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Monday, May 28, 2012

Blind Lemon Jefferson: Complete Recorded Works Vol. 2 (1927)


1) Black Snake Moan; 2) Match Box Blues; 3) Easy Rider Blues; 4) Match Box Blues; 5) Match Box Blues; 6) Rising High Water Blues; 7) Weary Dog Blues; 8) Right Of Way Blues; 9) Teddy Bear Blues; 10) Black Snake Dream Blues; 11) Hot Dogs; 12) He Arose From The Dead; 13) Stuck Sorrow Blues; 14) Rambler Blues; 15) Chinch Bug Blues; 16) Deceitful Brownskin Blues; 17) Sunshine Special; 18) Gone Dead On You Blues; 19) Where Shall I Be?; 20) See That My Grave's Kept Clean; 21) One Dime Blues; 22) Lonesome House Blues.

The obvious towering highlight of Blind Lemon's output in 1927 is ʽMatch Box Bluesʼ — not be­cause it has anything to do with matchboxes, and not even because it was later covered by Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and eventually the Beatles (the lyrics only have one verse that overlaps anyway, and the melody... 12-bar blues is only whatever your inspiration makes out of 12-bar blues, in any case). It's just that it happens to be the best sounding Blind Lemon song: during a brief stint at O'Keh records rather than Paramount, he cut one single (with ʽBlack Snake Moanʼ as the B-side) that, today, allows us to appreciate his guitar magic unhindered by crackle (well, there is still a little bit left, but it only helps the atmosphere).

I still feel that ʽRabbit Foot Bluesʼ is the man's one true classic on which he pulled all the stops, but ʽMatch Boxʼ does not linger far behind — chops, flourishes, trills, rhythmic traps and coun­terpoints, and then an out-of-nowhere boogie line for the last verse. The technique is impressive for its time, but it is not the technique that counts (for sheer speed and complexity, Lonnie John­son had Blind Lemon beat all the way), it is this amazing freedom of form: normally, you'd ex­pect the flourishes and key changes to happen after the man sings his line — Jefferson does that while singing, so that it is his voice, occasionally, that becomes the rhythm instrument, while the guitar just goes wherever it wants to.

The demand for the record was actually so big that, as soon as Blind Lemon returned to Para­mount, he was pressed into cutting two more takes — both of them in Paramount's standardly aw­ful quality, yet it is still curious to compare all three recordings, since no two out of the lot are completely identical. The boogie line may come in earlier, the intro may play an entirely different chord sequence, and, in general, it seems as if the man had no set plan when launching into the performance at all. Pure free flight.

This does not apply to all of Blind Lemon's material, of course. Some of the songs are quite tight and disciplined, such as ʽRight Of Way Bluesʼ, which is all based around one dark, menacing line winding its way upwards after each vocal turn — but it is such a creepy line, way over any gene­ric 12-bar standards of the day, that the song is still a minor masterpiece. To compensate for the eeriness, there is ʽHot Dogsʼ, a fast little dance number credited to «Blind Lemon Jefferson and His Feet» (the latter are indeed well audible), and then ʽHe Arose From The Deadʼ, sung in Blind Lemon's most sentimental croon to a very similar melody. (And why shouldn't one be merrily tapping one's foot to the story of the Resurrection? Happy end and all).

Somewhat more questionable is the inclusion of several numbers on which Jefferson switches guitar for a piano accompaniment: I am not sure if he played the instrument himself (he did know how, according to reports) or if Paramount brought in a session musician, but the playing on ʽTed­dy Bear Bluesʼ and other piano-led tunes is nothing special, and Blind Lemon is not that mi­raculous a singer to just fall for his voice and nothing else (well, Eric Clapton never learned his lesson, either). It's not bad, but, as a guitar player, Blind Lemon is worth looking into even at his laziest and tiredest — as a singer, he's just one of the many greats of his era.

Besides, his finest vocal performance on Vol. 2 is on a guitar-led track anyway: ʽSee That My Grave Is Kept Cleanʼ, which Bob Dylan would later record trying to emulate some of Lemon's actual modulations — to very good effect, for that matter, even if the fact remains that one is the original and the other one is a tribute act. Musical testaments like this were still a rarity in 1927, even among blues singers, and Jefferson's howling, while not particularly «shivery» per se, still feels a little uncomfortable. The guy was a commercially successful, near-prosperous, respectable bluesman-entertainer, yet here he is wailing about impending death and diminished returns in the afterlife. He only had two more years to live.

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