At a time when social, racial, and political upheaval continues to leave many in the U.S. (and in countries around the world) uneasy, the year 2015 also offers an opportunity to reflect on the complex dimensions of our history as well as the possibilities of our future. The year 1965 was pivotal in the decades-long crusade known as the Civil Rights Movement. After being systematically denied access to voting, national leaders of the movement joined forces with local leaders and community members to stage protests in the town of Selma, Alabama—a location known to deny African Americans the right to vote. The group planned a 5 day, 54 mile march to the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, to demand unhindered access to the polls. Their first attempt on March 7 was soon to be called “Bloody Sunday,” as 600 marchers were stopped at the Edmund Pettus Bridge by armed local white citizens and police who brutally beat protesters. After their second “symbolic” march ended at the bridge, protesters marched again on March 21, this time escorted on their journey to Montgomery by US Army Troops, the Alabama National Guard, and FBI agents. This large scale protest alongside continued efforts in local and national arenas helped to secure the passage of the Voting Rights Act, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in August 1965.
In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of these events, Legacy Recordings has re-released an album recorded by renowned gospel (and later soul) music performers, the Staple Singers, titled Freedom Highway Complete: Recorded Live at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church. In April 1965, this family group (including Roebuck “Pops,” Mavis, Pervis, Cleotha, and Yvonne), inspired by the marches, participated in a service at their local congregation, New Nazareth Church in Chicago. Freedom Highway features a re-mastered version of the concert including several previously unreleased or extended tracks that help establish the communal and occasionally playful tenor of this worship service. Mobile recording was still a relatively new concept at the time that this event was captured, making for some occasionally uneven sound levels. However, the energy and movement of the service remain abundantly evident.
Pops Staples begins the service by inviting audience members to participate in worship, as well as acknowledging particular vocalists and instrumentalists including the New Nazareth Baptist Choir and L. C. Cooke, brother of the late soul music pioneer, Sam Cooke. The concert offers an interesting mix of original compositions, Civil Rights “freedom” songs, and popular gospel pieces of the day, all of which point to the urgency of “living right” and putting belief into action. The Civil Rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” receives enthusiastic audience participation with singing, hand clapping, and verbal affirmation – as it was a popular galvanizing device in Civil Rights Movement at marches and protests. Inspired by the brilliance and bravery of those who participated in the Selma to Montgomery march, Pops penned the album’s title song “Freedom Highway.” He explains, “From that march, words were revealed, and a song was composed.” His piece does not focus on the dream of freedom heard in “We Shall Overcome.” Rather, it critiques racially motivated injustices and killings and encourages freedom fighters to persevere until social and political equality are achieved. Mavis as the lead singer assertively declares, “Found dead people in the forest/ Tallahatchie River and lakes/ Whole world is wonderin’/what’s wrong with the United States?/ Yes we want peace/ if it can be found/ marching freedom highway/ and I’m not gonna turn around!”
The gospel selections focus primarily on 1) soliciting divine assistance from God to overcome earthly struggles and/or 2) anticipation of heaven and the afterlife. For instance, Mavis performs gospel pioneer Thomas Dorsey’s famous piece “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” with Pops and the other group members providing background vocalizations in the form of harmonized, swooping “oohs.” In this selection, Mavis pleads for God’s assistance and guidance in her journey to her ultimate destination, “home.” Unlike many performances of this song, the Staples Singers’ version features no piano or organ; rather, it has a slow-rocking country gospel sound primarily accompanied by Pops’ acoustic guitar. The relevant lyrics and Mavis’ passionate delivery resonate with listeners who adamantly encourage her, “Sing the song, Mavis!” The themes of death and heaven are even more prevalent in songs like “When I’m Gone,” “When the Saint Go Marching In,” and “View that Holy City,” “What You Gonna Do?” and “Tell Heaven.” These selections are introspective celebrations of the difficulties and joys of life. They invite listeners to think carefully about their beliefs, actions, and legacy because one’s decisions have repercussions both in the afterlife and in the present-day.
