Bukka White

Sky Songs, Vol. 1

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If records were rated for being unique alone, this series of two volumes on Arhoolie would be prize winners. Amongst the many available recordings of American country-blues, there is absolutely nothing that the Sky Songs could be compared to, something some blues listeners might be thankful for. The concept of a producer taking an artist and refining his statements into a polished, professionally acceptable version of a finished product is turned around completely on its ear here. That this kind of approach might be the enemy of the eccentric such as White is a given, but to allow him to do exactly what he wanted for as long as he wanted over the course of four sides may not have been a good alternative. As a result, these records could perhaps figure into the Guinness Book of World Records as containing the longest country-blues numbers on record, such as the 13-minute and counting "Sugar Hill," the piano track on this volume. White is of course much more effective and exciting to listen to when he plays his steel guitar, and many blues fans might go much further than that simple statement and insist that the blues in general is better in little morsels rather than extended epics. Of course, the history of the genre on recordings begins with abbreviated performances, because it was impossible to cut more than three minutes at once. But skip ahead 50 years and even the electrified blues styles contain long tracks only in the case of extended jams of some kind, the longest one of all being some two hours of "Refried Boogie" plopped onto four sides by Canned Heat. Compared to that, the performances here are mere burps in the sands of time. The listener may still find it tedious making it through these tracks no matter what instrument White is playing or how friendly his vocals sound. It isn't a situation without hope, mind you. "My Baby" is an example of a good result that can came from this lack of editing. White builds the song's intensity surely and slowly, verse upon verse of detail backboned by an insistent riff that literally brings chills to the spine while he sings about this very image. It doesn't hurt that as the verses progress, he gets into some narrative action that would fit right into The Evil Dead. As is the case with incredibly long movies and plays, a psychic adjustment can be made and the most monotonous tracks such as "Sugar Hill" can become some kind of a metaphysical experience, including the piano solo that he plays almost identically at least four times. Who's counting? Perhaps the fellow who faded out the track. Some of the tracks fade in as well, as if they were captured in the middle of their creation. This was the whole idea, as the artist coined the term Sky Songs to describe the idea of ditties coming to him as if they were falling into his mind from up above. The concept of musicians receiving inspiration from the universe at large is of course something even the elite such as Karlheinz Stockhausen lay claim to, so there is no need to dismiss White's inspiration off-hand. Whether country-blues artists missed an opportunity for greatness by not recording similarly long performances is not something anyone will ever be able to judge, as these recordings remain the lone examples of a country-blues imagination allowed to run wild. Inexplicably, timings are provided for two of the tracks and not the others; perhaps the guy with the stopwatch kept dozing off on the job.

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