Memphis Blues Volume 4 1929-1953
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DOCD-5686 Memphis Blues Vol 4 (1929-1935) Jenny Pope, vocal. James De Berry, vocal, guitar. Walter Horton, harmonica. With contributions by Georgia Tom Dorsey, piano; Tampa Red, bottleneck-slide guitar; Mose Vinson, piano; Raymond Jones drums and others… Genres: Memphis Country Blues, Memphis Down-home Blues. Informative booklet notes by Chris Lee. Detailed discography. Extracts abridged from this CD’s booklet notes:
As the album title indicates, the common factor of this collection is Memphis being the location of all the recordings. That’s really as far as the connection between many of the performances goes, for it’s a disparate anthology.
Jenny Pope’s singing harks back to an earlier blues era, while at the other end of the spectrum Jimmy De Berry’s 1953 Sun recordings have much in common with Chicago blues recorded about the same time. In between come De Berry’s Memphis Playboys tracks, jazzy sides related to the jug band tradition. However, none of this detracts from the overall appeal and, in a couple of instances, the greatness of the recordings. Who is Jenny Pope? A very good question, and one that seems likely to remain unanswered. This is disappointing, for she was an effective, appealing blues singer in the classic mould who, as far as we know, made only the six sides on this CD.
Whiskey Drinkin’ Blues is a salutary tale of alcohol dependence, expressed in sombre tones by Miss Pope, accompanied exquisitely by Tampa Red’s slide guitar and Georgia Tom Dorsey’s effectively understated and economic piano. Doggin’ Me Around. With the same sterling spare accompaniment, Pope is in a tougher mood here, warning that she may be a stranger in town but “I won’t be dogged around”. However, there’s also a hint of resignation as the song progresses suggesting she expects that, sadly, being dogged around may well be her fate. In Bull Frog Blues Pope is supported by pianist Judson Brown, a much more up-front player than Dorsey. He pushes the singer into a splendid declamatory performance. Brown is a very interesting pianist, ranging from the lilt of ragtime to the propulsion of Jelly Roll Morton, interspersed with a couple of hints of the delicacy of Jimmy Yancey. Tennessee Work House Blues is a colourful piece about incarceration in a hard-labour jail where no one is ever freed. Pope sings about an inmate who “was charged with murder but evil was his crime”. Throughout, Brown’s piano rolls thunderously in the background, sadly cut off in its prime as the track ends abruptly. The unlikely accompaniment of guitar and jug in Mr. Postman Blues works far better than might have been feared. Plangent string playing gives the performance a real lift which, gratifyingly, is not dragged down by the atmospheric, slightly ponderous blowing of the jug exponent. Pope is obviously happy with the combination, singing assuredly. In Rent Man Blues the jug blower drops out, leaving the anonymous guitarist to support Pope with great sensitivity and not a little rhythmic drive, giving her sad tale of eviction a welcome counterpoint.
Now we come to James De Berry and his Memphis Playboys. Their music is a descendant of the jug band tradition of free-wheeling performances of little subtlety, often depending on hokum and double-entendres to enliven their appeal. The main difference is a more sophisticated instrumentation, comprising unknown trumpet, clarinet, piano, guitar and bass. This gives the recordings a character not far removed from traditional jazz and small-band swing, albeit with less invention and inspiration.
The principal players are the trumpeter, who provides a strong lead and contributes solos forcefully if not over-subtly, and the clarinettist, somewhat reticent in the ensemble but showing great confidence in his solos, these hinting at a familiarity with the playing of the New Orleans musician Johnny Dodds.
For the most part, the guitar is restricted to a rhythm role, but it comes more into its own in a neatly picked intro to Insane Jealous Blues. It is unfortunate the player wasn’t given more space. And his supposed anonymity begs a question – couldn’t he be De Berry himself, whose accomplished guitar playing 14 years later on his Sun sides can be heard on this CD.
Touch It Up A Little was unissued at the time, probably because of its suggestive subject matter, which is very much in the hokum tradition of the jug bands. There’s nothing wrong with the performance, a rollicking, up-tempo affair led by strident trumpet. On You Played A Trick On Me the trumpet is again well to the fore in this medium-tempo piece, occasionally growling gruffly. The clarinettist, as usual, reticent in the ensemble, emerges in more forceful fashion in a solo. Oh, Liza! is not the expected variation of “Lil’ Liza Jane” but a gently salacious offer of a remedy by the singer to Liza to “ease her pain”, decorated by growling trumpet and mellifluous clarinet. Single Man Blues is a typical blues tale of illicit love involving a “kidman” and his married lover. An emotive clarinet solo embellishes this performance effectively. The nonsense title Nummy Nimmy Not heralds a silly song about a character who is on the eternal blues mission to get his hambone boiled. “They call me Tom but my name is Nummy Nimmy Not,” attests the singer. The medium-tempo performance Insane Jealous Blueshas a delightful guitar intro. The lyrics are uncharacteristically sombre – “I killed my woman, I was jealous insane. I’m headed for the electric chair, ain’t that a cryin’ shame”. Zugity Zugity Stomp is another nonsense title with equally nonsense lyrics. De Berry aims for the irresistible bonhomie of Fats Waller, even to the extent of imitating him vocally, but falls decidedly short. Undoubtedly, Easy is the collection’s masterpiece. It makes a huge stylistic and emotional leap from what has gone before. Guitarist De Berry and drummer Houston Stokes back harmonica player Walter Horton in the performance of his life, interpreting Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lost My Mind” with great sensitivity and unlimited inspiration, achieving a searing intensity allied to a wonderful series of instrumental variations. De Berry’s guitar and Stokes’s drums provide skeletal but near-perfect underpinning. De Berry comes into his own with Before Long showing far more vocal expression than on any of the Playboys’ sides. His guitar playing, too, is authoritative, backing my belief that he is probably the guitarist with the Playboys. Take A Little Chance, a variant of “Sweet Home Chicago” is a powerful performance with driving guitar and what sounds like Hooker-style foot stomping rather than the drumming credited to Raymond Jones. If this is the case, it would make it the only solo record by De Berry, whose heartfelt vocal pinions the listener. Time Has Made A Change is a big surprise to anyone who hasn’t heard it. This riveting performance has an eerie atmosphere not a million miles from the sort of sound Howlin’ Wolf was conjuring during his Sun years. This is underscored by Jones’s gunfire drumming, Mose Vinson’s elemental piano and De Berry’s highly un-De-Berry-like declamatory vocal and hard-nosed guitar work.