Robert Johnson, Lonnie Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Willie Dixon, and several anthologies

Columbia Records

Harmonica player Sugar Blue has said he has an idea for a song entitled “I Want to Be a Blues Legend, but I Ain’t Dead Yet.” A bit overstated, perhaps, but the man’s got a point. It’s not so much that people think blues musicians are born old, as I once suggested, as that most blues artists, unless they somehow capture the imagination of the rock world (a la Willie Dixon or John Lee Hooker) aren’t born at all until after they’ve passed quietly away, the inevitable tributes from acolytes have been heard, and old tapes can be miraculously rediscovered in back-room vaults.

Columbia’s much-heralded “Roots ‘n’ Blues” series illustrates the problem perfectly. It’s an admirable, long-overdue effort on the part of a major label to document some of our most important blues history in a serious, even scholarly way. But aside from the ubiquitous Willie Dixon (shown here in a setting most would consider nearly irrelevant to his best Chicago work), scarcely a living soul is represented. To be taken seriously, it seems, the blues must be a museum piece.

The problem is especially acute in News & the Blues: Telling It Like It Is. It’s sometimes forgotten that a solid body of work in the blues comments succinctly on social conditions. This tradition continues; Big Jack Johnson’s “Mr. U.S. AIDS” is only one recent example. But Columbia remains relentlessly in the past and so the rage underlying many of these commentaries is tucked into a safe, nostalgic cocoon.

Within that constraint, however, there’s a lot of good stuff; especially notable is Blind Willie Johnson’s stark rendering of the Titanic tragedy, “God Moves on the Water.” But even on its own terms, this set falls short: several selections–gospel numbers, a retelling of the old Frankie and Johnny legend, songs about individuals’ problems with alcohol, drugs, and gambling–take up space that might have been better devoted to more rigorous social commentary.

Mostly, though, one wishes Columbia could have stepped a bit outside its “roots” theme and acknowledged that blues singers are still commenting imaginatively on the world around them. A few recent or current contenders might be James Van Buren’s delightfully quirky “Country Down,” Willie Dixon’s modern efforts (“It Don’t Make Sense [You Can’t Make Peace],” among others), and Syl Johnson’s hip, succinct “Brings Out the Blues in Me.” Sunnyland Slim’s “Be Careful How You Vote” is an election-year novelty hit waiting to happen; Columbia could really have popped a few pimples in the boardroom by including Gil Scott-Heron’s scathing “H2Ogate Blues” in the set.

Predictably, given the series’s relentless historicity, it succeeds best when dealing with historical figures. Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, for instance, is everything the hype claims–the definitive set of some monumental blues recordings. Johnson was indeed a folk poet of rare and tormented vision, but he was also a consummate artist. His tonal shadings and rhythmic complexities and counterpoints–sometimes more hinted at than developed, but nonetheless audacious for their time and place–were nearly as visionary as his fabled lyrics. The inclusion of alternate takes on this disc, while not providing any spectacular revelations, underscores Johnson’s genius even more profoundly. He was obviously very much aware of the effect he wanted to have on his audience, and how to go about getting it: his vocal mannerisms, guitar patterns, lyrics, even spoken asides were worked out meticulously and are repeated on alternate versions.

By this point, most listeners are familiar with at least one or two of Johnson’s creations, but it’s thrilling to be reacquainted with some works that may not be as well-known or have been appropriated through the years by other artists; and they’re restored here to their original glory. There’s the wracked “Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)” with its nightmarish imagery of terror and dislocation: “I’s up this morning / Ah, blues walkin’ like a man / Worried blues give me your right hand . . . / And the blues fell mama’s child / And it tore me all upside down / Travel on, poor Bob, just can’t turn you ’round.” There’s the original “Sweet Home Chicago,” replete with fierce declarations of independence and smoldering self-assertiveness (“I’m heavy loaded baby / I’m booked, I gotta go”), and the lovely “Come On in My Kitchen,” with its seductive promise of sexual pleasure overlaid by an aura of impending doom. Not to be forgotten are the rollicking good-time songs and their feel of uninhibited juke-joint fun. Johnson’s work encompassed–indeed, it helped define–the entire spectrum of possibility in blues expression.

One of Johnson’s favorite guitarists was Lonnie Johnson (no relation), who was as important in the development of solo guitar as Robert Johnson was in wrenching Delta blues from its limitations and paving the way for the musical journey that culminated in the 1950s Chicago explosion. Steppin’ on the Blues is a stellar tour through the first seven years of Lonnie Johnson’s career, including several previously unissued sides. The songs aren’t in chronological order, but it’s obvious that Johnson arrived in the recording studio in 1925 with a fully developed talent: the opener, “Mr. Johnson’s Blues” (his first release under his own name), has uncharacteristic moments of sloppiness, but through the rest of the set we marvel at his sophisticated imagination, his subtle manipulations of timbre and timing, and the filigreelike intertwining of his leads with his accompanists’ piano and guitar lines.

Johnson’s status as guitar genius is undisputed; here we realize again what an expressive singer and distinctive lyricist he was. His delivery had a plaintive melancholy remindful of Texas blues singers (Johnson was from Louisiana and inaugurated his career in the brothels of New Orleans); his lyrics contained strange, kaleidoscopic dashes of imagery, sometimes laced with a threat of violence (“She’s Making Whoopee in Hell Tonight”) seemingly at odds with his sophisticated musical demeanor.

Johnson’s remarkable versatility is especially apparent when he accompanies vocalists as diverse as Victoria Spivey and Texas Alexander. It’s not always a perfect match; behind Alexander’s drawn-out Texas moan Johnson occasionally sounds impatient, restlessly firing off lithe, serpentine runs in an apparent effort to propel the singer. But through everything, and especially on the buoyant instrumental solos and duets, he continuously astounds us with his improvisational vision. We’re treated to the guitar’s virtual birth as a lead jazz instrument.

