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V/A - I’m Going Where the Water Drinks Like Wine – 18 Unsung Bluesmen: Rarities 1923-1929

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Artist: V/A

Album: I’m Going Where the Water Drinks Like Wine – 18 Unsung Bluesmen: Rarities 1923-1929

Label: Sub Rosa

Review date: Aug. 5, 2010

“Welcome to obscurity” — a cynical salutary phrase commonly levied at jazz musicians who opt to forgo commercial concerns in favor of freer forms of expression. It’s a cautionary greeting also applicable to artists of other idioms and eras, as Sub Rosa’s I’m Going Where the Water Drinks Like Wine makes abundantly clear. As part of the label’s ongoing “Fundamental” series, the focus is on rare or lost recordings. The reality remains that most musicians who aim for lasting fame end up missing the mark by a wide margin.

The 18 Southern Pre-War bluesmen represented across the collection’s 24 tracks never made it bigger than regional recognition; a majority didn’t even make it that far. Any aspirations and efforts toward such ends were curtailed by the vagaries of the early recording industry and record-buying public, often as much as by the times in which they lived. Nearly all experienced lifestyles that included some combination of itinerant travel, chronic unemployment, substance abuse, incarceration and generally recurring disappointment. In other words, exactly the sort of stuff that the blues are made of.

Some of the musicians are justifiably obscure, but each of the cherry-picked selections has something worth recommending. Luke Jordan’s pair of pieces lay out the racial politics of their time, with “Traveling Coon” relating the Zelig-like adventures of the titular trickster folk hero and “Pick Poor Robin Clean” marking first-person use of the pejoratives “nigger” and “coon.” Ramblin’ Thomas waxes on the twin scourges of a broken relationship and insolvency on the succinctly-titled “No Job Blues,” while Noah Lewis’ closing “Devil in the Woodpile” constitutes a medicine show precursor to the sort of call-and-response harmonica workouts players like Sonny Boy Williamson and Sonny Terry would later perfect. An early influence on Son House, Rube Lacey wrings raw emotion out of “Mississippi Jailhouse Groan” and “Ham Hound Crave,” his keening wordless punctuations sailing across metronomic guitar riffs. Those six short minutes constitute his sole recorded legacy.

All of the tracks are riddled with at least some degree of surface noise ranging from mild (in the case of Tom Dickson’s “Labor Blues”) to the damagingly invasive (Willie Baker’s “Bad Luck Moan”). Sylvester Weaver’s simply titled “Guitar Blues” offers carefully constructed bottleneck variations, laced with the hiss and crackle from eroded shellac. Buddy Boy Hawkins is buried under buzzing, chipped-groove striations, his guitar picking barely audible. Ishman Bracey, a contemporary of the influential Tommy Johnson, fares better, his ringing picking comparatively clean against his starkly articulated tale of love gone bad. It’s tempting to wish that these compromised sounds arose out of continuous play and enjoyment on the part of their previous owners, but it’s just as likely the outcome of prolonged poor storage and exposure to inclement elements.

In years past, this sort of rarified material was largely the province of exhaustive specialty labels like the London-based Document and the stateside curators at Yazoo. Sub Rosa’s reach and distribution encompasses a different demographic and hopefully this means these largely forgotten sounds will make it into the hands of a whole new set of potential fans. Either way, the sounds will continue to survive in digital form, their makers remaining ripe for posthumous re-discovery.

By Derek Taylor

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