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Robert Christgau on Some Delta Blues Gems and Country Blues Moments

The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews three compilations: 'American Epic: The Best of Blues,' '24 Classic Blues Songs From the 1920's,' and 'American Epic: The Best of Country.'

Robert Christgau

The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published six books, including his 2015 autobiography, Going Into the City. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To read more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website .

American Epic: The Best of Blues (Lo-Max/Third Man/Columbia/Legacy) Anyone interested owns somewhat fainter and scratchier versions of tracks on this definitive country blues compilation. But conceptually and song for song, these 17 clear, rich, cannily sequenced Duke Erikson remasters—Delta guys mostly, with hokum bands and two Texans mixed in for extra flavor—leaves them in the dust. Bernard MacMahon defies convention by beginning with an anachronistic culmination—Robert Johnson's mythic "Cross Road Blues" was cut in 1937, well after country blues's 78-rpm flowering. He blends in the warhorses-in-waiting "'Tain't Nobody's Business," "Walk Right In," and "Sitting on Top of the World." He welcomes Mattie Delaney's polished, still obscure "Tallahatchie River Blues" and Geeshie Wiley's eerie, now canonical "Last Kind Word Blues" into an assertively male canon. And he justifies the ongoing mystification of Blind Willie Johnson's hummed, moaned, postverbal "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" by closing with it, as if to prove that, in the end, the message of this music is beyond words. But it isn't. "Every day seem like murder here." "Ain't no heaven, there ain't no burnin' hell / Where I'm goin' when I die can't nobody tell." "Come on mama on the road again." A

24 Classic Blues Songs From the 1920's: Vol 15 (Blues Images) As always, the deal here is 25 bucks plus the usual for a handsome vintage blues ad art calendar and a blues CD compiled by collector-designer John Tefteller. Seldom have these CDs reached out to nonspecialists by achieving a balance of accessible collectors' items and classics not yet worn thin. But this one is different, primarily but not exclusively because the American Epic people lent Teftweller their remastering apparatus, adding clarity, brightness, and presence to occasionals like Bo Weavil Jackson and Rev. Steamboat Bill's Revival Singers as well as titans like Charley Patton and Memphis Minnie. Direct comparison, for instance, revealed striking noise reduction on two songs that had never reached me—Tommy Johnson's "I Wonder to Myself" and Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Hot Dogs." Not that I was knocked out by sonics alone—as a shallow person, I prefer the Jefferson novelty. But all this music is now easier to hear for whatever it may be. My special favorites are two Memphis Minnies I hadn't previously registered, "Frisco Town" and "Goin' Back to Texas." My special discovery is Mississippi-to-Chicago pioneer Johnnie "Geechie" Temple. Without improved audio, his plaintive "The Evil Devil Blues," about a love triangle rather than a meeting at the crossroads, might have captivated me anyway. But chances are not. A MINUS

American Epic: The Best of Country (Lo-Max/Third Man/Columbia/Legacy) This is less revelatory or deeply satisfying than the blues edition—the talent pool is smaller and shallower and Harry Smith long ago made the most of it. But sparked by the jaunty dance instrumentals "Ladies on the Steamboat" (hiya), "Brown Skin Gal (Down the Lane)" (hmm), and "The Lost Child" (huh?), the non-Smith tunes that emerge second half hold their own. So for me, this might well replace Legacy's White Country Blues whenever I need reminding that the Trumper-spawning white supremacists who lost the Civil War had their moments of blessed foolishness, bemused melancholy, and supernal grace. For sure those moments flowered into some Johnny Cashes, some Doug Joneses. But don't kid yourself that the process was close to automatic. B PLUS

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