Various Artists

The Story of the Blues [CBS/Columbia]

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AllMusic Review by

When writer and blues scholar Paul Oliver first came along, the genre he specialized in was something of a mystery to the music audience. Young listeners hearing the Rolling Stones do an old Delta blues number on the group's very first record usually thought this was some kind of original concept, not a tribute to a great Afro-American art form which at that point had been languishing in obscurity. The growing popularity and staying power that has accompanied the blues into the millennium has of course brought with it enormous amounts of additional research and the release of old and new blues material on what can only be considered a massive scale. The work of Oliver has certainly lost much of what used to make it exclusive. Fans no longer have to turn to his productions or books out of desperation. This double-album set may have been one of the best blues compilations available at one point, but that was only because that particular bin was almost completely empty. With so much other material subsequently available, consumers are free to look at this set with a sneer forming on their lips that may rival that of Mick Jagger. Of course there is nothing wrong with any of the 32 tracks that are included; it is all perfectly good music and some of it is downright brilliant. The rating above, then, is for the music performances. Judged purely as a historical document, this set has severe problems and should be rated much lower. The problem was that Oliver had come to his own conclusions about blues history and used whatever tracks he had access to contractually to try to shore up these points. For the most part, the seasoned blues listener would see this set not as a thorough history but as a collection of country blues tracks, although there are short excursions into the area of classic female blues singers such as Bessie Smith and a slight nod toward the electric urban blues sound. Oliver himself was much less fond of the latter development in blues than he was the work of solo acoustic artists, which, combined with problems licensing material, makes his urban blues section more like a trip to the suburbs. There is no Muddy Waters, for example, just a track with some of his backup players. Trouble starts immediately with the very first piece on the album, an untitled performance recorded in Ghana in 1964. That the blues "came from Africa" was always one of this writer's preoccupations. Nobody will argue that the ancestors of the people that played the blues came from Africa, or that close study of African music will result in finding the occasional track with something of a bluesy sound, especially if one hunts for mystical connections to the one-chord grooves of John Lee Hooker. Yet in terms of really understanding different forms of music, the reality is that the incredibly diverse world of African music and American blues are extremely different things. The aspects the two music worlds have in common are components of musical style and construction that occur with equal regularity in many other kinds of music. There are sections of Mozart that use what can be considered blues chord progressions, any one of which could have replaced this African track as "proof" that the blues came from Austria. No, this track is included just the way it would be in a hack college music course, so it looks like someone has done some research. One track of African music doesn't prove or contribute anything positive to the musical flow of the tracks. Presenting a performance that was recorded in the mid-'60s as evidence of influence over music from the '20s is also ridiculous, unless one is plotting a science fiction film. An unaccompanied field holler would have made more historical sense. As the actual performances of blues begin with a 1928 cut by Mississippi John Hurt, the listener is presented for the next three sides with an extended series of country blues performances, with a dollop of classic jazz and blues in the center. Each side has a different theme. The third side is entitled "The '30s: Urban and Rural Blues," but doesn't have a single track that would be considered urban blues by any stretch of the imagination. Memphis Minnie, performing in duo with guitarist Little Son Joe, is the only thing that even comes close. As is typical with Oliver's sloppy documentation, it wasn't even recorded in the '30s. Most of the tracks on this side would fit just as easily on the first side, which is called "The Origin of the Blues." In fact, many blues fans would put the work of artists such as Bukka White and Robert Johnson, classified here as "urban and rural blues," as much closer to African music than the playing of Mississippi John Hurt, whose fingerpicking tunes sometimes don't even use blues progressions. The tracks on the final side are identified as "World War II and After," but as Walter Mondale said to Ronald Reagan, "Here we go again." Two of these eight tracks were recorded well before World War II and are among the three songs here that once again are country blues and nothing more. Presenting artists such as Blind Boy Fuller and Sonny Terry as representing some kind of postwar modern blues sound is ludicrous. The Big Joe Williams track -- and Oliver misidentifies him as Joe Williams, creating confusion with the Count Basie ballad singer and defying the unwritten law of using an artist's "Big" nickname at all times -- is an excellent example of country blues developing into urban blues with the addition of a light drum sound. Instead, Oliver chooses it as an example of a modern blues sound, which it is not. The three tracks from the '60s that close out the set are fine music, but add to the confusion. Why nothing from the '50s, a heyday of urban blues recordings? One assumes this was a problem of licenses, but a writer attempting a historical overview could have at least mentioned such hassles. The final track is a late-'60s recording by Johnny Shines, and Oliver completely misses the train in his prediction that this artist, newly rediscovered and back in the studio as a result of the '60' resurgence in blues interest, would wind up mostly playing for the amusement of his friends. Oliver is like a shopkeeper who comes to work in the morning and finds the contents of his business have been turned upside down. He frantically tries to clean up, but the place is still a mess when the doors open. Nonetheless, the material here is fine, some is downright classic, and all will make enjoyable listening no matter what order it is presented in. Unless one wants to reach a state of confusion about blues history, skipping the liner notes and ignoring the subheadings and other so-called "information" is advised. Changing the programming so that it is at least chronological and replacing the African piece with another blues track would be big improvements.

Track Listing - Disc 1

Title/Composer Performer Time Stream
1 2:59
2 2:57
3 3:14
4 2:52
5 3:01
6 3:18
7
3:04
8 3:19
9
3:31
10 3:24
11 2:44
12 2:41
13 3:02
14 3:16
15 2:54
16 3:24
17 3:07 Amazon
18 2:47
19 3:08
20 3:16
21 3:08
22 2:18 Amazon
23 2:40
24 2:45 Amazon
blue highlight denotes track pick