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Monday, May 30, 2011

Big Joe Williams: Walking Blues


1) Levee Camp Blues; 2) Low Down Dirty Shame; 3) Gambling Man; 4) Ain’t Gonna Rain No More; 5) Feel So Good; 6) Prowling Ground Hog; 7) Back Home Again; 8) Sugar Babe; 9) Tell Me Mama; 10) Studio Blues; 11) I’m A Fool About My Baby; 12) 38 Pistol Blues; 13) Pearly Mae; 14) Walking Blues; 15) Highway 45; 16) Meet Me At The Bottom; 17) Skinny Mama; 18) Jockey Ride Blues; 19) Coal And Iceman Blues; 20) Army Man Blues; 21) Black Gal; 22) Pallet On The Floor.

For precision sake, it should be mentioned that this collection originally came out as two LPs: Blues For 9 Strings in 1961 (the last 12 songs) and Studio Blues in 1966 (the first 10). Both were, however, recorded during the same session in 1961, with a small combo involving Larry Johnson on harmonica and the great Willie Dixon himself on bass (usually, with Big Joe around, one hardly gets to hear anybody else properly anyway, but Big Willie was the bass player to rip at the strings with the kind of thick ferocity that agreed with Big Joe’s style better than any other playing style).

By now, it was relatively clear what Delmark, Folkways and the others were trying to do: short of «authentic» pre-war blues artists, yet faced with the ever-increasing demand for genuine Delta blues on the part of the younger generation, they expected of a happy find like Big Joe the com­plete recreation of the entire Delta repertoire, no less. Of the 24 songs recorded during these ses­sions, only a very minor portion overlaps with previous recordings. Instead, Joe covers songs made famous by Son House (‘Levee Camp Blues’), Big Bill Broonzy (‘I Feel So Good’), and probably others (many of the titles I simply do not recognize, but, clearly, there is no talk of ori­ginal com­posing here).

It goes without saying that the substitute is not ideal: Big Joe has his own middle-of-the-road style, and taking on the entire Delta legacy is a bit like the Grateful Dead taking on the entire le­gacy of American popular music: formally, they pull it off, but who will remember Jerry Garcia for playing ‘Johnny B. Goode’ or ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’ instead of ‘Dark Star’ when no one has so far taken care to burn all of Chuck Berry’s and Rev. Gary Davis’ records?

But I have to admit that Big Joe’s take on ‘Feel So Good’ is still pretty amusing, with the song slightly sped up and boogified. Joe even tries out some quasi-rockabilly licks in the solo: some of these all but demand being accompanied by duckwalking, and I am pretty sure that the man, un­like many of his peers, did not turn a deaf ear to those hot new sounds on 1950s radio.

Overall, this is probably the best choice for post-war Big Joe: the session is long, well-recorded, diverse (covering all of Big Joe’s proper bases and touching upon many others), and, like I said, Big Joe’s gruff and gritty playing style is a perfect match with Dixon’s amazing blues bass skills. Some of the tracks, especially fast ones like ‘Tell Me Mama’, are worth it just for Willie’s fat, but smooth runs alone. Thumbs up.

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