s Tom Hull: Rearview Mirror

Rearview Mirror #1

Really the Blues

by Tom Hull

A few years ago I figured it out that any time new music seems to suck, there's always plenty of old music that would be still be new to me. That turns out to be a practical strategy for dealing with the hype du jour: just wait until it becomes clear in your rearview mirror.

The Best There Ever Was
(1927-35, Yazoo)

Blues Story
(1920-54, Shout! Factory)

The U.S. Congress has rarely been so clueless as when it declared 2003 "the year of the blues." Sure, Congress probably just figured it to be a sop to the music industry, which in turn figured they'd turn their old blues comps into this year's Ken Burns Jazz. It's hardly the only thing that didn't work out as planned in 2003, but Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues just left most of us scratching our heads. These two titles are the only general blues intros from the year that I can recommend -- especially with The Blues: A Smithsonian Collection of Classic Blues Singers out of print. (Who says the private sector does things better?) Yazoo is the only American label that has made a consistent effort to keep pre-WWII blues in print, and the 20-song Best There Ever Was cherry-picks its way through their rural blues catalog, avoiding anything too obvious, yet keeping a smooth flow through such extremes as the haggard Blind Willie Johnson and the mellifluous Mississippi John Hurt. The two-disc Blues Story, on the other hand, aims to be obvious: It starts with Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues" (the first blues record ever) and ends with Big Mama Thornton's Elvis-ready "Hound Dog," taking in most of the obvious tourist attractions along the way. I suppose one might complain that Robert Johnson isn't on either, but he isn't really missed.

The Big Horn
(1942-52, Proper)

British reissue label Proper's box sets are one of the few real bargains available today: four CDs, five hours of smartly selected 50-plus-year-old music, useful booklet, about $20 if you shop around. They've managed to fill out single-artist boxes for the likes of Mildred Bailey, Slim Gaillard, and Ernest Tubb, and keep the quality coming. Their various-artists boxes sometimes go out on a limb: Swing Tanzen Verboten! -- four discs of, no kidding, Nazi swing -- will only interest scholars and perverts, but Hillbilly Boogie, 100 country songs with "Boogie" in their title, took a minor fad and turned it into something thoroughly enjoyable. This one works, too: 106 singles featuring "honkin' and screamin'" saxophones, starting with Illinois Jacquet's 1942 "Flying Home." The beboppers, who founded modern jazz by mostly playing for each other, hated this shit, but it was the down and dirty R&B of the era, and anyone who grew up on rock and roll will recognize it as the missing link from small group swing.

Trojan Box Set: Nyahbinghi
(1968-75, Sanctuary/Trojan)

Cedric Im Brooks & the Light of Saba
(1974-76, Honest Jons)

Nyahbinghi is an ascetic sect of Rastafarianism, but for our purposes we can skip the theology and just note that the music is based on three hand drums, homemade instruments, and devotional chants. The rhythms are primitivist, reaching back to an African heritage that predated slavery; the chants have a churchly simplicity, which in the case of Ras Michael -- the closest Nyahbinghi has ever come to a star -- makes them sound like nursery rhymes. Trojan's budget-priced, 50-song Box Set is a rare and useful sampler, but one thing it doesn't do is to break out of its formalism. Cedric Im Brooks also has roots in Nyahbinghi -- he recorded the landmark Grounation with Count Ossie, as the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, in 1973 -- but as a saxophonist who cut his teeth on Sun Ra and Sonny Rollins, he sought out more expansive musical contexts. His mid-'70s work, long out of print but now collected on Cedric Im Brooks & the Light of Saba, feels like the missing link to a synthesis that never arrived: deep Rastafarian preaching, sinuous rhythms, exquisite horn charts, covers of "Nobody's Business" and "Satta Massa Gana," and a Latin take on Horace Silver's "Song for My Father."

When the Sun Goes Down, Vol. 6: Poor Man's Heaven
(1928-40, Bluebird)

As this traces an arc from Eddie Cantor's too-pained-to-be-funny "Tips on the Stockmarket" to Reverend Gates' hard learned "President Roosevelt Is Everybody's Friend," you can feel the Great Depression opening up and sucking more and more people into its chasm of despair. The early songs are show tunes like "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" and the clever "It Must Be Swell" ("to be layin' out dead") is likely a joke, but Blind Alfred Reed's "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" is dead serious, and nothing that follows it lightens the gloom. (Certainly not Woody Guthrie's "Dusty Old Dust" -- the only other song here you're likely to have heard.) It's something to think about, especially now that the current regime in Washington has destroyed more jobs than any administration since Herbert Hoover's. So is the fact that what Bob Miller has to say about health care in "The Rich Man and the Poor Man" is, sad to say, just as true today.