33 songs – 115 minutes
Stefan Grossman is himself something of a legendary country blues guitarist, having released numerous records under his own name since the 1960s, as well as co-founding Kicking Mule Records and releasing a series of educational books and DVDs for aspiring blues musicians. Vestapol Productions, the production company behind this DVD, is a division of Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, Inc., and has made its name by collecting and releasing old concert footage of legendary blues and country artists. Legendary Country Blues Guitarists is a collection of rare tracks from 14 different artists and is, quite frankly, wonderful.
There are some 33 songs on the DVD, and many of them are from the genuine giants of acoustic blues, such as Big Bill Broonzy, Son House, Bukka White and the Rev. Gary Davis (listed here as “Blind Gary Davis”). There are also a number of lesser-known artists such as Ralph Willis & Washboard Pete Sanders, Henry Johnson (playing an electric guitar) and an artist listed as unknown (but actually the under-rated but outstanding Philadelphia street performer, Blind Connie Williams). The set even closes with an extract of Son House and Buddy Guy playing “I Wish I Had My Whole Heart In My Hand”, with Guy (rather like he did on Muddy’s Folk Singer album) displaying a superb knack for contributing supportive acoustic country blues guitar.
As one might expect, given the rarity of these recordings, the quality of the footage varies. There is both high quality professional film and amateur analogue videos. Given however that this music was recorded 40, 50 or even 60 years ago, the audio and visual quality is vastly better than should be expected.
And the footage is sometimes little short of magical. It is impossible to watch and listen to this DVD without being drawn into an almost mythical world from long, long ago. Sam Chatmon looks as old as heartbreak as he sings some of the earliest blues and folk songs at an unnamed festival. Son House, Skip James and Bukka White share a stage at the Newport Folk Festival in the 1960s and listen intently to the music produced by each of the others (House slips off for a quick smoke during White’s “Tombstone Blues”, but his charisma is such that the camera still follows him). Skip James may not play with the preternatural intensity of his 1931 recordings, but it is still a pleasure to hear his unique take on the blues. Time had done little to dilute the power of Son House and Bukka White, however.
To watch Son House talk about the blues in a studio recording is an astounding slice of history. And to see Ralph Willis and Washboard Pete Sanders playing on the streets of Philadelphia and the reaction of passers-by is eye-opening. Texas legend, Mance Lipscomb looks wholly uninterested but actually plays and sings superbly on “I Want To Do Something For You” and “Alabama Jubilee”.
The artist with the most tracks on the DVD is the great (if under-recorded) North Carolinian, Willie Trice. His seven songs must have been recorded after 1970, because it is clear from the footage that Trice had by this time lost his legs to diabetes. The quality of the performances however is once again first rate, with Blind Boy Fuller’s influence to the fore.
If there is a criticism to this DVD, it is the lack of biographical information about the artists and how and when the songs were recorded. The only information provided is the name of the artist and the title of each track. For blues fanatics, this isn’t so much of a problem, because educated guesses can be drawn from what we already know about the musicians and their lives. But this DVD is also a superb opportunity to introduce new fans to some great music and if they could read biographical detail about the artists presented here, they might be inspired to check out other artists from the same era.
But that is a minor criticism. There is something about watching these near-mythical players instead of just listening to their music that adds depth and power to their recordings. Seeing Bukka White pounding on his National with his fist provides a visceral accompaniment to his music. In addition, for guitar players, there is the added bonus of being able to watch how these legendary musicians created their wonderful music in the first place by studying their finger movement and attack.
This review could have been a simple 11 words long. Legendary Country Blues Guitarists is an essential purchase for blues fans.