One of the most engaging elements of this album is the inclusion of gospel sermonettes by Pops Staple. For example, “Help Me Jesus” features Pops reminiscing about his experiences of the music of church services in rural Mississippi. His storytelling is expertly undergirded by improvised guitar picking and by Mavis and her siblings as they interject deep colorful moans. The group brings the story to life by zealously yet intensely singing quotations of the songs that he mentions including “Amazing Grace,” “Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee,” and “There’s a Leak in This Old Building.” Using music to recall the migration journey of many African Americans living in Chicago at this time, Pops initiates a collective remembering of the sights and sounds of worship “down home.”
Freedom Highway Complete is an excellent snapshot of the ways in which faith and freedom fighting often interwove during the Civil Rights Movement. At a time of deep social unrest, many church leaders, artists, and community members took deliberate action to effect positive change. The Staple Singers joined these ranks, often using music to challenge systems of oppression while asserting their spirituality and humanity. Beyond its artistic merit, Freedom Highway is an important historical document of the multifaceted social, political, cultural, and economic struggle to end injustice in the U.S. The Staple Singers’ messages continue to resonate today, encouraging all who are listening (even 50 years later) to keep “marching up freedom highway.”
This is proving to be a great year for fans of the Staple Singers. In March, Legacy re-issued their 1965 album, Freedom Highway Complete: Recorded Live at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church (reviewed here), to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” and the subsequent Selma to Montgomery march—a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement. Now, just in time for the holidays, we’re blessed with Concord’s limited edition 4-CD box set, Faith & Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976, the first comprehensive overview of the group’s career. Drawing from over two decades of material in the vaults, the set includes both live and studio recordings. Also included are some tempting never-before-released rarities, of which the pièce de résistance is the bonus 7-inch vinyl disc featuring the earliest known recordings of the group (“Faith and Grace” ; “These Are They”) from a 1953 limited edition self-released 78-rpm disc on the Royal label.
Family patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples, a guitarist and singer noted for his high tenor voice and falsetto, formed the Staples Singers in 1949 with his son, Pervis (tenor), and two of his young daughters, Cleotha (alto) and Mavis (contralto and bass)—who usually sang lead with her father. Another daughter, Yvonne, would later join the quartet, alternating with Pervis and Cleotha. Originally from Mississippi, Pops was exposed to both secular music, primarily the Delta blues, as well as sacred, performing in church choirs and with the vocal group Golden Trumpets. When the family moved to Chicago in the 1930s, bringing their country styles with them, they were initially ridiculed in the big city (as were most rural southerners during the Great Migration). However, it would be this unique fusion of country blues, folk spirituals and gospel quartet influences that propelled the family to stardom—especially in the late 1950s and 1960s with the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement and subsequent flowering of soul music.
Disc one, sequenced chronologically, covers the early years from 1953-1960. Opening with two songs recorded on September 7, 1953, the group lays into Pops Staple’s original “It Rained Children” (United 165) and a traditional song “I Just Can’t Keep It to Myself” (Gospel/Savoy LP 3001), both accompanied on piano by Evelyn Gay of the popular Gay Sisters, who only sat in at the insistence of the studio head. All of the remaining songs were accompanied by Pops on guitar and were recorded at Chicago’s Universal Studios for release on the African American owned Vee-Jay label, where Ewart Abner was responsible for signing the group. Also included is the previously unreleased song—“I’ve Got a New Home” from 1955. This disc brings out the raw gospel “straight from the church” side of the Staple Singers and, with the exception of their first major hit “Uncloudy Day,” many of these songs are likely not well-known to the average listener. The disc also highlights the remarkable talents of the precocious Mavis, who was only 14 when the initial tracks were recorded.
Disc two continues with Vee-Jay recordings from 1960-1961, beginning with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and including traditional songs such as “Swing Low” and “Stand By Me.” A previously unreleased full version of the medley “Too Close/I’m On My Way Home/I’m Coming Home/He’s Alright” from a live performance recorded in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1960 is a highlight of this disc. When the group moved over to the New York based Riverside label in 1962, they released the album Hammer and Nails (Riverside 3501). Under the direction of Orrin Keepnews, the seven songs included here from Hammer and Nails showcase a much more pop-oriented sound, purposefully targeted to a broader audience well beyond the Black church. The remaining tracks are drawn from several Riverside albums: “There Was a Star” and “Use What You Got” (with Maceo Woods on organ) from the Christmas album The 25th Day of December(Riverside 3513); “Let That Liar Alone” and the popular folk songs “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “This Land Is Your Land” from the album This Land, with Phil Upchurch and Johnny Pate on bass (Riverside 3524); “I Know I’ve Been Changed” from the album Great Day (Milestone M 470280, though this citation does not appear in the notes) ; and “I Can’t Help From Cryin’ Sometime” from the album This Little Light (Riverside 3527).
