Covered by many, yet understood by few, “Midnight Special” was traditionally a folk song which originated among prisoners. The country-blues version, sung by Bill Cox, hums along like a freight train, encouraging the light of the powerful locomotive to inspire those out of their destitution.
Several decades before Bob Dylan recorded his breakthrough “Highway 61 Revisited” album, the folk-blues song “Highway No. 61” was interpreted by numerous blues singers including Charlie Pickett, Memphis Minnie and Joe McCoy, The Sparks Brothers and others. Jack Kelly & His South Memphis Jug Band recorded this classic version with fiddler Will Batts on vocal duties. According to Dylan, when he told his record label the title of his new album in 1965, they didn’t understand it, and only agreed to let him call the record what he wanted after to he went all the way “up the fucking ladder” to insist on it. The rest is history.
The Mississippi Sheiks from Bolton, Mississippi were a popular band in their time, and their recorded songs have been covered by an impressive list of artists that includes Howlin’ Wolf, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte and Bob Dylan. Three of the Sheiks were brothers Lonnie, Sam, and Armenter Chatmon, the latter of whom is famously known as Bo Carter, who enjoyed a successful solo career while he managed and was a part time member of the band. This recording of “Please Baby” captures their distinct blend of country, folk, and blues.
“Avalon Blues” was the last song recorded by Mississippi John Hurt in the 1920’s. Named for Hurt’s hometown of Avalon, Mississippi, this song provided clues that folk musicologist Tom Hoskins used to locate the legendary bluesman in the early 1960’s. That meeting led to Hurt’s appearance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, which re-launched his career and gained him international recognition. After that, Mississippi John Hurt performed extensively, even recording three new albums and appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, before his death in 1966. Hurt’s home in Avalon is now open to the public as The Mississippi John Hurt Museum.
Williams’ unique 9-string steel guitar rhythm, alongside a haunting fiddle lead, provides the perfect accompaniment to his searing vocal. Joe Williams continued to tour and perform for decades after recording this and numerous other sides for various early record labels. This song is as relevant today as it has ever been.
The lyrics and music that Son House put down in the 1920’s and early 30’s left an indelible mark on blues, country, rock, RnB, and just about every genre of American music. His classic “My Black Mama (Part 1)” has been covered and reinterpreted by a who’s-who of blues legends including Robert Johnson, who recorded it as “Walkin’ Blues.” John Lee Hooker called his post-war version “Burnin’ Hell,” based on the lines “Ain’t no heaven, ain’t no burnin’ hell, where I’m goin’ when I die, can’t nobody tell.” This amazing solo vocal and guitar performance has lost none of its power over nearly a century since it was released on 78 RPM discs.
Recorded shortly before Charley Patton’s death, “Mind Reader Blues” is a song he performed with his common-law wife, Bertha Lee. In her magnificent voice, Lee scolds Patton for his womanizing even as he lovingly accompanies her on guitar. The lyrics are auto-biographical: “I remember a day when I were livin’ at Lula town, I remember a day when I were livin’ at Lula town, my man did so many wrong things ’til I had to leave the town.” Bertha Lee hailed from Lula, Mississippi, and Patton lived there with her for a time. What exactly he did so they had to leave, one can only wonder! This is a clean transfer from 78RPM platter from 1934.
Kansas Joe McCoy and his wife Memphis Minnie were stars in the Memphis and Chicago blues music scenes. Together they recorded the hit “Bumble Bee” in 1929 for Columbia Records, and a stack of other great vinyl 78 sides. “Pile Driver Blues” features Kansas Joe singing over their trademark lead and rhythm guitar interplay. Jimi Page and others in the English blues and rock scene would draw heavily on their influence a few decades later.
Often hailed as the “Father of the Memphis blues” guitar style, Frank Stokes recorded dozens of 78 RPM sides for Paramount and Victor Records in the 1920’s. Under his own name and as part of the Beale Street Sheiks, Stokes introduced a touch of show biz professionalism to what had been a mainly folk music tradition. Playing the southern minstrel and vaudeville circuit, he influenced not only blues artists, but also country singers like Jimmie Rodgers. “I’m Going Away Blues” features a country fiddle with Stokes’ acoustic blues strumming and sublime vocal performance.
Walter “Buddy Boy” Hawkins is one of those great pre-war blues artists for whom it is hard to find biographical info. What is known is that he recorded several sides for Paramount in the late 1920’s, capturing his sublime vocal and guitar style for posterity. “Snatch It Back Blues” tells of a life of train-hopping and vagabonding in the American south, and is a folk blues classic.