Rory Block – A Woman’s Soul – A Tribute To Bessie Smith
Stony Plain Records – 2018
10 tracks; 45 minutes
After completing her Mentor Series of six CDs dedicated to six great founding fathers of the blues* Rory has now turned her attention to female artists and where better to start than with Bessie Smith, the ‘Empress Of The Blues’. In her excellent sleeve notes Rory stresses that as well as being one of the earliest female singers to be recorded, Bessie had a dynamic stage presence and songs that pulled no punches in celebrating women’s sexuality. Rory lauds “…her unapologetic presentation of women as the powerfully sexual beings we know we are – but that society just didn’t know how to admit that in the early 1900s. Bessie’s material was never dirty, it was just plain sexy”.
Everything you hear on this disc is Rory: vocals, guitar, bass and varied percussion effects. One of the best things is that Rory’s arrangements maintain some of the complexities of Bessie’s originals which were often recorded with top jazz players of the day, including Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton. Selecting ten songs from the 160 recordings that exist must have been tough but it is good that we have some of Bessie’s most celebrated songs alongside some that are less well known. Rory opens with a Bessie classic in “Do Your Duty” and her slide work sits nicely over the acoustic and bass, providing some of the jazz swing we associate with this famous tune. Has there ever been a better title than “Gimme A Pigfoot And A Bottle Of Beer”? Rory’s version has some terrific singing and more good slide work. “Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl”, Kitchen Man” and “Empty Bed Blues”, all show Bessie’s sexy side; Bessie may not have written these lyrics but she sang them to probably shocked audiences and now Rory delivers them brilliantly.
Of the perhaps less well-known songs “Black Mountain” deals with revenge in a society where carrying a gun or knife seems the norm while “On Revival Day” has some appropriately gospel tones as Rory sings about the power of the church services where they have “old Satan on the run”. Rory double tracks her vocals to create a chorus and it’s a joyous song with the power of a Baptist revival service. “I’m Down In The Dumps” finds the singer contemplating throwing herself in the river and in “Weeping Willow Blues” the elegant jazzy arrangement cannot hide the girl’s sorrows. The tale of a musician “Jazzbo Brown From Memphis Town” has some fine picking by Rory as she describes a man who “plays no classic stuff but what he plays is good enough for the Prince of Wales”.
Throughout the album we are reminded of Bessie’s status in the early blues world and what a sad loss it was when she perished in an automobile accident near Clarksdale in 1937, aged just 43. Rory has set the bar high on her first ‘Power Women Of The Blues’ so it will again be an interesting ride as the series develops.
*Son House, Skip James, Fred McDowell, Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White, Reverend Gary Davis