Disc 3 represents the greatest transitional period, including material from 1964-1969 recorded for several labels: three tracks from Riverside (all from This Little Light), then moving on to “Wish I Had Answered” from the Live at Newport album on Vanguard; two tracks recorded for the D-Town label’s devotional series including “Tell Him What You Want” and I’ll Fly Away”; 11 tracks from the Epic label which includes their socially conscious song “Freedom Highway;” and three of their first songs on the Stax label including “Long Walk to D.C.,” “Slow Train” and “Got to Be Some Changes.”
Disc 4 is comprised almost entirely of the Staple Singers’ Stax output, where they were molded into soul music superstars. Included is their great message song about reparations, “When Will We Be Paid,” and “The Ghetto” from the albums Soul Folk in Action and We’ll Get Over, plus their biggest hit of all time, “Respect Yourself,” and four other songs from the album Be Altitude: Respect Yourself. Also included are two songs from the album Be What You Are, “Back Road Into Town” from City in the Sky, and “Let’s Do It Again,” released on Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label. The set closes with a version of the song “The Weight,” recorded in 1976 with The Band (featuring Levon Helm) for the famous Martin Scorsese documentary The Last Waltz, plus a bonus demo track of “Respect Yourself.”
The handsome packaging includes a forward by Mavis Staples along with informative liner notes by James Miller, gospel historian Opal Louis Nations, and compilation producer Joe McEwen, accompanied by many full color photographs. It should be noted that a few typos and omissions have crept into the text, and the CD sleeves are too tight and must be loosened to allow safe removal of the discs. But overall this is a fabulous tribute to the Staple Singers, covering the full range of their output from the “country gospel sounds of the Mississippi Delta” to the peak of their career as soul royalty, “God’s greatest hitmakers,” and icons of the Civil Rights Movement. Don’t wait too long to purchase a copy—this set may be sold out by the end of the year.
Label: Time Life
Catalog No.: 80051-D (CD box set)
Release Date: January 27, 2009
“You don’t get a black president overnight. Songs . . . in this box set make you understand the collective voices that make it happen.” –Chuck D (from the preface)
Just in time for Black History Month, the folks at Time Life have produced a wonderful 3 CD deluxe box set that is a must have for every library and educator. To sweeten the deal, a companion feature length documentary will also air this month on TV ONE, and possibly PBS (more on this following the review). Sometime later this year the documentary will also be released on DVD, perhaps in an expanded version.
The Let Freedom Sing box set was produced with the assistance of noted music historian Colin Escott, who has written extensively on rock, rhythm and blues, and country music, and is known as much for his meticulous research as for his writing skills. His liner notes situate each track within the historical context of the Civil Rights Movement, both within his descriptions of the music, and through the use of timelines. Though other CD sets with a similar focus have been released in the past, this compilation actually goes well beyond the Civil Rights era, including 58 seminal songs presented in mostly chronological order from 1939 through 2008 and the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. What I most appreciate about the set is the song selection, which is at times both surprising and provocative, but always representative of the struggle for equality. The producers, which also include Mike Jason and Bas Hartong, spent two years on the compilation, and their care and attention to detail is evident in every aspect of the project.
The first disc covers a lot of ground, beginning with the popular spiritual “Go Down Moses” (sung by the Southern Sons in 1941), then veering off sharply to Billie Holiday’s ominous 1939 ballad “Strange Fruit” about Southern lynchings, before heading into the war years with “Uncle Sam Says” by Josh White. Post WWII disillusionment is expressed in “No Restricted Signs” by the Golden Gate Quartet, “Black, Brown and White” by Brownie McGhee (a rare blues track), and the original 1949 version of “If I Had Hammer” by the Weavers. The tracks from the ’50s were selected to follow the Brown vs. Board of Education and other anti-segregation rulings, and include “The Death of Emmett Till” by the Ramparts, “The Alabama Bus” by Brother Will Hairston, and “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?” by the Staple Singers. The disc concludes in the mid-1960s, commenting on the Civil Rights Movement through “Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone and “We Shall Overcome” by Mahalia Jackson, but also including Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind” and Phil Och’s “Too Many Martyrs.”
