Classic Piano Blues

Title: Classic Piano Blues from Smithsonian Folkways
Artists: Various Artists
Label: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
Catalog No.: SFW 40196
Release date: June 24, 2008

Encouraged by the warm reception received by previous releases in its classics series, Smithsonian has returned to its vaults to compile and release Classic Piano Blues from Smithsonian Folkways. Intended as an introduction to both blues piano and the recording work of Folkways’ founder, Moses Asch, Jeff Place and Richard Burgess have selected twenty representative performances by legendary artists including Memphis Slim, Speckled Red, Champion Jack Dupree, Huddie Ledbetter, and Victoria Spivey.

True to the Folkways tradition, the audio content is supported by extensive liner notes. The accompanying booklet begins by presenting a history of blues piano combined with a discussion of Asch’s role in recording a number of legendary artists. Focusing on the rise of blues pianists from the rough environments of nightclubs, juke joints, and gambling houses, Jeff Place’s brief history makes for a light and interesting reading. Although the details will probably be familiar to well-established blues piano fans, the essay will function as a welcome introduction for newcomers to the genre.

In addition to an overarching historical background, the booklet also provides approximately a page worth of notes for each CD track. Although these notes primarily consist of biographical information on the artists, they occasionally include information on the recording session or supplemental photographs. For those who find themselves hooked on a particular artist or on the blues in general, the booklet provides a brief biography and a suggested listening list-although the latter is comprised entirely of Smithsonian Folkways releases.

One of the CDs biggest weaknesses, and one acknowledged by Place in the liner notes, stems from the creators’ self-imposed restriction to the work of Moses Asch. Although the selections are representative of Asch’s recordings, Asch’s recordings are not fully representative of blues piano. Asch made the bulk of his recordings in the 1960s and so pre-and early post-World War I blues are sorely underrepresented. There are, however, three tracks recorded in the 1940s by Mead “Lux” Lewis, Huddie Ledbetter, and James P. Johnson. Additionally, Asch primarily recorded northern artists so many southern artists and genres will be conspicuously absent. This is not to suggest that the value of the CD is diminished by these limitations, but that the user may need to seek out supplemental materials depending on his or her needs.

Diehard blues collectors may find this particular CD a bit redundant, particularly since it primarily consists of recordings originally released in the 60s and 90s. There are, however, a few nice surprises such as a previously unreleased recording of Big Chief Ellis, John Cephas, and Phil Wiggins performing “Dices Blues” at the 1976 Smithsonian Festival. The sound quality of the CD is also quite good. Even the reissues of the 78rpm discs originally released in the 40s have retained their warmth and clarity despite a noticeable reduction in surface noise. The main nasty audio surprise is that the end of Track 6 – “Medium Blues,” performed by Meade “Lux” Lewis – is clipped off. Given the sonic quality of the rest of the CD, however, this may represent one of Asch’s idiosyncratic recording decisions as opposed to a fault of the current producers.

If you teach a course in American music, manage the audio collection for your library, or just want to learn about the blues, Classic Piano Blues from Smithsonian Folkways will make a valuable addition to your collection. The selected artists and pieces are truly classics and Place’s writing style should be easily accessible to high school students without feeling overly simplistic to older readers. Even the blues collector who has everything might want to take a look. Whether vinyl sounds better than dye and plastic may remain controversial, but your favorite blues LPs will never fit in your car’s CD player.

Posted by Ronda L. Sewald