Henry Townsend – Mule | Album Review

Henry Townsend – Mule

Omnivore Recordings

21 tracks (8 previously not released)

Henry Townsend cut his teeth first recording with Columbia Records in 1929. Born in Shelby, Mississippi in 1909, he went to St. Louis in 1921 where he began playing guitar before taking up the piano.  He recorded for Paramount Records and Blue Bird Records from 1931 to 1938. He was a standout vocalist but his piano and guitar accompaniment is what got him noticed. He recorded with Walter Davis, Big Joe Williams, Pinetop Sykes, Roosevelt Sykes, Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Nighthawk.

Following a stint in the Army, he moved to Chicago to work with Nighthawk and Sonny Boy and began working with Little Walter, Othium Brown and Eddie Boyd.  In 1947 he was back in St. Louis  with Walter Davis and recorded with Bullet Records in 1949, Victor in 1952, Prestige Bluesville in the 1960’s and with Adelphi in the mid-70’s.  Mule was recorded and released in 1980 on Nighthawk Records before becoming a Reggae label. Only 2 of the 13 originally released songs were written prior to the recording sessions; 11 were improvised in the studio due to his great skills as a musical improvisor.

“Mule” was Townsend’s nickname in the 1920’s and 1930’s.  He was discovered and rediscovered many times.  This 1979 session was done to capture and showcase his skills; the 2018 Omnivore re-release adds 9 more tracks for us to enjoy.  When asked who he’d like to accompany him on the album he immediately replied Yank Rachell, the great mandolin player. The songs were all remastered and sound pristine.

The CD opens with “Bad Luck Dice,” with the 50 year old Townsend in fine form.  His vocals are down home and authentic.  His piano playing is amazing.  He solos through this and many of the cuts effortlessly.  He is an amazing artist who needs to be part of every blues lovers collection.  Rachell first joins him for track 3, “Things Have Changed.” Rachell is another amazing artist whose career spanned nearly 70 years.  He was either 69 or 76 when this was recorded, depending which birth date of his is correct. Townsend switches to guitar on “Tears Come Rollin’ Down,” one of the prior written cuts. Vernell Townsend sings on this and “Can’t You See,” the other cut from before the session.  She sings with authority and Townsend plays guitar and backs himself in superb fashion.  I’m not sure if he’s a better guitar player or pianist; suffice it to say he excels at both.  He joins his wife for a duet on the latter cut. “Dark Cloud Rising is the second cut with Rachell on mandolin. The two spar on piano on mandolin which makes for a sweet recording. The thirteen original tracks are superb.

The added tracks are more of the same goodness. “Broken Home Blues” brings in Rachell again as do “Going Back Baby” and “Since You’ve Come Back.” The two latter cuts have Rachell on guitar.  He plays with skill and feeling.  Most of the cuts feature Townsend on piano; I really like the contrast with the cuts of him on guitar and was happy to see the mix.

This is a fantastic re-release, considering the nice remastering, the superb musicianship and the added tracks.  These are great cuts that featured a truly legendary blues craftsman showcasing what he was all about.  Most highly recommended!

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