Disc two focuses exclusively on the years 1965 through 1970, with the bulk of the songs released at the end of that period. Though many popular favorites are included, such as the Impressions’ “People Get Ready” and James Brown’s “Say It Loud-I’m Black and I’m Proud,” again the producers have added a number of interesting selections to the mix. Oscar Brown, Jr. addresses reparations in his 1965 song “Forty Acres and a Mule,” while John Lee Hooker’s “The Motor Town Is Burning” comments on the July 1967 riots in Detroit. Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., George Perkins sings “Cryin’ in the Streets” while Smokey Robinson and the Miracles lament three separate assassinations in “Abraham, Martin, and John.” Other highlights include the original “Yes We Can” released by Lee Dorsey in 1970, Syl Johnson’s “Is It Because I’m Black,” and Swamp Dogg’s “I Was Born Blue.”
The final disc of the set picks up in 1971 with Gil Scott-Heron’s proto rap “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and follows with a number of popular Black Power era songs by the Chi-Lites, Marvin Gaye, the Isley Brothers, and the O’Jays, along with Aaron Neville’s “Hercules” and Bob Marley and the Wailer’s “Get Up, Stand Up.” From this point the disc segues briefly into the ’80s with the Jungle Brother’s hit “Black Is Black” and the Neville Brother’s “Sister Rosa,” while the ’90s are represented only by Chuck D’s “The Pride.” The set concludes with five recent releases, including “Unity” by Sounds of Blackness, “None of Us Are Free” by Solomon Burke, “Eyes on the Prize” by the Sojourners, “Down in Mississippi” by Mavis Staples (from her 2007 Civil Rights album We’ll Never Turn Back), and, fittingly, “Free At Last” by the Blind Boys of Alabama.
TV ONE TO PREMIERE LET FREEDOM SING: HOW MUSIC INSPIRED THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT ON SUNDAY, FEB. 15 AT 8 PM
(Excerpted from the press release) TV One will premiere Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement, a two-hour documentary that chronicles how the power of lyrics and songs helped move a nation during the most turbulent days of the 20th century, Sunday, Feb. 15 from 8-10 PM. The special will repeat at midnight and also air on Sunday, Feb. 22 at 1 PM (HD/all times ET).
Let Freedom Sing will trace the interaction among the music, the movement and the people involved. The film showcases how the music calmed tensions when protesters were arrested and how creative pioneers in gospel, blues, R&B and pop brought music, medium and message together as never before, composing a soundtrack perfectly tuned to the tempo and pulse of its time.
The film includes interviews with musicians, civil rights activists, music industry executives, historians and others involved in the movement, including former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young; actress Ruby Dee, influential musicians Pete Seeger, Gladys Knight, Jimmy Carter and the Blind Boys of Alabama, Ruth Brown, Jerry Butler and Chuck D; and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) co-founder Dr. Bernard Lafayette.
Let Freedom Sing begins in the era between the wars when segregation was often brutally enforced in Southern states, and when jazz and blues evolved from songs sung by African-Americans in church and in the fields. It will feature never-before-seen footage from the 1960s, while tracing the influence of Civil Rights-inspired music around the world and revealing the enduring impact it retains on today’s popular music. Chronicling a musical and cultural past,the film also shows how this music is living history that inextricably binds the past with the present.
Alligator Records started in 1971 as one man’s dream to record the Southside Chicago blues artists who packed a tiny venue called Florence’s. Bruce Iglauer, then working at Delmark Records, began his label with just one record per year and one employee—himself. In 1991 he released a 20th Anniversary Collection to commemorate the growth of his label to Grammy-award status. Robert Mugge’s film, Pride & Joy: The Story of Alligator Records, documented the promotional tour for that compilation, and an album of live performances from the tour was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Compilations followed for the 20th, 25th, 30th and 40th anniversaries, each compiling tracks from the label’s early days and pairing with newer material. Over the years the label added artists, including many from outside of the Chicago tradition, who were either dropped from other labels or were floundering after the demise of the 1960s blues revival. Still a small label, Alligator continues to produce several albums a year and has re-released albums acquired from other labels.
