The Blues: A Smithsonian Collection of Classic Blues Singers
four CDs , four cassettes
This is a satisfying survey of classic blues, that immense body of American music grown on the skeleton of a simple, repeating twelve-bar harmonic scheme. Listen to it straight through, and you’ll hear the acoustic picking of Blind Lemon Jefferson give way to Walter (“Furry”) Lewis’s bottleneck effects, then the addition of trumpets, banjos, harmonica, and stride piano, until, toward the end, Muddy Waters’s early electric plays over a ticky-tacky drumbeat on “Louisiana Blues” in 1950. Some major artists (Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson) may seem underrepresented, but breadth is the thing here, and their recordings are very widely available. Here you will find, for instance, Sara Martin singing “Death Sting Me Blues”—”an example of the second-rate singer who occasionally produces a masterpiece,” according to the thorough and respectful notes that accompany the recording—and Blind Willie Johnson’s 1927 “Dark Was the Night,” a wordless chant that sounds like a spiritual hummed over a sitar.