Various ‘The Meaning of the Blues: The Legacy of Paul Oliver 1927-2017’ CD (Jasmine) 4/5

Paul Oliver was one of the foremost writers on blues music and his contribution to expanding our knowledge of early blues is inestimable and has greatly enhanced and indeed shaped our understanding of how the blues evolved. Oliver passed away last August, aged ninety, but his legacy is a towering one and this first effort at chronicling his own accompanying albums of then undiscovered musicians is a most welcome one. The music contained on this single CD is the full listing of the original vinyl album that accompanied his second book, ‘The Blues Fell This Morning’, while the rest crams in twelve tracks from the vinyl that accompanied Oliver’s third book, ‘Screening The Blues’. Great value for money at almost eighty minutes of music, even if, ideally, one would have preferred the complete listing of both albums.

For those of a younger generation who did not see these albums first time round, they were something of a revelation in that Paul Oliver assembled some of the key singers from labels such as Columbia, Okeh and Vocalion, and as such these 78’s are a priceless document of the social history of both blues music and, more generally, the evolution of African-Americans in the United States prior to the large-scale migration of this minority group to the north. It was that very same migration that would lead to a new generation of blues musicians creating the electric blues, with specific blues sounds emanating from key Cities such as Chicago and Memphis, which were stop off points for migrants from the south, and eventually the transition from rhythm and blues into what we now call soul music. The 78’s date between 1927 and 1940, although the Robert Johnson recording is best known as being re-issued in the 1960’s when the blues revival was well and truly underway.

The songs themselves could not be more evocative and communicate directly key themes of the era. This is the case of ‘Starvation Farm Blues’ (1934) by Bob Campbell that was recorded during the great depression and a musical of John Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes Of Wrath’, or where issues of race and different skin complexions are directly alluded to as on the wonderfully evocatively named Barbecue Bob and ‘Chocolate To The Bone’, with a subject matter that even today may be perceived as distinctly risqué. A particular favourite of this writer is a song that reveals the close and, at times, somewhat uneasy relationship that exists between blues and gospel on ‘Denomination Blues Pts. 1 and 2’, delivered by the rasping voice of one Washington Philips from a 1927 Columbia 78. As a whole, Paul Oliver was instrumental in bringing names to the attention of a wider audience, some of whom are now household fixtures in the blues cannon such as Blind Boy Fuller, Memphis Minnie and Bukka White.

One important caveat with this particular re-issue. While the quality of the music is never in dispute and is a clear five start rating, the accompanying sleeve notes are somewhat meagre and could and should be more substantial for a writer of Paul Oliver’s calibre and historical importance. It is, then a great pity that the discographical details are not accompanied by lavish illustrations of the following: individual labels; photos of the singers from the extensive collection of Paul Oliver; in-depth individual notes on the songs, several of which have lyrics that require further explanation to place them in a historical context. For this reason, one point has been deducted from the final evaluation. Other anthologies of Oliver’s discoveries do already exist and the four CD, ‘Meaning Of The Blues’, (2011, JSP), is a more comprehensive offering.

Hopefully this will be the first of many re-issues of Paul Oliver’s wonderful discoveries and a fitting tribute to his legacy if made available in both vinyl and CD formats, and even a re-issuing of book and vinyl/CD simultaneously.

Tim Stenhouse