36 songs – 103 minutes
Hot on the heels of Bluesblast’s recent review of Vestapol’s Legendary Country Blues Guitarists comes another DVD from Stefan Grossman’s stable. Like its stablemate, Music From The South also features a collection of rare archive footage of great American musicians, but there is less focus on pure blues on this release, the spotlight instead turning on the likes of old-time fiddle player, Clark Kessinger, autoharpist Kilby Snow, and Jimmy Driftwood playing a mouth-box. There are however some great blues moments.
36 songs are collected on the DVD, from 14 different artists. As with Legendary Country Blues Guitarists, this DVD also does not contain any liner notes with biographical details of the artists or details of how and when these recordings were made. Much of the footage appears to come from the 1950s and 1960s with occasional forays into the 1970s, but something like the gorgeous Creole/Cajun performances of accordion-player Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin and fiddler Canray Fontenot could come from the late 1940s. Be that as it may, the quality of the music on offer is once again is first class.
A number of genres feature on the DVD, from the Appalachian folk of The Coon Creek Girls to the hypnotic fife and drum work of Ed and Lonnie Young and from the gospel of Jessie Mae Hemphill & Group to the blues of the last few tracks. A number of the artists are also filmed talking to the camera about their lives and how they came to play this music. If there is an over-arching theme to the release, it is probably the understanding of how musicians used such a wide variety of acoustic instruments to create what we now call American music, from the mouth bow, autoharp, fiddle, banjo, accordion, and the diddly-bow, where a single wire is played with a bottle or drinking glass, to the more common piano and guitar.
The first half of the DVD has some wonderful highlights, in particular Clark Kessinger’s supple and powerful fiddle playing and Kilby Snow’s virtuoso autoharp, but it is the latter half that will be of most immediate interest to blues fans.
As the footage turns from black and white to color, Jessie Mae Hemphill sings the gospel song, “Get Right Church”, backed by voices, drums and a diddly-bow attached to the wall of a building. Having provided backing vocals to Hemphill, Compton Jones then contributes “Working On The Railroad”, backing himself on the bottle and wire and establishing a repetitive, droning rhythm strongly reminiscent of Mississippi Hill Country blues. Napolean Strickland then uses the same instrument to turn in chilling versions of “Roll and Tumble Blues” and “Bottle Up And Go” that could have been recorded 50 years earlier. Later, Glen Roy Faulkner plays “Bo-Diddley Blues” and “When I Lay My Burden Down” on a standalone diddly-bow. Listening to slide guitar players today, it is easy to forget that the diddly-bow, which dates back well into the 1800s, may have been the first “slide” or “bottleneck” instrument that produced the eerie and evocative cries and howls that are so fundamental to blues music today and it is wondrous to see it used on this DVD.
The final tracks on the DVD are wonderful old blues piano pieces. The Memphis great, Mose Vinson, plays old time versions of “Blues Jumped The Rabbit” and “Roll and Tumble Blues.” Piano Red (John Williams) and Booker T. Low then also essay versions of the same latter classic. It’s a fascinating contrast. Vinson may play with a little more swing, but Red has that distinctive bounce to his playing and there is a muscularity and thrust to Low’s version. And the three versions work both end-to-end and as standalone pieces.
If you’re a blues fan, you’ll want to hear and see the last half of this release. If your tastes include country and folk music, you’ll want to hear and see it all. Either way, Vestapol are to be congratulated again on collecting, preserving and releasing footage that captures a time that is long since gone and a music that sometimes appears to be heading the same way. Glorious stuff.