Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Hillbilly Blues

Blues aficionados, lovers of HBcountry and collectors of the rare and obscure should rejoice – World Music Network have just released a new addition to their fantastic Rough Guide series: The Rough Guide to Hillbilly Blues. Covering a period of time and genre of music that has been severely overlooked for an appalling amount of time, this newest compilation will change your perception of the differences between ‘black’ and ‘white’ music from the 1920s and 1930s – an era that might also be called the Country Blues years. It does this by gathering together a weighty collection of rare singles and b-sides from this era, each one featuring a white country-musician of the time either showing the influence of the blues upon their particular style of country, or abandoning the strictures of their chosen genre and turning their hand to the kind of rough acoustic blues exemplified by artists such as Big Bill Broonzy, Sleepy John Estes, Blind Boy Fuller and Son House et al.

To roughly adapt Screaming Jay Hawkins’ famous phrase, The Rough Guide to Hillbilly Blues is black music by white people.

Roy Harvey and Jess Johnson’s ‘Guitar Rag’ is an uptempo jig, the combination of finger-picked banjo and bluesy slide perfectly encapsulating the meeting of the two musical forms. Dock Boggs’ ‘Down South Blues’ combines spiky banjo lines and Boggs’ deep, strained and nasal phrasing, the end result sounding like a primitively countrified Howlin’ Wolf. Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘Mule Skinner Blues (Blue Yodel #8)’ evokes the same kind of lonesome spaces as artists like Charley Patton or Bukka White, only the ones Rodgers sings about are out west rather than in the delta. Darby and Tarlton’s ‘Slow Wicked Blues’ is blues through and through, perhaps the bluesiest song of the album, the kind of devil-baiting blues they used to play down at the crossroads. It is, however, challenged by Larry Hensley’s ‘Match Box Blues,’ the deep-blues feeling of Hensley’s subdued slide-guitar and plaintive voice accentuated by the rhythmic hiss of record-dust or wear caught in the transfer, as if it were a copy of a copy of a copy of a long lost recording.

And so it on goes: 25 tracks in all, running for over 75 minutes in total, each track more interesting than the last.

It quickly becomes apparent that The Rough Guide to Hillbilly Blues isn’t intended as a gimmick or a document of a quirky phase of music that was perhaps best left forgotten – after all, the phrase white-man’s blues is often still used in a derogatory manner. Instead, this compilation highlights the influence and universality of the blues, and the cross-pollination that occurred between it and other forms of guitar-based music taking shape in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Within its tracks you’ll hear ragtime, lightning quick finger-picking, western-swing, cowboy yodeling, mournful ballads, sad songs of heartbreak and loneliness. At times, you would swear that that’s Leadbelly singing that prison song, or Son House singing that solo croon full of sorrow, or Lightnin’ Hopkins finger-picking next to a blazing fire in the middle of the western plains.

The Rough Guide to Hillbilly Blues shows that the blues belongs to everyone and speaks to everyone – man and woman, black and white, anywhere and everywhere.

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 24/1/2017)

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