Iglauer’s introduction to the 45th Anniversary Collection sets this collection apart as a retrospective not of the entire backlist, but mainly of the artists who have recorded since the 2011 40th Anniversary album, plus select tracks by those who have died recently. The living and the dead are interspersed, but most of the current Alligator performers are on the first of the two disc set. Their tracks illustrate a vibrant tradition that still speaks to audiences around the world.
Disc One opens with a “house-rockin’” performance of “Hold That Train” by Lil’ Ed and the Imperials (2008). They invite the listener to “get on board … next stop: Chicago.” Since Alligator’s signature sound is “house-rockin’ music,” this track is a perfect choice to represent the label. “Cotton Picking Blues” (1973) by Son Seals (d. 2004) follows with a long, lugubrious electric guitar solo backed by organ, drums and bass that takes up much of the track. Having been cheated out of his share-cropping pay he has to “put it down.” This is the source of Chicago’s blues inheritance: musicians migrating from the Delta cotton fields to Chicago.
“Devil’s Hand” (2015) by Shemekia Copeland represents the present. The daughter of Johnny Copeland, she began recording for Alligator in 1998 at the age of 18. Tracks in the previous anniversary compilations find her sometimes struggling to compete with her horn section, but in “Devil’s Hand” her voice is robust and soulful, and the production gives her room to breathe. She has come into her own. “Can’t Even Do Wrong Right” (2015) by Elvin Bishop is a witty take on classic blues themes with the best line: “What goes on in the dark will surely come to light.” Toronzo Cannon’s “Bad Contract” (2016) is a funkalicious blues concoction with lyrics that echo the Son Seals’ track, but instead of being cheated by a farmer, Cannon gets burned by a pre-nuptial contract! Who wouldn’t sing the blues?
Harmonica maestro Charlie Musselwhite tells a true story of how the courage of Jessica McClure, the girl who fell into “The Well” (2010), inspired him to quit drinking and “to be a better man.” You might have to listen twice for the story though, because the harmonica solos overshadow everything else in the track. He is a true gift to the blues. Marcia Ball (2014) sings “The Tattooed Lady and the Alligator Man,” a boogie woogie song complete with a horn section and retro piano licks, telling the story of a pair of freak show performers.
In case you feared that civil rights music was a thing of the past, fear not. “Common Ground” (2015) by The Painkillers & Tommy Castro urges us to “stand together on common ground… everybody’s looking for someone to blame but we’re not as different as we are the same.” This mid-tempo gospel-tinged anthem tells us “It’s time to build a brand new day.” Preach it, Tommy! Carey Bell (d. 2007) & his son Lurrie Bell, sing “The Road Is So Long” (2004), an acoustic, Piedmont-inspired duo with Carey on harp and Lurrie on guitar. The track shows Alligator’s reach as well as some impressive instrumentals by the Bells.
Koko Taylor (d. 2009), Alligator’s vocal powerhouse for many years, penned a very southern “Voodoo Woman” (1975). She has a crawfish on her “shoulder, looking dead at you.” Rough and bare, backed by guitar and sax, you can believe her claim that she could make the sky begin to cry. “Don’t Call No Ambulance” (2013) is a hard-driving house-rockin’ song with a ripping horn section. Selwyn Birchwood’s gravelly voice would sound right at home on any Delta classic but has the driving force and powerful diction (yes, diction!) to hold his own against his funkelectric band. Birchwood burst onto the scene in 2013 but he is an old soul with much to say and many years ahead of him. “Don’t you call no ambulance—I’ll find my own ride home.” Oh yes, he would, and I bet he could also walk it if he had to!
Rick Estrin & The Nightcats “Callin’ All Fools” (2013) is a retro-mod song backed by organ, drums and guitar. Lorenzo Farrell’s organ solo is not to be missed. “Too Drunk to Drive Drunk” (2012) by Joe Louis Walker is a hard-driving song about not driving. This is one of the most unique tracks in the collection. Imagine if 1950s Jerry Lee Lewis had a baby with Stevie Ray Vaughan. “I know you mighta done it a million times before, but you ain’t driving outta here like this no more.” “Crazy When She Drinks”(2007) by Lee Rocker, former member of the Stray Cats, sounds a bit like his former group’s work, which isn’t a bad thing but isn’t core to the Alligator wheelhouse. The lyrics fit into a blues house, though: “It don’t make her happy – it just makes her mean.” She probably shouldn’t drive home, either.
