Blues isn’t really a narrow form. Sometimes it can seem that way, but any proper definition of blues singing would, for instance include not just the likes of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and Bessie Smith, but Louis Armstrong, Hank and Lefty, Haggard and Jones, Ronnie Van Zant, Teddy Pendergrass and Marvin Gaye, Patty Loveless, Otis Redding, sixties’ era Charlie Rich, Percy Sledge, not to mention Jimmy Rodgers and Elvis. My own favorite unlikely blues LP is the soundtrack to Young Man With a Horn, a collaboration between Harry James and Doris Day which is as It’s-Always-3:00 A.M.-in-the-Dark-Night-of-the-Soul as any record you can name even if you go way further than I’m going here and drill down deeper than the top of your head.
That being said, any collection from the Bear Family titled The Roots of it All: Acoustic Blues is bound to be as thin as a hatpin stylistically. When the set runs to four 2-disc volumes that contain about twelve hours of music, you might think it would slog a bit.
I didn’t find it so.
I didn’t find it so, even though the set wasn’t quite what I thought I was getting when I picked it up cheap a while back. Having only perused the set list on the first two volumes to see what I was getting into, I assumed “the roots of it all” meant sticking to the narrow form’s heyday of the twenties through the mid-forties after which even the Delta moved to the city and electric guitars took center stage. Boy was I wrong.
Turned out the eight discs are dedicated to the decades stretching from the twenties to the nineties, with each decade treated in roughly equal measure.
And here’s the really amazing thing. Except for a small stretch at the end of disc seven, when Taj Mahal’s version of “Fishing Blues” (not as warm or engaging as the Lovin’ Spoonful’s light-electric version from back in the sixties) ushers in a stretch of blues academia that isn’t entirely ushered out until Keb Mo’s “You Can Love Yourself” (a first cousin of Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party” speaking of unlikely blues) starts a strong closing run nine cuts later, it never, ever flags.
There are too many highlights to mention. If you like classic blues, you should just track down the sets and carve out some time and space to fully engage. I found the scariest stuff on Volume 3, which had versions of Muddy’s “Feel Like Going Home” and Skip James’ “Sickbed Blues” I hadn’t heard before plus a live version of John Lee Hooker’s “Tupelo” from his appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1960, whence the “no electricity” rule was evidently still in full force!
So I was going to hook you up with that, at least, (and I will), but when I went looking, I also found this…
..and was reminded that, until Spike Lee and Chuck D came along, it was almost never the artists who said stupid stuff about Elvis.
And, in case you think the world was ever simple, here’s the version from 1960….
,…with Hooker being accompanied by Spike’s dad on acoustic bass.
That’s just in case you ever wondered whether Spike actually has good reason to know better.