‘The blues come to Texas, loping like a mule,’ Blind Lemon Jefferson sang through a shower of surface noise as he made his recording debut in March 1926. He established the primacy of Texas blues musicians that continued unchallenged for the next 30 years, encompassing the likes of Henry ‘Ragtime’ Thomas, Texas Alexander, T-Bone Walker, Smokey Hogg, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Clarence Garlow, Lil’ Son Jackson, Lowell Fulson and Frankie Lee Sims. Other famous musicians recorded when they were passing through Texas, and that included Lonnie Johnson, Walter Davis, The Mississippi Sheiks, Robert Johnson, Roy Brown, Joe Turner, Honeyboy Edwards, Memphis Slim and Jimmy McCracklin.
The blues recording industry began in New York City and for most of the 1920s, musicians travelled from all parts of the country to make their mark in the recording studio. Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were amongst the most popular female singers but they were soon rivaled by the likes of Lonnie Johnson, Robert ‘Barbecue Bob’ Hicks, Texas Alexander and Mississippi John Hurt. Kansas Joe McCoy cut ‘When The Levee Breaks’, justly famous in its Led Zeppelin incarnation, in the city.
Although drummer Pete Magadini is the leader of this set (which was reissued on CD in 1996 with a previously unreleased second version of "Freddie Freeloader" added), it is tenor saxophonist Don Menza who really dominates the music. Menza (along with Magadini, pianist Wray Downes and bassist Dave Young) stretches out on such numbers as "Old Devil Moon," "Solar" and his own "Bones Blues," tearing into the music but also showing senstivity on the ballads. Don Menza should really be recorded much more often.
Music was paramount in New Orleans, a town where they liked jazz with their blues. Regular blues musicians like Richard ‘Rabbit’ Brown got on disc when the record companies came to town. In general bluesmen and women came from out of town for their sessions, Texans like Lillian Glinn, Will Day, Oscar Woods and Blind Willie Johnson or Mississippians Bo Carter, the Mississippi Sheiks and Walter Jacobs, or out-of-towners like Little Brother Montgomery. New Orleans also saw the first recordings by fascinating Cajun musicians like Amédé Ardoin, Dewey Segura, Lawrence Walker and Cléoma Falcon, who put down their version of 12-bar blues.
Mention Nashville and the first thing that enters most minds will be Country Music and the Grand Ole Opry. Then again, for true believers the city is also the nation’s centre for Bible publishing. Perhaps less well-known but in striking contrast to God and double-knit suits is that throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, Nashville was also the home of a thriving blues and R&B recording industry. Principal among the labels were Bullet, Republic, Tennessee, Nashboro and Excello, with a welter of smaller ones such as World, Mecca, J-B and Cheker.
Detroit in the 1940s and ‘50s didn’t have a thriving record industry like Chicago. Detroit artists went there because that’s where the companies were. Even musicologist Alan Lomax made just one visit for the Library of Congress in 1938, when he recorded Calvin Frazier and Sampson Pittman. Nevertheless, enterprising individuals like Jack and Devora Brown, Bernard Besman and Joe Von Battle did their best to reflect the city’s musical talent.
California experienced a phenomenal growth in independent recording in the postwar years, after decades of dominance by the major labels. Millions had flocked there during the war years and they needed entertainment.
Like Memphis, Tennessee, Atlanta was a staging post for itinerant musicians and like Memphis, it was home to an impressive number of guitarists who established a very distinctive style of playing that became synonymous with the city. It was also the location for the first country blues artist, Ed Andrews, to be recorded. Three years later, Julius Daniels was the first Carolina bluesman to record. Atlanta was also a recording centre for out-of-state artists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bo Carter, the Memphis Jug Band, Blind Willie Johnson and Hambone Willie Newbern. A further school of blues gathered around Peg Leg Howell and Eddie Anthony.
These two discs reflect, in their way, the incredibly rich, varied lineage of women in the blues. And of course, given the title, we're not talking about singers – though many of these women do sing. With liner notes by Sue Foley, who compiled the set, this collection reaches backward and forward to mirror back to the culture the wild, wooly underside of the blues via its female six-string slingers. There are relative newcomers like Laura Chavez (who plays with Lara Price), Finland's Erja Lyytinen, and Austin's Eve Monses; seasoned veterans like Alice Stuart, Foley, Debbie Davies, Jesse Mae Hemphill, Joann Kelly, Rory Block, Bonnie Raitt with Maria Muldaur, Ellen McIlwaine…