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Monday, March 15, 2010

Bessie Smith: Complete Recordings Vol. 4


CD I: 1) He's Got Me Goin'; 2) It Won't Be You; 3) Spider Man Blues; 4) Empty Bed Blues (part 1); 5) Empty Bed Blues (part 2); 6) Put It Right Here (Or Keep It Out There); 7) Yes Indeed He Do!; 8) Devil's Gonna Git You; 9) You Ought To Be Ashamed; 10) Washwoman's Blues; 11) Slow And Easy Man; 12) Poor Man's Blues; 13) Please Help Me Get Him Out Of My Mind; 14) Me And My Gin; 15) I'm Wild About That Thing; 16) You've Got To Give Me Some; 17) Kitchen Man; 18) I've Got What It Takes (But It Breaks My Heart To Give It Away); 19) Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out; 20) Take It Right Back ('Cause I Don't Want It Here); CD II: 1) Standin' In The Rain Blues; 2) It Makes My Love Come Down; 3) Wasted Life Blues; 4) Dirty No-Gooder's Blues; 5) Blue Spirit Blues; 6) Worn Out Papa Blues; 7) You Don't Understand; 8) Don't Cry Baby; 9) Keep It To Yourself; 10) New Or­leans Hop Scop Blues; 11) See If I'll Care; 12) Baby Have Pity On Me; 13) On Revival Day; 14) Moan, You Moa­ners; 15) Hustlin' Dan; 16) Black Mountain Blues; 17) In The House Blues; 18) Long Old Road; 19) Blue Blues; 20) Shipwreck.

It is amusing to learn that 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out' — a song original­ly written by Bessie's minor competition Ida Cox, but eventually immortalized by the Empress — was recorded in 1929, immediately bringing on associations with the Wall Street crash and sub­sequent demise of the blues industry on the whole, and Bessie's in particular. How painfully auto­biographical, one might say.

Yet it is twice as amusing to know that the actual recording took place on May 15 of that year — more than five actual months before the beginning of the Depression. As prophetic as the song now sounds, when Bessie put it in the can, it was just another unhappy blues anthem with Ms. Smith, at that moment — not exactly a millionnaire, but certainly pretty well-off, singing "Once I lived the life of a millionnaire..." as if that past tense were spoken in all sincerity. Atmosphere? Unhappy, for sure, but nowhere near miserable: the emphasis is on frustration — Bessie makes herself sound mighty pissed off at having so stupidly squandered her fortunes, with a whiff of threat that echoes Timon of Athens.

I guess she brought it on herself, though — obviously God could not refuse such a fervent plea for bitter misery, and had little choice but to bring down the stock market. The economic history of the States is well observed by the statistics: Bessie cut 18 sides in 1928, 18 sides in 1929, but only 8 in 1930 (and only two in 1931!). Some of these eight sides were real strange, too, like 'On Revival Day' and 'Moan, You Moaners', the first and last pure gospel tracks that Bessie (whose relations with the Lord were, in general, not very amicable) ever did, and she did them well, even though I would not welcome the idea of a whole collection of such tunes; Bessie's powerhouse assault works well in a gospel context, but if, for some reason, one should want a longer, more de­tailed exposure to the genre, it requires such levels of subtlety as Bessie never possessed (un­like, for instance, Mahalia Jackson).

Nevertheless, let us not forget that all of 1928 and most of 1929 were still part of the roaring years, and there are quite a few tracks here that stand out fairly well, satisfying quite a few different tastes. Hungry for sleazy and salacious? The sprawling, two-part 'Empty Bed Blues', replete with Charlie Green's sexy trombone grunts, features lyrics that would make AC/DC and KISS members nervously blush in the distance ('He boiled my first cabbage and he made it awful hot / When he put in the bacon, it overflowed the pot' — I wonder what Tip­per Gore would have to say about that. Then again, with her level of understanding, she'd proba­bly suggest it as the soundtrack for Ready Steady Cook). If that is not enough, how about 'Kitchen Man'? Eddie Lang's Lonnie Johnson-style guitar, sinuously sliding along, is the perfect accompaniment for lines like 'Oh how that boy can open clam, no one else can touch my ham', and she likes his sausage meat, too, if you know what I mean.

If you want serious and troubled, there is 'Me And My Gin', simply an undispu­table classic ma­s­terpiece; Bessie's 'Stay away from me, 'cause I'm in my sin' transparently shows how the blues is, in fact, true Devil's music a whole decade before the advent of Robert Johnson. And if it does not, certainly 'Blue Spirit Blues' does, as she unfurls a panorama of hellish visions straight from Bald Mountain; a song even more ominously prophetic than 'Nobody...', recorded on October 11 — less than two weeks before the whole world truly went to hell.

If you want strong-willed quasi-feminist anthems, you can go no further than 'Put It Right Here (Or Keep It Out There)', where she explicitly states that no man can, or will, use her up financial­ly — and the even more scorching 'I've Got What It Takes (But It Breaks My Heart To Give It Away)', in which the lady protagonist refuses to bail out her good-for-nothing guy because 'I've been saving it up for a long long time, to give it away would be more than a crime'. One may que­stion the judgement, but not the determination.

To sum it up, Vol. 4 seems to pick up the pace that was somewhat slowed down on Vol. 3, and if it does not have the highest ratio of classic-to-filler, it certainly does have the most diverse port­folio. People occasionally complain that, by the time 1930 rolls along, her voice had started show­ing signs of wearing down, e. g. on such numbers as 'Hustlin' Dan' and 'Black Mountain Blues', but, first of all, I simply do not hear it, and second, even if this is true, it is still impossible: Bessie's voice is of the particular kind that usually stays immune to any troubles, be they smoke, drug, or age-related. The worst she could do was flub a note or two if she came in the studio drunk, but we are not exactly talking opera singers here. She was always in great form.

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