, Cincinnati, 1929-34.
CD6: Mississippi Sheiks (v); Walter Vinson (g); Sam Chatman (v, g); Bo Chatman (v, g, vn); Lonnie Chatman (v, vn). San Antonio, Atlanta, Grafton, Chicago 1930-34.
Matchbox MSESET 6