Monday, January 19, 2004

Sonny Boy Williamson I - Blue Bird Blues (RCA, 2003)

This is a disc of Sonny Boy Williamson #1, John Lee Williamson who recorded for Bluebird in the thirties and forties, part of RCA's series When the Sun Goes Down: The Secret History of Rock and Roll. The original Sonny Boy was a harmonica player, singer, bandleader and composer of some of the most resilient blues standards of all time. He was an influence on nearly all of the blues musicians who came after him, whether directly by giving harp lessons to Billy Boy Arnold or indirectly through his songwriting which was covered by John Lee Hooker and scores of others. This is a very well done reissue. Normally I'm a little skeptical about reissues of material that's been around the block an number of times but this one really is worthy, they've done it well with solid song selection, notes and really superb remastering - it sounds like Sonny Boy and the guys are right in your living room!

This music presents Williamson in small acoustic band settings ranging from one guitar to a larger band that forshadowed the electric blues that Muddy Waters and other southern immigrants were bringing north. It's another fascinating and sad "what might have been" to think about what his effect would have been on the blues had he not been murdered right when the electric blues was just beginning to get started with the second wave of southern immigration and the emergence of the Aristocrat and Chess labels.

Classics abound... "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," "Bluebird Blues" and many others, all of which survive as blues standards today. Some of the band arrangements which feature acoustic guitar and the mandolin of Yank Rachell hearken back to the string bands like the Mississippi Sheikhs while at the same time looking forward to the future of the blues with Williamson's complex and sophisticated songwriting and harp playing. Williamson's early death in Chicago in 1947 and assumption of his name by the wiley old goat himself, Rice Miller, would briefly obscure the original Sonny Boy's contribution to the blues and American music in general. But with the re-emergence of his compositions during the rock and roll era he came back into the spotlight. If we keep getting well done re-issues like this, then he'll never be forgotten.

Rating: 10

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