Every now and then, amidst the endless reissues on the identikit budget labels, a CD lands in your lap which reminds you that there are still truly unfamiliar – and unusual – early recordings out there. Amidst the depressingly repetitive early releases, R. Crumb‘s Heroes of Blues, Jazz and Country (packaged with the book of his 1980s trading cards) offers the sort of hidden gems which get you excited about early americana again. From the off, with the Memphis Jug Band’s version of ‘On The Road Again’, the record provides choice tracks which confound expectations.
Skip James’s ‘Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues‘ might be the most familiar song here, used as it was almost verbatim on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack; his version, of course, feels – let’s avoid the dread word ‘authentic’ – more lived in, and it is to the credit Crumb’s tracklisting that it is so immediate that the frequent hisses and pops fade into imperceptibility. Dock Bogg’s ‘Sugar Baby‘ (another relatively well known cut) is sunk beneath the crackle of age, and yet his keening vocal and dextrous banjo come through sharply and affectingly.
Many of the songs collected here are folk songs – handed down and passed around, not written by the performer and therefore perhaps already distant from his own experience. They exist even further from our world, of course, and yet the artists interpreting this ancient songs on ancient recordings were doing something different to current revivalists; there is no deliberate archaism here, and that makes the songs, perversely, more exciting, more relevant, than they would be if performed by Norman Blake. Even when the ambient noise essential pulses distractingly in time with the song, such as on the Shelor Family’s glorious ‘Big Bend Gal’, the performance carries the song through to us unsullied.
The disc brings out, too, the cross-fertilisation endemic in early american music: King Oliver, as jazz an artist as you might care to find, sits neatly next to Charlie Patton, in whom it is possible to hear something of Hayes Shepherd (who in turn rubs along well with the East Texas Serenaders). Elsewhere, I’ve pointed out to Martin (who does not share my definition) that when I say ‘americana’ I don’t just mean country. A record like this shows why: there are many different styles here, but much of what is played feels as if it belongs together – and feel is undoubtedly what this music is about. One of the best listens I’ve had all year, and the newest song on it was recorded in 1931.