Bukka White - "Shake 'em On Down" (Mississippi Blues)
Though his eminence never reached the point of legendary, B.B. King’s elder cousin Booker T. Washington White did lead a life and career full of first-rate blues lore. Born in the first decade of the 20th century, White — like many Mississippi Delta bluesman — assimilated the powerful influence of howler Charley Patton, about whom he also told a good story or two. After recording some gospel-inflected sides in the early ‘30s, White served several years in prison for shooting a man, allegedly in self-defense. Just before his incarceration, however, he was able to skip town for Chicago, where he recorded “Shake ‘Em on Down,” which became one of his best known and frequently recorded compositions. While at the prison known as Parchman Farm, he recorded a blues of the same name for premier folklorists John and Alan Lomax.
Like those of other country-bluesmen, White’s career then lay in wait for the folk and blues revival of the 1960s. During that decade Bob Dylan covered White’s “Fixin to Die Blues,” and John Fahey and ED Denson tracked him down in Memphis, immediately recording new takes of his repertoire for release via their budding Takoma outfit. The inconspicuously titled Mississippi Blues is the latest reissue and repacking of those sessions. Adding three bonus tracks — one from a Takoma compilation and two from the A and B sides of separate 45 rpm single for the label — it supplants the variously titled (and evidently out of print) prior packages.
If nothing else, these recordings stand as a record of the somewhat awkward position in which the ‘60s revival placed the erstwhile country bluesman. While the blues vanguard had by that time gone electric, the folk revival’s reverence for country blues initially pressured bluesmen who already had embraced — or might otherwise have adopted — the modern electric approach, to hark back to the older style. (In his profile of Muddy Waters in Feel Like Goin’ Home, for instance, Peter Guralnick observes: “His first tour of England in 1958 was something of a disaster. The English were not ready for amplified blues apparently, and by all accounts Muddy just about blasted them out of the hall.”) The result may not have been stifling for long — some bluesman worked in both styles to appeal to their multiple audiences, and once white blues-rock hit, the landscape changed — but it did represent a strange paradox: a commercially-driven reversion in stylistic time back to a sound idealized as non-commercial and “authentic” but which, just like the loud club-accommodating electric sound, had never been untouched by market demands. It seems in keeping with the archivist impulse that threatened to make blues an idealized museum piece that White’s Takoma set is interrupted by a recording of White remembering Charley Patton and recounting a (perhaps tall) tale about how he received his first bit of whisky from Patton.
True to the old-timey romantic spirit of the revivalists who reignited White’s career and recorded the tracks that make up Mississippi Blues, newcomers and devotees alike will probably prefer his prime-era recordings, the best compilation of which may be Aberdeen Mississippi Blues: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940. Yet, Mississippi Blues is a worthy representation of his latter-day output. Though in middle age by the time he recorded it, the album still shows White in fine form, and his searing vocals, in particular, sound unleashed by the crisper recording quality. Appropriately for a batch of recordings that (at least according to legend) were recorded the very day that Fahey and Denson tracked White down, Mississippi Blues has the ragged, spontaneous quality of upbeat, down-home blues.