I always have a soft spot for someone who declares: “Before I could read or write, I was transported by my parents’ 78s: Vera Hall’s “Black Woman;” Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was The Night” and Lead Belly, who I used to try to sing like, much to my kindergarten teacher’s dismay. I had no idea what or who I was listening to, but it stirred something in my soul that has been swirling ever since.”
So says Elly Wininger and I couldn’t agree more, especially the last line: the blues certainly stirred a passion in me and I continue to pursue this wonderful genre down any and every avenue.
Elly, in case you haven’t heard of her, has just released her latest album called, suitably The Blues Never End. Early in her career, she had the privilege of sharing a stage with Maria Muldaur at a 1973 folk festival and since then has gone on to grace many a stage across the States as well as producing other artists, radio shows and, very rewardingly, a program called “Our Song, to assist people of all ages and abilities in writing their own songs.”
This new release combines her own formidable writing skills with some true blues from wonderful artists such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the immortal Lead Belly. So you can expect this set of 13 songs, including 4 original compositions, to supply a variety of blues and gospel styles…Cajun, ragtime, jazz and country, all mix with traditional blues to ensure interpretation and adaptation, not just covers.
The opening track, Let That Liar Alone, is one of the ubiquitous ‘Traditional’ songs whose true origins are unknown but it was Sister Rosetta and her acoustic guitar (although the white SG is first in my mind) that brought it to a wider audience. Elly preserves the essence of the Tharpe ‘attack’ and puts together a great sounding song the lyrics of which are (unfortunately) still very relevant. The countrified, crystal clear guitars are nice and the between verses phrases are a delight.
Skinny Legs Blues was written by Geeshie Wiley, who is perhaps better known for her Last Kind Word Blues (Skinny…was the b-side), although with only six sides to her name her skill as a blues singer and guitarist were never fully realised. Elly gives the song a lovely reading with neat chord and picking through the introduction and then adds acoustic power chords to stress the size-related issues, should we say…the piano adds a bit of glistening depth as the story unfolds; there is a less tasteful verse missed out on purpose as the lady who is being criticised killed her man in Geeshie’s original. Elly also adds some neat soling to keep the blues quality high.
Right Kind of Trouble is an original that has more great chord work (baritone guitar?) as the blues meet the jazz clubs of yore and she also plays a solo of subtlety and skill with each picked note so clear and adds some delicate slide at the close. Special Rider Blues by Skip James is another b-side; it backed Skip’s most famous song, I’m So Glad which, in the hands of Cream (and a young Deep Purple) became much more widely known. This has a field base echoing through the vocal melody while Elly picks the backing (and the solo) beautifully. I’m not certain if Skip is using the traditional blues language of ‘Rider’ meaning a steady lover, although the many references usually end up meaning something errr, more physical. The other reference is to the farm overseer who was usually to be found patrolling the fields on a horse…hence ‘Rider’. Alabama Blues is an Elly composition with a palpable (unsurprising) anger to the lyrics over more great guitar chords and picking, slide and subtle harmonica.
The Blues Never End is Elly’s summation of the blues: I am in full agreement, the blues will never end as long as we have this calibre of musician keeping the history and culture alive and well. She knits quite a few blues songs into the lyrics and the melodies too, with the slide doing lap steel and the picked solo just lovely as the slow, county blues wrap around the vocal.
(I Wanna Be Like) Rosie is a tribute to the outstanding Zydeco player, Rosie Ledet….who, unusually, is not a figure from the past but very much active and relevant today (she was born in 1971 dammit; I was already in the 2nd Form!) Rosie fronts her own Creole Zydeco band and with her accordion, is like a modern-day Blu Lou Barker. Anyway, this is a lovely accordion (natch) backed tribute to her work and it barbells along nicely too. As the Crow Flies is forever a Rory Gallagher song in my heart, but Tony Joe White wrote and recorded it in 1972 and is, perhaps, better known for his earlier hit, Polk Salad Annie. Elly plays it slidey and lovely, the way it should be. In fact it sounds like she took White’s original and travelled back in time and put it together on a sharecropper’s porch: banjo and slide combine to make this a truly delightful reading and the slide solo is delicious.
Black Snake Moan is from the salacious pen of Blind Lemon Jefferson who peppered this great slice of blues history with double entendres, it may have been inspired by Victoria Spivey’s Black Snake Blues, but hers was honest and innocent. Elly keeps the acoustic jaunt and adds some Dixieland jazz with brass and a tuba parping along…great stuff. God Moves On The Water is from Blind Willie Johnson; Johnson was rooted in gospel blues but, such was his mastery of slide technique, he is still a huge influence today. His most famous renditions are John The Revelator and It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine. Elly again shows her understanding of slide blues with some deft bottleneck as she stays true to the original adding only her personal style to the phrasing.
Range In My Kitchen is a song from vocalist Alger ‘Texas’ Alexander with Lonnie Johnson: Johnson was one of the few guitarists who could keep up with Alexander’s natural field song rhythms and together they made some great songs, preserving the traditions as they worked. The gospel blues shines through as Elly stays true uses an instinctive touch on the slide to back the plaintive vocal.
The last two songs are from one of my blues heroes: Huddie Ledbetter, better known of course as Lead Belly and, despite the fact he served numerous prison sentences, he still swayed audiences, and me, to his unique take on the blues. The first of his songs from Elly is Leavin’ Blues (which also got ‘The Gallagher treatment’ by Taste…closer to Huddie than Rory as the country inflections he usually employed are echoed nicely and slowing it down a little has added a bit of clarity. Old Riley is actually Lead Belly combining two traditional prison work songs about a prison escapee running through the water to escape the bloodhounds tracking him and, it is assumed, Rattler was the lead dog’s name. (If you want to listen to more history about Riley and Rattler, he appears in the great No More Cane on the Brazos song…a lovely version worth checking is Ian Gillan’s heartfelt performance on his Naked Thunder solo album.) Lead Belly added his deft guitar and vocals to make it his. Elly does this justice too with an informed, sensitive and engaging take on a historical record…in every sense of the word. Thankfully she keeps the upbeat rhythms that help you picture the poor man running from the dogs.
This is a very good album that aids understanding of the legacy and importance of what’s gone before and shows that it is as relevant today as ever: illustrated perfectly by her new compositions.
Bluesdoodles rating: 3 Doodle Paws – a great listen for quality acoustic blues from someone who really understands the genre and its many twists and turns and how to transpose that understanding into a modern take on covers and originals.
Let That Liar Alone
Skinny Legs Blues
Right Kind of Trouble
Special Rider Blues
The Blues Never End
(I Wanna Be Like) Rosie
As the Crow Flies
Black Snake Moan
God Moves On The Water
Range In My Kitchen
I have no information on any other musicians so I am assuming Elly did the lot!