Various: Matchbox Bluesmaster Series Set 9

Volume 9, six further CDs, captures in unvarnished and nascent form more of what would become a worldwide phenomenon

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The distinguished blues chronicler Paul Oliver once wrote that “the story of the blues is a story of minor singers rather than major ones, of men with small circles of acquaintances, limited aspirations and humble talents” (Conversations With The Blues, Cassell & Co. 1967).

For innumerable singers and players this description accurately summed up their lives and careers, such as they were. Precious few gained any recognition beyond their home areas or, even if they were recorded, outside of the narrow “race records” market.  That market was evidently fairly lucrative as some record companies were keen to record singers and instrumentalists in, more or less, their home environments, sometimes literally in the fields and sometimes in state prisons. Most then sank back into obscurity, rewarded with modest cash payments if they were lucky or, in some cases, a bottle of bourbon or cola.

Even someone as important as Son House (who influenced Robert Johnson who in turn influenced Elmore James and Muddy Waters who then influenced pretty much everyone else who ever attempted to play the blues) disappeared from public view after being recorded for the Library of Congress in 1930, 1941 and 1942. He only achieved the recognition he deserved after he was rediscovered in the mid-1960s.

Most of the people featured on this giant set, designated as Jack O’Diamonds and subtitled Library Of Congress Field Recordings 1934-1943, are considerably more unrecognised, even by the average blues fan which, in my view anyway, makes this sort of compilation all the more valuable and fascinating.

There are 101 tracks across six CDs here (mirroring six albums which were originally available as six separate LPs on the Flyright-Matchbox label in the 70s) and so you’ll have to forgive me for not discussing the contents in detail, let alone setting out a full list of tunes and performers. Broadly, though, the CDs focus as follows:

CD1, Mississippi River Blues: material recorded in Natchez on 19 October 1940, mainly featuring Lucious Curtis and Willie Ford.

CD2, Fort Valley Blues: recorded in southern Georgia during the early 40s and featuring the likes of Allison Mathis, Buster Brown and Jessie Stroller. If the names aren’t overly familiar, several of the song titles will be, including Boll Weevil, Milk Cow Blues and John Henry (plus, of course, here as everywhere, tunes and lyrics that crop up under names different from those we know). Less familiar will be Buzz Ezell’s Roosevelt And Hitler – one to set alongside Willie Johnson’s Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’, memorably recorded by the Golden Gate Quartet and Robert Wyatt. But I digress:

CD3, Out In The Cold Again: recorded in Florida in June 1935.

CD4, Boot That Thing: also recorded in Florida in the summer of 1935, it kicks off with spectacular harmonica features by Booker T. Sapps and Roger Matthews, doing versions of The Train and The Fox And Hounds, followed by some tracks where they are joined by guitarist and vocalist Willy (aka Jesse) Flowers. 

CD5, Two White Horses Standin’ In Line: recorded in Texas in 1939 and mainly spotlighting Smith Casey, who sings a version of the song that gives the set its name. Vocalist and harp-player Ace Johnson and guitarist L.W. Gooden offer Mama Don’t ’Low which was irritatingly ubiquitous in the heyday of skiffle and trad and which they sensibly curtail after a minute.

CD6, Jack O’Diamonds: the song itself is sung, in two takes, by Pete Harris, who features on most of the tracks here. These were recorded in Texas.

The Library of Congress was, rightly, concerned to preserve aural (and oral) evidence of the whole range of black musical traditions, not just the blues, so other forms are showcased on some tracks. Pretty much all the performances are of academic interest, and the majority of them are a pleasure to listen to, albeit perhaps not all 101 in one sitting. The Library of Congress recordists, including the legendary John Avery Lomax and Ruth Terrill Lomax, perhaps took greater care over sound quality than did the commercial scouts as they were preserving for posterity rather than seeking immediate commercial success. Nonetheless, the modern ear needs to make allowances; the music makes the effort worthwhile.

Discography
Six CDs, titled as follows: Mississippi River Blues; Fort Valley Blues; Out In The Cold Again; Boot That Thing; Two White Horses Standin’ In Line; Jack O’Diamonds (265.06)
Personnel as outlined above.
Matchbox MSESET9