The Men With the Blues Guitars

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Their names have endured as clichés of musical humor, be it in an ancient Cheech and Chong routine or the tongue-in-cheek moniker of the near-forgotten rock band Blind Melon. But there was nothing funny about Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake, who in their time exerted a huge influence on the evolution of popular music. A pair of new compilations from Shanachie, painstakingly assembled from old recordings from the 1920's and enhanced for maximum audio quality, provides a valuable insight on the oeuvre of both of these unique performers.

Of the two, Jefferson was the earlier and more conventional blues artist. A powerful singer who wrote his own music and accompanied himself on the guitar, Jefferson was the first male blues superstar, and enjoyed a highly successful recording career whose influence was still being felt 1961, when Bob Dylan recorded "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" on his debut album. Being the first out of the gate may have accounted for some of Jefferson's success; his songs and their variations became part of the blues canon, but how much of it was Jefferson and how much was part of the tradition he came from is impossible to establish. What is clear is that in his time his skills as a performer were renown, and he introduced a whole genre to a broader audience. Along with Jefferson's unusual style of self-accompaniment, the appeal to modern listeners is the chance to hear these songs in their earliest form. But the intervening years have produced more evolved styles of guitar playing, and despite the archivists' best efforts, the sound quality of these recordings is marginal.

Blind Blake, however, provides a much more substantial link to the direction the guitar would take. Blake played in the more sophisticated ragtime style, laying down syncopated bass lines with his thumb while picking out complex melodic patterns with his fingers, and anyone interested in the fingerpicking styles of Ry Cooder (who recorded Blake's "Diddie Wa Diddie") and Jorma Kaukonen can hear where it all started on these tracks. The Blake collection also benefits from better fidelity, perhaps a function of the guitarist's forceful playing style, which projects with considerably greater impact than Jefferson's. But both anthologies provide a fascinating insight into the origins of the American guitar slinger and the vast blues tradition that evolved around him.