The title of this compilation, Before the Blues, may be a deceiving one, particularly as it comes from Yazoo Records, a label that specializes in the earliest music of the genre. While the performances here date back to the first commercial recordings (made during the mid-'20s), the blues, as a musical form, was probably born a good 20 years earlier, at the turn of the century. Maintaining a looser format than many of their compilations, Before the Blues follows the music from the juke joint on a Saturday night to church the next morning. Included are tracks from some of the most popular musicians of the period (Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Memphis Jug Band, and Frank Stokes), as well as curios from little-known performers. At one end of the spectrum, there is the raw, earthy mountain music of Frank Jenkins' "Roving Cowboy," the violin and vocal performance that closes the collection. At the other is Tommy McClennan's "Deep Sea Blues," the song Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix (among many others) would record as "Catfish Blues." Though his performance is loose, McClennan's guitar sounds ripe for urban electrification. In the process of migrating to the city, the music witnessed the extinction of rural string combos like the Memphis Jug Band. "K.C. Moan" is an example of the type of material they recorded before the pressure to adapt brought jazz influences into their music. By the 1940s, the commercial heyday of this music had come and gone. Never again would companies seek out recordings like "Cold Morning Shout" (an otherworldly blend of fiddle, banjo, and guitar by the Southside Trio) or the deep gospel of slide guitar master Blind Willie Johnson. Thanks to Yazoo, the music has been preserved with the best possible fidelity. As always, songs have been arranged according to listenability. Boundaries of style and chronology are ignored, with the gaps filled in by extensive liner notes.
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AllMusic Review by Nathan Bush