April is a special month for me. The boys of summer return to the baseball diamond, Spring is in full bloom, and it's the time of year when I take some time to reflect on one of the giants of the blues who was born on April 4th, 1915 and died in his sleep on April 30th, 1983. I'm talking about McKinley Morganfield, best known as Muddy Waters. I'd like to honor Muddy's memory this month by talking about a new Music Club compilation, Mojo, which just happens to include one of my favorite blues songs of all time, Elmore James' "Dust My Broom." I'd also like to think that Muddy would appreciate some of the newest traditional blues releases from Furry Lewis, Paul Geremia, Peg Leg Sam, and Otis Taylor.
If you're like me, you just can't get enough Muddy.
Music Club's Mojo features 14 standards from Muddy's 1970's touring bands, captured live. While most of this 74-minute compilation also landed on the The Lost Tapes (Blind Pig), I particularly liked the live version of Elmore James' "Dust My Broom." Even though Muddy is not at the microphone on this classic, his band revs up right behind Pinetop Perkins' piano. While Mojo does not consistently approach the intensity of the Johnny Winter-produced Muddy 'Mississippi' Waters Live release on Blues Sky Records in 1979, it is more than a completist's dream. It captures Muddy live in 1971 and 1976 with some great sidemen, like Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson and Sammy Lawhorn on guitars and Calvin "Fuzz" Jones on bass. The set from 1976 includes "Steady Rollin'" Bob Margolin on guitar, Jerry Portnoy on harp, and Pinetop Perkins at the piano. They power through such Muddy Waters classics as "Can't Get No Grindin'", "Hoochie Coochie Man," and "Rollin' and Tumblin,'" and for fans of urban, plugged-in Chicago blues, Mojo is a real treat.
Happy Birthday, Muddy. I wish you were here. If you were, I'd turn you on to some new releases in my blues in-box. Ones that I think you'd enjoy.
Furry Lewis' Take Your Time features fine country blues from a little-known slide player from the Mississippi Delta. Take Your Time was recorded in 1969 with Memphis guitarist Lee Baker. Furry Lewis initially recorded some songs on Vocalion in the 1930's but as the Depression spread throughout America, audiences preferred Busby Berkeley fantasy to the blues. Furry went on to work for the City of Memphis as a street sweeper, but renewed interest in the blues helped bring him back to the stage in the 1950s and 60s. Along the way, he was honored by the Smithsonian Institution and was part of the 1970s Memphis Blues Caravan that brought elderly bluesmen to colleges and music festivals. Furry died in 1981 from a heart attack, but I think he'd like to be remembered for some great country blues slide on Take Your Time, particularly on "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" and "John Henry." Adelphi's Blues Vault is a treasure trove with releases from Skip James, Bukka White, and R. L. Burnside. Watch for the next Blues Vault offering on Adelphi Records: Johnny Shines' One Half Mile From Hell, which will feature performances from 1969 to 1972. Shines, a contemporary of Muddy Waters', toured with the Chicago Blues All-Stars, a dream blues line-up that included Walter Horton, Sunnyland Slim, Willie Dixon and Clifton James.
Paul Geremia's fourth release for Minnesota's Red House Records, The Devil's Music, is one that I'm sure Muddy would like. These 15 cuts feature Geremia's original songs and traditional blues standards. His "If A Woman's Love Was Whisky" or "Farewell Street Rag" showcase his slide and 12-string prowess, and along with Rory McLeod on upright bass on "Chickens Come Home to Roost" shows that he's no slouch on the piano, either. Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues" stays true to its blues roots, and the complex, slicing slide of "Terraplane Blues" would make Robert Johnson proud. Geremia has been working at the blues trade for over 35 years in the tradition of Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Tampa Red. Although Muddy often said that Son House was one of his primary influences, I hear a lot of Johnson's passion in Muddy's, and Paul Geremia's, work.
Like Furry, Peg Leg Sam's blues is pure, unadulterated country blues. Kickin' It (32 Blues) introduces the acoustic country blues of South Carolina a new generation of blues fans. Peg Leg Sam, born Arthur Jackson, played the "medicine show" circuit along the Carolinas, and joined up with Pink Anderson in the late 1930's. While Pink made "Greasy Greens" his own with an old acoustic guitar, Peg Leg's harp version is another take on this classic country blues tune. The majority of Kickin' It features Peg Leg and his harp, but there are standout cuts that shine when he's joined by Rufe Johnson on guitar on "Before You Give It All Away" and "Irene, Tell Me Who Do You Love," or Baby Tate's guitar on "Skinny Woman Blues." Muddy Waters' musical apprenticeship included stints on the harmonica at Mississippi Delta fish-fries in the 1920's and included the music of Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie, and when I play Kickin' It, I can just imagine unpolished players like Peg Leg Sam on the juke joint circuit when Muddy was coming up.
When I think of the blues, I usually don't think of Denver. However, one Colorado-based bluesman, Otis Taylor, has changed all that for me. Otis Taylor once took a 20-year break from playing music in public, after forming the Butterscotch Fire Department Blues Band in the 60's and a stint with guitar legend Tommy Bolin in the 70's. I'm glad that bass player Kenny Passarelli coaxed Otis back to performing live in 1995. Since then, Otis has more than made up for lost time on three outstanding blues CDs: Blue Eyed Monster, When Negroes Walked The Earth, and this year's White African (Northern Blues). "My Soul's in Louisiana" and "Ain't No Cowgirl" show how powerful acoustic blues can be, but my favorite cut on White African is "Saint Martha Blues," which tells the tragic story of Otis' grandfather, who was lynched, and Martha's sad efforts to reclaim her husband's body. As a sharecropper himself, Muddy must have heard these types of stories in Jim Crow's America, and if he heard Otis Taylor, I am sure Muddy would sit back and take notice of a fine bluesman, cut from the same blues cloth.
This month, let's honor Muddy's memory by listening to the blues. Not
just any blues, but country blues that he helped shape and blues from
artists like Paul Geremia and Otis Taylor who repay debts to Muddy many
times over in their live performances and their CDs. Another way to
honor Muddy's memory is to listen to departed country bluesmen like Peg
Leg Sam and Furry Lewis, the kind of music Muddy listened to on his way up
Either way, you can't lose, 'cause this month, I've got some great Cosmik