Having produced a series of ‘tribute’ albums covering some of the most significant blues maestros of yesteryear (Bessie Smith, Bukka White, Rev Gary Davis, Skip James, the Mississippi’s Fred McDowell and John Hurt and the supreme Son House (only complaint: she didn’t do one of my all-time favourite blues songs: Pearline) the delectable country blues virtuoso, Rory Block, has now turned the spotlight on some of the lesser-known female pioneers. Rory needs no introduction from me, although I have decided that I can actually sum her up in one word…silky. That, for me, describes her voice, her guitar dexterity and err…everything else about this remarkable musician. I love the approach on this latest release, as it gives me yet more artists to research as I journey on the unending quest to understand as well as collect all things blues. Sure, Ma Rainey and Memphis Minnie are familiar but most of the others are new to me and add exciting colours to my (very) wide blues palate and palette.
The other thing that is so lovable about this album is that the ‘Rory Block Band’ is actually just Rory…with the aid of genius engineer Rob Davis, she multi tracked everything and even manages to replace a huge brass section with multi-layered slide guitar that will make you wonder, envious and then simply melt. I say that in spite of the lyrical content being predominately about the hardship a woman had to endure and the sacrifices she had to make to perform; the subject of what Rory calls “Mother loss” is frequent and makes this all the more poignant.
Enough pontificating, let’s move onto her second in the ‘Power Women Of The Blues’ series, called Prove It On Me.
Opening with the Helen Humes song, He May Be Your Man. I first heard Helen via one of my favourites early blues guitarists…Sylvester Weaver. He brought her to the attention of Okeh Records where she made her first record. Primarily a jazz/swing singer, she is probably best known for her time in the Count Basie Orchestra. Rory takes Helen’s swing and I’m sold just with the intro…the bass picking in particular. Her vocals are spot on too and (my measure of pure quality) is shiver-inducing: the slide solos are superb. After such a sterling start, it just gets better with the slide on It’s Red Hot. Written and recorded in 1928 by Madlyn Davis, this lady of the blues only did around ten songs: the only one I was totally familiar with was her Kokola Blues, the basic melody of which resurfaced in later years as Sweet Home Chicago. More glorious slide and carefully crafted harmonies on voice and guitar from Rory makes this a delight.
If You’re A Viper was recorded by the little known Rosetta Howard around 1937 and credits usually included her backing band, the Harlem Hamfats. Although this is drug-related, she was also responsible for one of the many funny and rather smutty songs the blues is also known for, Let Your Linen Hang Low! (Lil Johnson’s Push My Button is one of my favourite smutty songs). Rory does another empathetic and startlingly beautiful update and her percussion and guitar are brilliant with the slide just how I like it…full of feeling and hearing the bottleneck on the frets makes it more real and exciting. The title track, Prove It On Me brings the inimitable ‘Ma’ Rainey into play: she recorded many classics but Rory has chosen one of her less played songs which, according to some, was a “cultural precursor to the lesbian movement”…I’ll let you listen to the lyrics and decide. Taking on a song by someone of such stature is always a risk; needless to say, Rory does a great job and the guitar is exemplary again, with the slide so well composed and sparse.
I Shall Wear A Crown is one of those lost in the mists of time songs where the composer is listed as ‘Traditional’. This song came to prominence with the blind pianist/gospel singer Arizona Dranes, credited with bringing ragtime accompaniment to the gospel gatherings of the 1920s. Swap the piano for multi-tracked guitars and you get this country blues gospel hybrid that works, and you will not believe it is only Rory as the choir rejoices. Eagles is the only Rory original and she has written in total harmony and empathy with the ethos of the album. Once again, the harmonies on guitar, both picking, and slide, combine to such great effect. The whole thing could well have been written in the 20s or 30s and that is the highest compliment as this song blends in perfectly with the early songs of the great ladies of the blues. Wayward Girl Blues is credited to Lottie Kimbrough, although if you want to find her other 20s recordings, she did use an alarming number of pseudonyms…Lottie Brown or Emerson or Martha Jackson amongst others. The rolling intro here is genius…I tried and failed miserably to find out how Rory played it and just tied my fingers in knots! Then I failed to replicate the short slide piece too…I could get the notes but the depth of feeling she conveys through the bottleneck is brilliant and beyond me.
In My Girlish Days should need no introduction as Memphis Minnie was a guitar player and singer extraordinaire…check out the original When The Levee Breaks recorded in 1929 with Kansas Joe McCoy. Here it is different and yet faithful with the vocal evoking the spirit of Minnie. The slide is delicious too. Milk Man Blues by The Yas Yas Girl or Merline Johnson to use her correct name is a bit of a mystery. Little is known about her and yet she worked with such luminaries as Big Bill Broonzy and Lonnie Johnson to name but two. (Yas Yas, by the way, was a euphemism for buttocks…as in Get Yer Yas Yas Out!) is blues personified from the tempo and ‘standard’ structure with the added double entendres to keep you entertained…Rory does a brilliant interpretation and, at the risk of repeating myself, the slide is delectable. The final track, Motherless Child, is by another little known guitar player and singer called Elvie Thomas (L.V. Thomas to be precise) who laid down tracks in the early 30s. I have officially run out of superlatives! Picked and slide guitar and vocals embody exactly what the blues in that era were all about…the slide solo is worth the entrance fee alone.
This is a hugely entertaining and informative album that needs a few listens to bring out the nuances and skills that Rory has employed (on her own!) to bring together a collection of songs from such an evocative era. It is a fitting and brilliantly executed tribute to the unsung (pun intended) ladies that forged a significant path in the blues…despite the hardships and restrictions they faced.
Bluesdoodles rating: Wonderful addition to any blues collection as well as an essential reading of Blues History.
Track listing (Original Performer/Composer if different):
- He May Be Your Man (Helen Humes)
- It’s Red Hot (Madlyn Davis)
- If You’re A Viper (Rosetta Howard/Herbert Moren, Rosetta Howard, Malcolm Horace)
- Prove It On Me (Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey)
- I Shall Wear A Crown (Arizona Dranes/Traditional)
- Eagles (Rory Block)
- Wayward Girl Blues (Lottie Kimbrough/Sylvester Kimbrough, Winston Holmes)
- In My Girlish Day (Memphis Minnie/Ernest Lawler)
- Milk Man Blues (Merline Johnson)
- Motherless Child (Elvie Thomas)
Rory Block played:
All guitars, bass, vocals, drums, PLUS “guitar bongos, hat boxes, plastic storage tubs, oatmeal boxes and wooden spoons”
Produced byRory Block and Rob Davis
(Inevitably, as iTunes lists alphabetically by first name, the run on track was more Rory…the impeccable Mr Gallagher and I just had to listen to the entire Against The Grain album and then Blueprint and then…he was such a genius.)