J.B. Lenoir's final two albums before his death in 1967 may well have been his crowning achievements. Alabama Blues (1965) and Down in Mississippi (1966), both produced by Willie Dixon, were recorded for the German label L & R, and both featured stripped down acoustic arrangements that recast Lenoir as a Southern folk-blues troubadour. Lenoir's lyrics on these two albums (which have been packaged on one CD as Vietnam Blues by Evidence) approached pure poetry as he skewered racism and other cultural ailments with a fiercely focused passion. Some of the tracks featured the veteran Chess drummer Fred Below, as well as an occasional backing vocal turn by Dixon. Alabama Blues, recorded in Chicago in 1965, appears to be made up of outtakes from those sessions, or possibly rough home demos done to get a feel for the direction Lenoir wanted to go. These tracks aren't as rare as the subtitle suggests (JSP released the same tracks -- with a different running order -- as One of These Mornings in 2003), but they make a perfect addendum to the single disc Vietnam Blues release on Evidence. Lenoir sounds somehow both relaxed and intense on these short pieces, and his agenda of both personalizing and politicizing the blues is well in evidence on songs like "Alabama Blues" and the harrowing "Remove This Rope." Fred Below plays drums on "God's Word," while Dixon adds some background vocals here and there, and gently interviews Lenoir at a couple of points. Had Lenoir survived into the early '70s, his sharp writing, his emerging experiments with African rhythms (which he called "African Hunch"), and his fierce determination to speak the truth may well have made him an international star on the order of Bob Marley. Fate took over, though, and Lenoir was all but forgotten at the time of his death, and continues to be too little-known, even in the blues community. His last recordings, including the enticing fragments found on Alabama Blues, are arguably his best, outlining a focused, socially committed direction for the blues.
Alabama Blues: Rare and Intimate Recordings from the Tragically Short Career of the Gre Review
by Steve Leggett