Sunday, April 22, 2001

'Cincinnati Blues' documents early styles and local scene

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's not the Mississippi Delta, but Cincinnati has a rich and varied blues heritage. When W.C. Handy published the first blues hit song, “Memphis Blues,” in 1912, it was with a Cincinnati company.

        Eight years later, when the record industry loosened up enough to allow an African-American woman to record a blues song (then a craze among white vaudeville acts such as Sophie Tucker), it was Cincinnatian Mamie Smith who broke the color line.

        That song and 49 more can be found on Cincinnati Blues, an excellent and essential two-CD set from England's Catfish label. The collection will be released in the United States on Tuesday.

    Various artists
    Cincinnati Blues
    Catfish; 4 stars
    $16.98 CD only
        The set comes with a detailed booklet, annotated with a genuine sense of place by Steven Tracy, the Cincinnati native who wrote the local blues history, Going to Cincinnati (University of Illinois Press; $29.95, $16.95 paperback).

        With its broad scope, Cincinnati Blues is as much an overview of early blues styles as it is a document of the local scene.

Jug bands sound


        The set opens with Ms. Smith's groundbreaking “Crazy Blues,” but it quickly forsakes that vaudeville blues sound, with its hokey trombones, for an earthier country blues style.

        With its rural guitars and loping rhythms, it's a sound shared by the jug bands of Louisville and Memphis. “Sixth Street Moan,” by Kid Cole, for example, could have just as easily come from Memphis' Furry Lewis, with “Beale” substituting for “Sixth.”

        Jug bands started in Louisville, entertaining the crowds at the Kentucky Derby, but the most popular groups came out of Memphis.

        These groups started a national craze that blended percussive washboards, trumpet-like kazoos and tuba-like jugs with more traditional instruments. Two local groups are here, the Cincinnati Jug Band (whose “Newport Blues” was also on Harry Smith's seminal Anthology of American Folk Music) and King David's Jug Band.

        Piano blues is represented by three non-Cincinnati artists who happened to record here. Indianapolis' Leroy Carr pays tribute to the local scene with “George Street Blues,” about the West End's equivalent to Beale or Bourbon. Walter Davis, who recorded “M&O Blues” here in 1930, hailed from St. Louis.

        Pianist Jesse James was recalled by the late Pigmeat Jarrett as living here in the '50s. But Mr. Tracy cites blues scholars who trace Mr. James to Memphis and Little Rock, Ark. Indeed his final song (and the last on the set) is “61 Highway Blues” about the road that runs from Memphis through the Mississippi hill country and into the Delta.

        This doesn't mean, of course, that there were no Cincinnati blues pianists. But the local blues artists who traveled to Chicago, St. Louis, Louisville, New York and Atlanta to record were country bluesmen, probably chosen by the record companies to compete with the popular jug bands and guitarists from fellow river cities Louisville and Memphis.

        Only two songs were recorded in the Tristate — Walter Davis' “M&O Blues” (cut in Cincinnati) and Bob Cole's “Sing Song Blues” (done at Gennett Studios in Richmond, Ind.).

        Had the record companies sent field units here specifically in search of blues, it's likely that we'd have an even more varied portrait of local blues.

        Cincinnati Blues is the definitive collection of what did get recorded between the two world wars, classic country blues with plenty of references to the Queen City's wild, river town past.

        In “I'm Going to Cincinnati,” Walter Coleman sings, “Now when you come to Cincinnati, stop at Sixth and Main. That's where the good, hustlin' women get the good cocaine.”

        Most of this stuff has been available piecemeal on various anthologies for years. Cincinnati Blues brings together the city's early blues heritage in a single, well-annotated (and bargain-priced) collection. This is an essential part of any collection of local music. And it took a European record label to do it. Thank you, Catfish Records.


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