BUKKA WHITE: ABERDEEN MISSISSIPPI BLUES (1930-1940; 2003)
1) The New Frisco Train; 2) The Panama Limited; 3) I Am In The Heavenly Way; 4) Promise True And Grand; 5) Pinebluff Arkansas; 6) Shake 'Em On Down; 7) Sic 'Em Dogs On; 8) Po' Boy; 9) Black Train Blues; 10) Strange Place Blues; 11) When Can I Change My Clothes; 12) Sleepy Man Blues; 13) Parchman Farm Blues; 14) Good Gin Blues; 15) High Fever Blues; 16) District Attorney; 17) Fixin' To Die Blues; 18) Aberdeen Mississippi Blues; 19) Bukka's Jitterbug Swing; 20) Special Stream Line.
One standard problem with reviewing thoroughly assembled collections of pre-war blues material is their expectable monotonousness — successful artists cutting dozens and dozens and dozens of sides that sounded all the same, simply because it was sometimes simpler and cheaper to cut a new side in the studio than re-release an old one. In that respect, Aberdeen Mississippi Blues, a near-exhaustive archive collection issued on the Document Records label, is a heart-warming and fairly unique exception. It manages to collect almost everything that Bukka White managed to record in a whole decade, between 1930 and 1940, and in widely varying, and sometimes quite intriguing, conditions at that. Since he was so notoriously un-prolific, this makes the collection read like a thrilling life story, quickly moving from chapter to chapter with a complex plotline.
Chapter 1: May 1930. A young and aspiring Washington White on vocal and guitar, backed by Napoleon Harrison on second guitar, cuts two sides for Victor Records in Memphis — both reflecting his life-long preference for trains, not just in the lyrics, but also in the music: that steel-bodied National guitar chugs along at top volume like a good old-fashioned choo-choo, speeding up, slowing down, pistons puffing, whistles blowing. He talks more than sings on both tracks, but that's perfectly suitable for these two little travelogs that immediately set the man up as a fairly unique talent, and rather align him with Leadbelly than, say, the ragtime blues school that was all the rage in the late 1920s / early 1930s. Just as you have finished pigeonholing him, though, he unexpectedly turns around and cuts two more, completely different tracks — dark, gruff gospel blues in the style of Blind Willie Johnson, backed by an unidentified «Miss Minnie», usually speculated to have been Memphis Minnie, but without definite proof.
Chapter 2: September 1937. A slightly older, but no less aspiring Bukka White on vocal and guitar, backed by an unknown second guitarist, cuts two sides for Vocalion in Chicago. Chicago! — and what we now hear is gruff, tense, slightly paranoid 12-bar blues on ʽPinebluff Arkansasʼ and ʽShake 'Em On Downʼ; the latter would eventually become one of the most celebrated blues pieces of its era, not the least because an untrained ear could easily confuse Bukka's hollering and playing on this track with Robert Johnson's. Already he sounds like a man possessed — for the moment, though, possessed primarily by libidinous urges.
Chapter 3: May 1939. A slightly less aspiring Bukka White, locked up in Parchman Farm in Mississippi for shooting a man in the leg, records two tracks for John Lomax on his portable equipment. This recording, ʽSic 'Em Dogs Onʼ and ʽPo' Boyʼ, soon acquires legendary status as well — not only for the rather specific conditions in which it was produced, but also because it unleashes the full spectrum of Bukka's talents: the combination of his deep, rumbling vocal vibrato and his aggressive playing (few people would dare to be as brutal when playing slide) really sounds like nothing else at the time. The closest comparison would probably be Charley Patton now, although nobody could accuse Bukka of the same levels of insanity.
Chapter 4: March 1940. Not the most legendary, but the largest, cleanest, and most informative chapter of 'em all. Back in Chicago, with only Washboard Sam to keep him company (three guesses as to Washboard Sam's preferred instrument of choice). Trains, alcohol, prison, sickness, madness, death, cemetery — not necessarily in that order, but you could easily program the results of that session to read like a short, comprehensive biography. ʽParchman Farm Bluesʼ, recalling personal experience; ʽGood Gin Bluesʼ, dealing with personal conditions; and particularly ʽFixin' To Die Bluesʼ, dealing with morose presentiments but in a surprisingly lively fashion (Dylan would later redo the song in a grim, desperate style, more easily understandable for the average white ear) — these are some of the highlights, although the entire session was quite even (must be the washboard effect).
It should be remembered that, although many of the songs sound similar, they never truly repeat each other. Booker T.'s playing style, much like that of Big Joe Williams, relied on brute force and raw feeling more than exquisite technique, but he knew all he cared to about nuances and flourishes, and on the general pre-war scale of «folk artistry vs. popular entertainment» his own little black dot goes almost all the way to the left. Every bit as essential as Johnson, Patton, and Leadbelly, and every bit as enjoyable for that long gone earthy vibe, these four chapters and their sixty minutes are not to be missed by anybody — thumbs up a-plenty.
Technical P.S.: In between this CD and the confusingly titled Complete Bukka White from a decade back, be sure to give your preference to the Document release: Complete really only covers the 1937 and 1940 Chicago sessions, and it is nowhere near as fun or instructive to have Bukka without the early train / gospel records or the quintessential prison session with Lomax.
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