“Take Me With You (When You Go),” from Aaron Moreland and Dustin Arbuckle’s 2016 debut album for Alligator, is roots house-rock that has them pulling out all the stops. “Your Turn to Cry” (1977), by Jimmy Johnson, is one of the few older songs by a living artist. Johnson, who is still alive and gigging at 87, lets the guitar do most of the crying but his powerful falsetto recalls the classic R&B artists of the 1950s while staying true to the blues. Texan Delbert McClinton’s “Giving It Up for Your Love” is from a live album recorded at Austin City Limits. It is a multi-tinged gumbo of roots rock styles with full horn section and no holds barred.
Hound Dog Taylor (d. 1975) and the Houserockers were the band that inspired Iglauer to start the Alligator label. “Take Five” (1974) is hard-driving house-rock song that’s light on lyrics and heavy on bottleneck guitar. “Gotta go… gotta go…. sure ‘nuff … baby.” It’s easy to imagine this quickie (2:42) as a prelude to a bathroom break or a rockin’ closer after a long night at Florence’s. New Orleans’ Anders Osborne’s “Let It Go” (2013) is a plea to give up drugs, with references to psychedelic sounds of the 1960s in the incessant driving rhythm and soaring guitar solos. There’s no resolution, just sinking deeper into a quagmire of hypnotic sounds. According to the notes, Osborne has overcome his troubles but they clearly left a soulfully felt scar. Mavis Staples sings “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (2004) to a croaking bass harmonica (that sometimes sounds like a didjeridoo) and slide guitar. Inspired to resume her career after the events of 9/11, this track points to her bright future.
Disc 2 opens with “Cotton Mouth Man” (2013) by James Cotton, featuring Joe Bonamassa, and includes the line “The Blues cannot be killed!” What a great track to open a disc that includes many deceased artists.
Recorded live in Tokyo, “If Trouble was Money” (1982) by Albert Collins shows off his guitar virtuosity from the start in this long, languid lament that also features a fabulous sax solo by A.C. Reed. “99 Shades of Crazy” (2013), by J.J. Grey & Mofro, is funkified “roots rock” with a horn section and organ. The song is great dark-edged fun that crosses too many boundaries to fit into one category. Jarekus Singleton sings “I Refuse to Lose” (2014) while his guitar sings like B.B. King’s Lucille. Adding organ and heavy drums makes this a good pairing with the previous track. Singleton is new to the blues scene and this anthem of hard work and determination predicts a long and successful future. Though sounding like B.B. King is a great thing, he will doubtless take that sound to a new level using his own voice.
Next comes “Empty Promises” (2008) by Michael Burks. Nobody would blame you for thinking this was a classic from the 1960s. It’s one part soul-blues and one part acid-blues-rock. Burks’ voice has the richness of classic singers of that era and the guitar solos are worthy of a Woodstock revival. If Jimi Hendrix were alive he’d be flattered. Sadly, Burks died in 2012, making this song an ironic salute to a great talent. Johnny Winter is another lost soul (d. 2014). He recorded three albums with Alligator in the 1980s and “Shake Your Moneymaker” (1986) was featured on the final release. Winter rocks some impressive bottleneck guitar playing on this James Cotton tune and croaks out the lyrics like a battle-scarred blueser.
“Walk a Mile in My Blues,” (2016) is sung by Washington-born Curtis Salgado, who mentored John Belushi. Having beat cancer three times he has a right to sing the blues. His voice is emotional and rich, with no hint of any infirmity, yet wizened enough to sing the blues with authority. He won the 36th Soul Blues Male Artist award (2015), and sounds like he’ll be adding to his trophy case for years to come. “Stumblin’” (recorded in 2003; remastered in 2015), by the Kentucky Headhunters, is a fun-loving drunken ramble that could be featured in any honky-tonk or roadhouse blues venue. Johnnie Johnson (d. 2005), who was Chuck Berry’s piano player, guested on this track, which didn’t make it onto an album until Alligator released it in 2015. “I Ain’t Got You” (1995), by Billy Boy Arnold, is a 1950s-style boogie woogie that Arnold first recorded in 1955. His harmonica sets the song apart from the pop genres of that time and gives it legs.
