CLASSIC AFRICAN AMERICAN SONGSTERS
Smithsonian Folkways (SFWCD40211)
Pink Anderson, Bill Williams, Little Brother Montgomery, Reverend Gary Davis, Brownie McGhee, Warner Williams, Peg Leg Sam, Snooks Eaglin, Big Bill Broonzy, Lead Belly and more…
Another dip into the deep well of their extensive archives, this time the good folk at Smithsonian Folkways have taken on the compilation of 21 songs from ‘songsters’, the meaning of which has long eluded me. Thankfully, it does not seem that it is just me being a little dense, as respected music scholar Barry Lee Pearson acknowledges the problems of such a definition in his introductory essay to the impressive 40 page booklet that accompanies this CD.
Having spent much of his essay exploring and explaining these difficulties, he identifies the working premise that the label adopted when selecting titles for inclusion here – ‘a non-blues compilation encompassing songs that preceded blues, hybrids of blues and other song forms, and a variety of genres including old-timey string band standards, ragtime, country and Tin Pan Alley pop.’
Clear now? Me neither. Fortunately, it matters not a jot as the music on offer is exemplary throughout, featuring big-names a-plenty plus a few who may be new to most.
Proceedings get off to an excellent start with a lightweight but enjoyable live version of the traditional Bring It On Down To My House by Warner Williams With Jay Summerour, artists new to me who also contribute a lovely version of Fats Waller’s Honeysuckle Rose. Another unfamiliar name whose performance here shines out is Marvin Foddrell, a singer and guitarist from Virginia whose version of Reno Factory is both quietly haunting and delightful. As is the closing track from Carl Martin, Ted Bogan and Howard Armstrong, a ragged live take from 1986 of They Cut Down The Old Pine Tree.
More familiar names usually associated with the songster tag include Mississippi John Hurt, with a 1964 version of Monday Morning Blues featuring his reliably charming vocals and intricate finger-picked guitar, and John Jackson, who contributes an authoritative version of Nobody’s Business If I Do and masterful reading of Charlie Poole’s Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.
Despite long being a personal favourite of mine, I wouldn’t normally associate Little Brother Montgomery with being a songster but his Alabama Bound is present and very correct, full of his sumptuous piano rolls and warm, expressive vocals.
Another winner therefore in a popular series of themed compilations from an extensive archive, beautifully balancing big names and performances with plenty of rare and little known material.
Review Date: August 2014