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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Big Joe Williams: Piney Woods Blues


1) Baby, Please Don't Go; 2) Drop Down Mama; 3) Mellow Peaches; 4) No More Whiskey; 5) Tailor Made Babe; 6) Big Joe Talking; 7) Some Day Baby; 8) Good Morning Little Schoolgirl; 9) Peach Orchard Mama; 10) Juanita; 11) Shetland Pony Blues; 12) Omaha Blues.

In 1958, Big Joe re-emerged as one of the proud bearers of pre-war Americana on the newly for­med Delmark Records: Piney Woods Blues was the label's second LP (for the record, The Dirty Dozens by Speckled Red was the first, and boy, were those dozens ever dirty). The trick worked out fine: not aiming at capturing any major markets, Delmark introduced Big Joe, along with lots of other artists, to new generations that could hardly be bothered tracking down old sizzling 78s. If they couldn't have Robert Johnson, and if they couldn't get Muddy Waters to switch back to acoustic, Big Joe was their guy.

Captured in St. Louis, mostly solo, but on some tracks, also backed by J. D. Short on harmonica and guitar, Big Joe runs through eleven numbers from his standard repertoire here (the twelfth track, 'Big Joe Talking', is true to its title; supposedly he is telling exciting tales about meeting Leadbelly in prison and stuff, but the only word group that my ears were able to distinguish was "corn whiskey"). All the playing is strictly acoustic; my guess is that, as it often happened, nice-meaning guys wanted to let Big Joe go for that «authentic» sound, when he, most likely, would not have minded adding a lit­tle amplification to the proceedings. But if there was a target audi­ence for this stuff in the first place, it'd mostly consist of college intellectuals, and in 1958, most col­lege intellectuals still thought of amplification as murdering the art spirit.

Anyway, the sound is clean, so Big Joe's playing style can be enjoyed here with more general ease than on the original recordings. On the down side, J. D. Short cannot replace Sonny Boy, and Big Joe's taking on some of Sonny Boy's own trademark material (e. g. 'Good Morning Little Schoolgirl') is interesting, but generally useless. On the up side, old acoustic bluesmen on their late period records sometimes tend to stretch out, diversifying and embellishing the old melodies with all sorts of extra flourishes (Skip James is a classic example — his uniqueness is easier ap­preciated on stuff he recorded in the 1960s than in his «heyday»). So, 'Baby Please Don't Go' is changed almost beyond recognition, from a simple threatening shuffle into a freedom-oriented performance where almost no two bars sound the same. This is probably the first time that post-war listeners were able to really appreciate the art of alternating tough, grumbly boogie lines flow­ing in and out of lyrical country-blues passages, all coming from the same guitar — in crystal clear sound quality. That's got to count for something.

As boring as acoustic blues may be some­times, Big Joe definitely commits himself to proving the opposite here; in a way, this style of playing is more interesting than the impressive, but repetitive phrasing of a Robert Johnson. So, thumbs up, of course.

Check "Piney Woods Blues" (CD) on Amazon

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