Various Artists

Cherokee Boogie: Indians & the Blues

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Well, gotta give credit to Saga for hitting on a new conceptual twist for a blues compilation, drawn largely on the '20s and '30s country blues tradition with a couple of 1951 ringers sneaking in courtesy of Bull Moose Jackson and Big Bill Broonzy. The program is themed according to geographical influence (tracks one through three), blues artists with Indian blood (tracks four through 11), and blues lyrics dealing with the Indian influence and experience (tracks 12 through 22). What you essentially hear is a country blues record with titles and the occasional lyrics sticking out to remind you of the theme. Well-known names like Tampa Red, Memphis Minnie, T-Bone Walker, Champion Jack Dupree, and Lowell Fulson figure in the first six tracks alone, a reassuring sign that Cherokee Boogie isn't some collection of second-rate odds and ends that would otherwise never have made it to disc. The sound quality is more hit-and-miss, with Walker's "Mean Old World" the first sign that old 78s are the principal source, and the scratchy surface noise becomes so pronounced for Papa Charlie Jackson and Priscilla Stewart that they barely make it out of the hiss. But the compilation is a great way to sample artists you normally wouldn't find grouped together. With its rumbling barrelhouse left hand, Dupree's original "Junker Blues," a straightforward rundown-cum-warning of the junkie life, is closer to Fats Domino's "The Fat Man" than it is to "Junco Partner." Both Scrapper Blackwell's "Kokomo Blues" and Joe Williams' "Crawling King Snake" are very solid performances. Tough call, though, on the lyrics of Freezone's "Indian Squaw Blues" and Jackson's title track -- the imagery may be objectionable today but was undoubtedly common usage when the songs were recorded, and the music behind Bull Moose on "Cherokee Boogie" is so infectious you want to overlook any offensiveness in the portrayal anyway. The norm is more the descriptive vein of "You Changed," where Broonzy talks of a New Orleans woman with an Indian dad over a jump blues piano, backbeat, and sax solo closer to Wynonie Harris than the folk-blues sound customarily identified with Big Bill. That's not the musical norm for this largely acoustic and country-leaning compilation, either, with Andrew & Jim Baxter leading with fiddle, the Memphis Jug Band chipping in with kazoo, and Papa Charlie sounding like he's on banjo. Even Helen Humes, who later sang with Count Basie and figures to be among the more sophisticated artists here, is very country with acoustic slide guitar on her 1927 track. The revelation is Jesse James' seriously arresting "Lonesome Day Blues" from 1936 -- (possibly) Cripple Clarence Lofton strides out with big-time rocking barrelhouse piano and James' hoarse, richly expressive voice (what modern blues singer does he sound like?) drives the song home with great conviction. The liner notes are interesting but no treasure trove -- no reason to doubt that Papa Charlie's "The Faking Blues" was the first lyric reference to marrying into the Indian Nation, but was anyone losing sleep over not knowing that before? Cherokee Boogie is a strong compilation with a fresh twist that offers an affordable chance (given Saga's six-euro budget-pricing in Europe) to pick up some early blues classics and obscurities, but Jesse James is the one new artist who leaves you hungry for more music.

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