The 12th track slows the pace with smoky-voiced Ann Rabson’s “Gonna Stop You from Giving Me the Blues” (1997). Sadly, she died in 2013. Alone and as part of Safire: Uppity Blues Women, Rabson recorded solely with Alligator. As a soloist she shows a Krall-ish side of the blues, a counterpoint full-throated singers Koko Taylor and Shemekia Copeland. “Freezer Burn” (2010), by Bnois King & Smokin’ Joe Kubek (d. 2015), is a rockin’ instrumental, filled with soulful guitar riffs, leaving us to grieve for Kubek’s guitar voice. Following is “I’m Gonna Leave You” (2004), a classic woman-done-me-wrong lament written and performed by Guitar Shorty. The lyrics don’t quite versify but they do testify, because that’s just how bad that woman is. If you love old-time blues, this track is one of the best on the album. “She’s Fine” by A.C. Reed (d. 2004, tenor sax) and Bonnie Raitt (voice & slide guitar), is a slow moving tribute to the blues. Recorded live, “Will It Ever Change?” (1997) by Luther Allison (d. 1997), decries discrimination—unfortunately, a message that appears to be timeless. “I can see the bells of freedom, but why can’t I hear them ring?” is a haunting lyric that rings true today.
“Amazing Grace” (2013) by the Holmes Brothers closes out the collection. Two of the three members died in 2015, leaving this, their signature song, as their own memorial on this collection. You’ll never hear “Amazing Grace” the same way again. Once again, Alligator Records and Bruce Iglauer have encapsulated the best of the blues in their latest anniversary release. We can only hope there will be many more.
War, social injustice, personal plaints, and calls for action have long fueled musical creation and performance—Liner Notes.
Folkways Records, founded by Moses Asch in 1948, emerged on the heels of the social protests of the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, Asch created something of a haven for left-leaning musicians, both black and white, such as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Josh White, who became staples of the famous folk music label. For this compilation, Jeff Place and Mark Gustafson (Smithsonian Folkways’ staff) selected 22 tracks from the Folkways’ vault, as well as from other labels more recently acquired by Smithsonian Folkways, including Monitor and Paragon (the latter was founded in 1970 to document the music of political movements worldwide). An effort was made to represent a broad spectrum of the struggles for economic and social justice, from anti-war protests to civil rights anthems to songs used by union organizers and the labor movement. Place and Gustafson also sought to demonstrate that protest songs did not originate with the folk music revival, thus a number of pre-1950 tracks were included.
African American artists are well represented on this compilation. The disc opens with the “Freedom Now Chant,” sung by participants during a Civil Rights era mass-meeting in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and collected by noted scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon. One of the most famous African American folk singers, Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly, is represented by a 1930 recording of “Bourgeois Blues,” inspired by the time (presumably one of many) that he was denied a room in a Washington, D.C. hotel.
Big Bill Broonzy, perhaps equally famous as one of the seminal pre-WWII blues artists, contributes “Black, Brown, and White,” a song so controversial in the U.S. that he ended up recording it in Europe. For those who aren’t familiar with the song, the refrain is “If you was white, you’re alright / if you’re brown, stick around / but if you’re black, oh brother, get back, get back, get back.”
An even more controversial song, “Strange Fruit,” is provided by Brother John Sellers, a blues and gospel singer who moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. His 1961 arrangement with flute, guitar, and drum accompaniment offers an interesting contrast to the classic Billie Holiday version, though I find that the flute distracts from the haunting lyrics.
One of the gems on the set is a previously unreleased 1946 recording by Champion Jack Dupree, “I’m Going To Write the Governor of Georgia,” referencing the racism he continued to confront upon his return to the U.S. after WWII, and implying that he was treated little better than he had been during his two years as a Japanese P.O.W. Obviously the song made little difference, for Dupree fled to Europe in the 1950s and didn’t return until shortly before his death in the early ‘90s.
Classic Protest Songs comes with a well-illustrated, well-annotated 29 p. booklet which includes a bibliography and discography of suggested reading/listening. If you don’t have the original Folkways/Paredon/Monitor recordings, this compilation will make a fine addition to your collection.