Hard as it may be to imagine a worthy collection of blues harmonica that doesn’t include the likes of James Cotton, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Wells, or Big Walter Horton, leave it to the good folks at Smithsonian Folkways to come up with one, in this case, Classic Harmonica Blues from Smithsonian Folkways, out today. To be clear, never does the label attempt to position or pass off this record as any kind of “best of” compilation – just one comprised of quality classic recordings: something they accomplish quite nicely. (If you’re looking for more of the former, we might suggest you check out a recent double CD set called Mississippi Saxophone on the Blues Boulevard label, which includes tracks – and often more than one – from each of the artists noted above, in addition to Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Billy Boy Arnold, Sonny Terry, Charlie Musselwhite, and Kim Wilson, among others.)
Culled from the collections of Folkways Record founder Moses Asch as well as the Smithsonian’s own Folklife Festival, Classic Harmonica Blues includes 20 tracks from a dozen different harmonica players. Combined with the absence of some of the more popular names in blues harmonica mentioned above, a few may be tempted to dismiss this set for its lack of variety in artists – along with four tracks featuring Sonny Terry and three from Doctor Ross, the CD includes two songs each from Eddie Burns, Phil Wiggins, and Charlie Sayles, accounting for a total of 13 of the collection’s tunes – but that, my friends, would be a mistake. Despite the initial appearance of repetition among artists, the tracks here offer a remarkably impressive diversity, ranging in style from the Piedmont and Delta-to-Midwest traditions to jug and washboard bands and street corner performances, finding the contributions of these repeat acts interspersed with songs from the likes of the Memphis Jug Band, Jazz Gillum, John Sebastian, and the Chambers Brothers, making for a rather interesting variety of songs, including eight previously unreleased tunes from the Folklife Festival reels.
Opening on the shuffling country blues of Doctor Ross, the Harmonica Boss‘ “Theme Song” (harkening back to his radio show on Helena, Arkansas’ KFFA) from a 1987 festival performance, the album moves to a studio-recorded vocal duet from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee in “Heart in Sorrow,” with McGhee’s smooth, expressive vocals on the repeating chorus of “I ain’t got no lovin’ baby now” perfectly complementing the plaintive wails of Terry’s harmonica.
A 1957 field recording of “Take Your Fingers Off It” is the first of several jug or washboard band numbers you’ll hear on the compilation, reuniting the surviving members of the famous Memphis Jug Band more than 20 years after the group first recorded the song. Later in the disc, Geoff Muldaur (mandolin and vocals), Paul Rishell (guitar), and Annie Raines (harmonica) join with John Sebastian (guitar) of Lovin’ Spoonful fame and Fritz Richmond on jug for “Minglewood Blues,” with the disc closing out on a double-entendred “Custard Pie” that may not exactly be clean but is certainly good fun, with Sonny Terry on harmonica and vocals, backed by a lively washboard band.
Among the more recognizable of the tunes you’ll hear along the way are such classics as Sonny Boy Williamson II’s (Aleck Rice Miller) “Nine Below Zero,” performed here by Eddie Burns during the 1987 Folklife Festival; Sonny Boy (John Lee) Williamson’s “Good Morning Little School Girl” done by Doctor Ross, the Harmonica Boss, also from a 1987 performance; and an “I Feel So Good” (Big Bill Broonzy) that finds guitarist and singer Warner Williams joined by Jay Summerour on harmonica. Northerner Charlie Sayles offers a slightly funky take on Sonny Boy II’s “Bye Bye Bird,” while Phil Wiggins gets a little help from some friends on a July 1991 performance of “Sweet Home Chicago,” including Delta legends Johnny Shines and Robert Lockwood Jr. both on guitar and vocals and Henry Townsend on piano. Eddie Burns finds his way back to the festival stage with a stripped-down solo take on Sonny Boy II’s “One Way Out” that helps to keep the focus squarely on Burns’ harmonica skills; it’s a far cry from the Allman Brothers cover of the same tune, but not in a bad way.
Sonny Terry’s other contributions consist of a solo performance of the Piedmont standard “Crow Jane Blues” and another pairing with Brownie McGhee on the swinging “Boogie Baby,” with Doctor Ross, the Harmonica Boss also hitting on his own 1953 hit “Chicago Breakdown” during a 1987 festival performance. Of the other recurring artists, Phil Wiggins is paired with his good friend John Cephas on guitar and vocals for a dogged “Dog Days of August” and Charlie Sayles offers a gritty street corner original in “Train Piece” from the 1977 festival.
The set also includes two pretty nifty instrumentals: an upbeat “Gillum Blues” from Jazz Gillum that features blues great Memphis Slim on piano and a short but beautiful take from Roscoe Holcomb on the British ballad “Barbara Allen Blues,” while Neal Pattman offers some deep southern harmonica and vocals with a field recording of “Low Down Blues” and the Chambers Brothers provide an early rock, Yardbirds-flavored “Hooka Tooka” to help round out the compilation.
As usual with Smithsonian Folkways recordings, the liner notes that accompany the collection are informative and extensive, making this a terrific little piece of blues history. And with the Memorial Day holiday fast approaching, we can’t think of a more American way to enjoy the long weekend than listening to these genuinely classic selections. Indeed, when it comes to blues harmonica, this is a darn good set to have.