Various Artists

Sorry But I Can't Take You: Women's Railroad Blues

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Hats off to Rosetta Reitz for putting together an incredible catalog of women's classic blues on her Rosetta label. Besides filling a glaring gap in the blues record bins, the label's various compilations and single-artist discs feature both well-known and obscure female blues singers, bringing to life a black woman's take on a world defined in many ways by the great migration of southern blacks to northern cities like Chicago and New York (mainly to escape draconian Jim Crow laws and find better paying jobs). Primarily covering the 1920s and '30s, this fine collection in the label's Women's Heritage Series chronicles the plight of women left behind as thousands of husbands "rode the blinds" north.

While these New York and Chicago-recorded sides reveal that many of the singers here had some means to make the train fares, most southern black women were too poor to come up with the money or not generally willing to risk death jumping a freight. Beautifully illustrating the split between the obvious attraction to railroad lore and the anguish of denial, the narrative of Clara Smith's "Freight Train Blues" switches from an impressionistic chronicle of boxcars and brakemen to the harsh reality of a woman crying alone back home when her man beats the blues by catching a train. And while most of the songs here, including Trixie Smith's "Choo Choo Blues" and Blue Lou Barker's "He Caught That B&O," mirror similar sentiments, one also hears Martha Copeland's chronicle of a southern woman's desire to escape the chill of the north and return to Alabama and her man, as well as Sister Rosetta Tharpe's mythical casting of the train as a means to heaven.

Beyond sociological concerns, this collection contains some of the most enjoyable blues on record, taking in the work of stars like Bessie Smith and Sippie Wallace along with tracks by less well-known, but equally impressive, singers like Nora Lee King and Bessie Jackson. The album's cast of jazz musicians (the standard support for these and other classic blues divas) is superb as well, and includes Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Don Redman, Henry "Red" Allen, and Dizzy Gillespie. From voice to horn and gruff to sweet, this essential collection reveals a rich world of blues expression often overlooked.