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Monday, June 4, 2012

Blind Lemon Jefferson: Complete Recorded Works Vol. 3 (1928)


1) Blind Lemon's Pentitentiary Blues; 2) 'Lectric Chair Blues; 3) See That My Grave Is Kept Clean; 4) Lemon's Worried Blues; 5) Mean Jumper Blues; 6) Balky Mule Blues; 7) Change My Luck Blues; 8) Prison Cell Blues; 9) Lemon's Cannon Ball Moan; 10) Long Lastin' Lovin'; 11) Piney Woods Money Mama; 12) Low Down Mojo Blues; 13) Competition Bed Blues; 14) Lock Step Blues; 15) Hangman's Blues; 16) Sad News Blues; 17) How Long How Long; 18) Christmas Eve Blues; 19) Happy New Years Blues; 20) Maltese Cat Blues; 21) D B Blues.

Strange as it is, Blind Lemon's output got steadily less interesting as the years went by. None of the sides that he cut over 1928-29 even begin to match the inventiveness and freedom of ʽRabbit Foot Bluesʼ or ʽMatch Box Bluesʼ. And, considering the fact that it takes a lot to make anybody's jaw drop over a bunch of crackling, poorly recorded pre-war acoustic blues, the effect is in­evitable: dis-ap-point-ment a-plenty.

This third volume does contain an alternate version of ʽSee That My Grave Is Kept Cleanʼ that actually improves upon the original: do not miss Blind Lemon following up on the line "have you ever heard the church bell toll?" with an actual imitation of the church bell (no such thing in the first take from 1927), along with other little tricks. But then his blues style shifts to a subtler, more countrified style, with fewer unpredictable tempo or key changes — it is almost as if he were willing to downplay his guitar prowess a little bit in order to concentrate more on the sing­ing. One could almost argue in terms of a «sellout» — the average record buyer certainly paid more attention to the voice than the guitar, and somebody had to pay for the fuel for his brand new Ford, after all (and don't forget the chauffeur).

Nobody can argue that Blind Lemon did not have a cool singing voice — he reaches a particular high with his singing on ʽPrison Cell Bluesʼ, dragging out the end of each line in an alternating series of high-pitched wails or low growls quite effectively, even if his authenticity on the subject cannot be compared with Leadbelly's, for obvious reasons. But most of the time, that singing is just normal, and the songs could benefit from a little more guitar punch.

That Blind Lemon strived for commerciality is made particularly obvious by his covering ʽHow Long How Long Bluesʼ, a big 1928 hit for Leroy Carr — with Blind Lemon's piano player a weak shadow of Carr himself, and Blind Lemon's vocals shamelessly copping Carr's intonations and phrasing. Other than pure envy, there was no reason for him to play such a copycat. By late 1928, the man's playing degenerates almost completely: tracks like ʽHappy New Year Bluesʼ are built on the simplest of rhythms, and betray an amazing superstar-style laziness — «they'll buy anything I put out, anyway, as long as I wish them a happy new year and all».

And it's not as if something heavy fell on his head, making him forget how to play: some of the steam would be eventually picked up once again next year. No, it was a deliberate stylistic reori­entation, an attempt to «urbanize» himself by hitting it big as a singer, not as a player. Yet it did not help improve his career, and proved particularly disastrous in the long run: today, there is eve­ry reason to admire the man for ʽRabbit Footʼ, but if it is passionate blues singing from the pre-war era that you are after, even the aforementioned Leroy Carr will be a better bet.

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