Various ‘The Rough Guide to Hillbilly Blues’ LP/CD/DIG (Rough Guide Network) 4/5

From humble origins and more general compilations during the early 1990s, the Rough Guide to music series has developed its own momentum and grown into a far more specialised and, ultimately, more interesting set of to the roots of world music. This ongoing sub-series on the blues has generated a good deal of interest, not least because blues aficionados now have the luxury of choosing between vinyl and CD formats.

The names are, to a certain extent, familiar, but with some fiendishly hard to find rarer examples of early blues included and thus this is a compilation that will appeal to neophyte and long-term devotee alike.

The excellent liner notes rightly point out that an artificial distinction was made by US record companies in the 1920s between black (African-American) and white music. In reality, the distinctions were far more nuanced with musicians borrowing from one another. A major plus of this anthology is that it demonstrates by placing seemingly disparate musical traditions together how country blues and country folk were inextricably linked and inter-connected. Thus we have examples here of Doc Boggs and Charlie Poole who would not normally be associated with the blues, but whose repertoire was diverse and the specific songs selected here would comfortably fit into any reasonable definition of the blues. The Hawaiian slide was highly influential and Jimmy Rodgers storytelling quality comes to the fore on, ‘Mule skinned blues (blues yodel #8)’ and let no-one tell you that the stretched out vocals have nothing whatsoever to do with the blues.

One aspect of traditional folk music is that it follows on from the European late 1700 tradition of ‘parlour’ guitar and it is fascinating to contemplate how, while the white middle classes would perform light classical on the guitar, in the United States this filtered down via the so-called ‘lower classes’ into folk music with a wider world roots sensibility. Examples here are of John Dilleshaw performing a ‘Spanish Fandango’, and even the opener, ‘Guitar Rag’ by Roy Harvey and Jess Johnson.

More conventional blues interpretations are to be found on Sam McGee’s ‘Buck Dancer’s Choice’, and this writer would willingly welcome the opportunity to listen to a good deal more of his excellent sound. Likewise, Clarence Green impresses on ‘Johnson City Blues’. At seventy-five minutes, the quality and quantity of music on offer is evenly distributed and makes for compelling listening.

Tim Stenhouse