Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

The Rough Guide to the Blues Songsters [World Music Network, 2015]
Take the notes' terminological drift as a sign. I'd say the greatest "songster" we know of is Lead Belly, who had 500 tunes of every sort on instant recall yet is referred to here as a "legendarybluesman." "Songsters" are distinguished from "bluesmen" mainly because (12-bar except when they're not) "blues" are supposed to be the "art" spawned by the "entertainment" of itinerants like the paradigmatic Henry Thomas, born in Texas in 1874 and famed for "Fishing Blues" although here doing the less lively "Don't Leave Me Here." But however we categorize it, Thomas's track is worth hearing, as is almost everything else, because what sets these 24 selections apart isn't so much stories worth telling as tunes good to hear. From Charley Patton and John Hurt, canonical Mississippi bluesmen even if Patton was too old and Hurt too agreeable to always follow form, to Louie Laskey and Simmie Dooley, who survive as names on the labels of rare 78s, they are all entertainers. There are jug bands here, and two white coal miners from West Virginia, one of them Dick Justice, whose straight cover of Luke Jordan's "Cocaine" tops Jordan's CD-opening "Pick Poor Robin Clean." And best of all is a canonical classic: Rabbit Brown's 12-bar wonder "James Alley Blues." I'd cap this by quoting its final aab. But better you just go hear it. A-