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Complete Recorded Works (1928-1929) by Tommy Johnson

Label: Document Records.
Release Date: 1990.
Releases: May 27, 1994; March 22, 2005.
Recording Time: 57 minutes.
Recording Date: February 3, 1928 - December, 1929.

Styles: Acoustic Blues, Country Blues, Delta Blues, Pre-War Blues, Pre-War Country Blues, Regional Blues.

An essential Tommy Johnson collection, Document's Complete Recorded Works (1928-1929) features 17 songs from the Delta blues pioneer, including two alternative takes and a pair of previously unissued songs known respectively as "Morning Prayer Blues" and "Boogaloosa Blues." Culled from the great Delta musician's recording sessions in Memphis and Grafton, WI, from February 1928 to December 1929, this collection shines a light on all of Johnson's known output during his most active recording years. As with most music taken straight from original 78s, the sound quality varies between tracks; all in all, the pops and static aren't too distracting here. The music is well-worth seeking out as the writing, guitar playing, and singing are all exceptional. Johnson's voice, one of the distinctive early Delta blues voices along with Son House and Charley Patton, changes from a deep rumble to a woeful falsetto while his guitar playing is characteristic of the early Delta style. With the exception of a few of the tracks from an August 1928 session, other players accompany Johnson on the tracks. Highlights include the well-known material such as "Cool Drink of Water Blues" and "Canned Heat Blues," as well as scratchy lesser-known gems from his later sessions. The tracks "Ridin' Horse" and "Alcohol and Jake Blues" were taken from what is believed to be the only remaining copy of the 78 they were originally released on. These two songs had not been released on CD prior to this collection. On the two versions of "Black Mare Blues" included, Johnson is joined by the New Orleans Nehi Boys, featuring Kid Ernest Marshall on clarinet and Charley Taylor on piano. The CD includes informative notes by Paul Oliver, personnel lineups for each session, along with issue numbers for the original releases. This is highly recommended for those who have never heard Johnson's music and equally recommended for those who have.
by Jeff Schwachter

Document Records, detailed discography:
Charley Patton is often considered to be the father of the Mississippi Blues, and the young, ill-fated Robert Johnson epitomised the Mississippi Blues as its most agonised exponent. But there is no doubt that the music of Tommy Johnson epitomised the Mississippi Blues at its most expressive and poetic. Johnson achieved the perfection of a regional vocal and instrumental tradition, while realising its potential for the development of a unique and personal means of communication. The Mississippi Delta is a wedge-shaped, fertile, blacklands region between the Yazoo and the Mississippi Rivers. Near Drew, the heart of the Delta, where so many blues singers lived, Tommy Johnson apparently met up with the celebrated Charley Patton, and the encounter helped shape his career. Barely eighteen, Tommy was soon back in Terry and playing hard in the jukes, accompanying his brother LeDell. There he married one Maggie Bidwell - very likely the Maggie Campbell of his song - and he took her up to the Delta with him to exchange stanzas and musical ideas with Patton, Willie Brown and the Drew musicians. If they influenced him, in no way was Johnson a copyist; on the contrary, he was an individualist, whose sense of timing and rhythm, sensitive guitar playing, and impressive vocal range, were innate. They were brought together in Memphis, in 1928, on some of the most memorable recordings ever made of Mississippi Blues. Cool Drink Of Water with its loose structure and unerring falsetto calls, the insistent momentum of Big Road Blues, the field holler singing of Bye Bye Blues, and the melisma of Lonesome Home Blues illustrate Johnson's combination of strength and sensibility. On some titles he was complemented by the young Charlie McCoy who played second guitar, mandolin-fashion, interweaving with Johnson's deceptively relaxed instrumental line. In the main, Tommy Johnson used traditional verses, remodelling them to suit the overall theme of blues. But Canned Heat was a notable exception, a song about his addiction to crude alcohol. In a later session, on which his friend Ishman Bracey accompanied him on a couple of titles, he was less well served by the infamous recording quality of the Paramount company. But the quality of his blues was unimpaired on Slidini?? Delta, and I Wonder hints at the humour for which he was known among his friends. Perhaps the most extraordinary story in this documentation of a remarkable blues talent is the discovery, sixty years after it was made, of the sole known copy of his coupling Riding Horse and Alcohol and Jake Blues. A version of Maggie Campbell the former is much impaired, but on the latter, which is adapted from Canned Heat, we can hear Tommy Johnson fresh and relaxed, and at the height of his abilities. He lived on, unrecorded, for a quarter of a century; much addicted, but much admired and much copied by those who knew him.

Informative booklet notes by Paul Oliver.
Personnel: Tommy Johnson - vocals, guitar. With contributions by; Charlie McCoy - guitar, Kid Ernest Michall - clarinet, Charley Taylor - piano and others...

Credits: Ishman Bracey - speech/speaker/speaking part; Tommy Johnson - composer, guitar, guitar (rhythm), primary artist, vocals; Charlie McCoy - guitar; Kid Ernest Michall - clarinet; Paul Oliver - liner notes; Johnny Parth - compilation producer, producer; Charley Taylor - piano, speech/speaker/speaking part; Traditional - composer.

Tracks: 1) Cool drink of water blues; 2) Big road blues; 3) Bye-bye blues; 4) Maggie Campbell blues; 5) Canned heat blues; 6) Lonesome home blues (take 1); 7) Lonesome home blues (take 2); 8) Big fat mama blues; 9) I wonder to myself; 10) Slidin` delta; 11) Lonesome home blues; 12) Untitled Song (Morning Prayer Blues); 13) Untitled Song (Boogaloosa Woman); 14) Black mare blues (take 1); 15) Black mare blues (take 2); 16) Ridin` horse; 17) Alcohol and jake blues.