Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Another acoustic guitar blues masterpiece

Two days ago I listened to a cd that featured acoustic guitar and vocals, and it impressed me--"Doney Blues" by D. Johnson. I did not expect to be that impressed by another cd in that style for a long time. Well, get ready--here's another great cd that features old-timey acoustic guitar and vocals--"Songs Famed For Sorrow And Joy" by Samuel James. James is from Portland, Maine and this is his debut cd for Northern Blues. James uses an energetic finger-picking, Piedmont guitar style whereas D. Johnson seems to use more slide and open tunings, but the guitar playing on both cds is uniformly excellent. James' guitar pIaying recalls to me Jamie Brockett's early 70's talking blues accompaniment. The biggest difference between the two, however, is in the area of song writing. While D. Johnson's cd is predominately old songs, (9 out of 11) this James cd is all originals. James writes narrative songs, contemporary songs like "Big Black Ben," a tale of integration and its aftermath, and "One-Eyed Katie," who is "all woman but not one bit lady." Let me try and explain it this way--listening to "Doney Blues" you feel like you are in that old dark smoky barroom in 1930s Mississippi. It's time travel, and D. Johnson is the master. Listening to Samuel James you feel like you're listening to a master storyteller who also plays a guitar. The fact that James' stories happen to be on a blues cd seems almost incidental. This is the way the Northern Blues website describes Samuel James: "Here is a young man, still a few years away from 30, whose debut cd is a set of 12 original songs, and by original I do not simply mean “not covers.” I mean truly original. This is his voice. Each song is a story, an often humorous tale, of love gone haywire, or small town racism, or a folk tale of mythical symbolism."

Sounds about exactly right. I've listened to "Songs Famed For Sorrow and Joy" all the way through four times today, and I am still enjoying it. Seems like these two blues artists are keeping the blues alive by taking them both back and forward....

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