Matthew Prater

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While the number of recordings this early Mississippi mandolinist made is relatively small, his influence seems epic. The type of material he recorded in duo with guitarist Napoleon "Nap" Hayes…
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While the number of recordings this early Mississippi mandolinist made is relatively small, his influence seems epic. The type of material he recorded in duo with guitarist Napoleon "Nap" Hayes was wide-awake, despite his partner's nickname. It even included some of Scott Joplin's difficult ragtime themes blended with more traditional country styles, and is a crystal-ball image of the versatile and eclectic repertoires that the best mandolinists, such as Sam Bush and Barry Mitterhoff, would practically make a religion out of in the '70s onward. And while the mandolin is most often associated with white, Appalachian musicians, the important sides cut for Okeh by this mandolinist and his partner underscore the importance of the instrument as a lead voice in the overlapping worlds of the black string bands and black jug bands. These genres have never gotten as much attention as the user-friendly, butt-rocking blues, but the late '20s Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater tracks such as "Somethin' Doin'," its mirror image "Nothin' Doin'," "Easy Winner," and "Prater Blues" exhibit impressive and compelling musicianship, including fine, rhythmically spicy mandolin leads.

The group occupies a territory somewhere midst string band, ragtime, and blues forms, and has a discographical presence that requires a magnifying glass. Some of the recordings were released under the band names of the Johnson Boys and the Blue Boys, a fact that hasn't seemed of much interest to some of the fly-by-night companies that have released black string band compilations over the years. Nonetheless, tracks have also shown up on good reissue collections from labels such as Document, Yazoo, and Old Hat. The widest exposure the duo receives is from its pair of numbers recorded with popular bluesman Lonnie Johnson on violin. These wonderful examples of how hard the black string band music could swing actually sat on the shelf for decades, with record company honchos frightened out of their wits by the groove. The Johnson tracks and the duo's material on its own has all received extensive airplay on specialist radio programs, crossing over easily between both country blues and early jazz or old-time music themes.

And then, there's the subject of John Fahey's use of the duo's material. Here's where somebody really polished up their magnifying glass, but in retrospect it is mysterious why the following information is not more widely known. The Fahey album Voice of the Turtle, considered by most of his fanatic fans to be one of his ultimate classics, contains a track generally identified as "4b" in the evidence logs, or "Bean Vine Blues Number Two." Sherlock Holmes referred to it as "The Third Bean Vine." It is a brisk mandolin/guitar duet. It is also not Fahey. It is actually "The Easy Winner" by the Blue Boys, recorded Thursday, February 15, 1928 in Memphis, TN. Why was it included, as if it was a John Fahey track? The knee-jerk reaction of music listeners brought up in the freewheeling '60s would be the mantra of "rip-off," as in there goes another white musician ripping off some old black guys. Fahey's fans, most of them quite intelligent, would rather calling it an objet trouve, meaning a found object, a piece of recaptured sound entered into the stream of this unusual album to confound, mystify, and entrance the listener. The creation of mythical characters such as Blind Joe Death for this meisterstucke, along with instrumental credits on various tracks as if they actually were performing, bears this concept out. The accusation can be made that this object was "found" prior to anyone really losing it, but one would also bend over backwards giving Fahey the benefit of the doubt, since there is absolutely no reason a musician of his talents, and prolific creativity, would have to swipe anything in order to fill out an album, or for musical reasons either. Or, to look at it another way, he surely had a good reason for stealing it.

Other fine work featuring Prater which don't show up uncredited on John Fahey albums include an amorous version of "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and the sleepy "I'm Drifting Back to Dreamland."