Nearly on a musical par with Johnson, although he often tended toward less substantial, more good-timey material, was guitarist Big Bill Broonzy. Broonzy came to Chicago from his native Arkansas in the 1920s and was a mainstay here until he became ill in 1957; he died the following year. He was a major artist of considerable ingenuity, with over 300 compositions to his credit. He slyly forged a lucrative new career for himself in the 1950s by masquerading for white folk-music fans as a quaint, rustic purveyor of country blues. That’s led to a certain patronization of Broonzy as heroic primitive. Big Bill Broonzy: Good Time Tonight should help dispel this unfortunate stereotype.

Although there are a few examples here of Broonzy’s acoustic solo work, this set is most important as a documentary of small-group sessions he recorded in Chicago in the late 1930s and in 1940, often with jazz instrumentation and even an early electric guitar, played by George Barnes, on “It’s a Low Down Dirty Shame” in 1938. Again, several previously unissued sides are included.

Stylistically Broonzy stays mostly within the confines of what’s sometimes called “happy blues”–jaunty, playfully risque novelty numbers owing a lot to the hokum, jug-band, and string-band traditions. Perhaps the mugging tomfoolery of much (though by no means all) of Broonzy’s recorded material contributed to the later trivializing of the man and his music, but it’s obvious from the remarkable facility shown here that recognition of his contribution to the urban style’s development is long overdue.

Willie Dixon: The Big Three Trio resurrects an early phase–the 1940s and early ’50s–of Dixon’s Chicago recording career. Although fondly remembered by some, this music hasn’t aged well for most blues aficionados. The trio included bassist Dixon; pianist Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston; and first Bernardo Dennis, later Ollie Crawford on guitar. They showed a certain amount of panache in the crooning, close-harmony pop style of the day, but their vocal work never rose above the ordinary–their range was limited, the harmonies seldom transcended cliche, and the material generally consisted of relentlessly middle-of-the-road originals, standards, or diluted updatings of traditional themes. Occasionally Dixon contributed inventive lyrics (“Signifying Monkey”); usually, though, neither melody nor words were inspirational.

The disc is rescued from total mediocrity by flashes of musical brilliance. Although his playing behind the others is often leaden, Dixon summons admirable imagination and dexterity in some of his solos; and Caston provides sparkling treble cascades of energy throughout much of the set. But in general this is anonymous postwar urban black pop music, interesting only as a period piece and as an early example of Dixon’s uncanny ability to gauge and satisfy public taste.

If the Big Three material is too mainstream, many listeners may be intimidated by the exotic Cajun, Volume 1: Abbeville Breakdown 1929-1939. Its very inclusion in this series could be questioned; few blues or R & B artists outside Louisiana owe much to this music. But once you get past the language barrier, it’s surprisingly accessible.

Cajun music’s hypnotic modal drone of fiddles, accordions, and guitars is one of the more hauntingly ecstatic sounds ever recorded, and the propulsive rhythms remind us that not only African American music is steeped in a tradition of dancing and exuberant celebration. This disc is especially valuable in that it documents both the famous Breaux Freres band (featuring vocalist Cleoma Breaux and her legendary accordionist husband, Joe Falcon) and, from 1939, a lesser-known Cajun aggregation, the Alley Boys of Abbeville.

The Alley Boys’ music occasionally causes some consternation among purists because they abandoned the accordion and included an acoustic steel guitar in the lineup, apparently under the influence of western swing. Their music was nonetheless buoyant and infectiously danceable, and their harmonic and tonal sensibilities were rooted solidly in the Cajun tradition.

One wishes, though, that Columbia had included a translation of the lyrics–as in the best country-western and bluegrass (to say nothing of blues), there’s often an aching mournfulness lurking behind the exuberance. Singers’ voices catch as squeezeboxes or fiddles sob and wail behind them (Mlle Breaux is especially impressive), and we wonder what we’re missing by not understanding the story. The liner notes, however, set the scene for the music with evocative eloquence; they not only educate and inspire us to learn more, they enhance the set’s unexpected accessibility.

At times the “Roots ‘n’ Blues” series seems a bit schizophrenic: the Cajun selections were obviously chosen with an ear toward virtuosity, while some of the music on The Slide Guitar: Bottles, Knives & Steel is interesting only as historical documentation. But it’s important documentation, and though some entries are pedestrian (Sister O.M. Terrell’s “Swing Low, Chariot”–not “Sweet Chariot”), others are classics of the genre (Sylvester Weaver’s influential “Guitar Rag,” Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night”). This set is admirably adventurous; a few of the artists (Buddy Woods, Terrell) are unknown to all but the most fanatic collectors.

The slide guitar can portray a wide range of emotions, and most of that range is included here. Sylvester Weaver and Walter Beasley kick things off with a jaunty duet that sounds vaguely like a string band, and several other selections are notable for their good humor. But “Dark Was the Night” lingers most: a quivering, moaning evocation of bleakness and desperate prayer, it’s nothing less than the aural equivalent of Robert Johnson’s words–the sense of brooding spiritual isolation chills the soul and the spine.

Legends of the Blues, Volume One seems to be the disc Columbia hopes will snare the uninitiated–the cover illustration features an image of Muddy Waters looming like a colossus above Big Bill Broonzy, the Big Three Trio, and Lonnie Johnson. But alongside the well-planned diversity of much of the rest of the series, it seems thrown together.

The Muddy Waters selection (“Hard Day Blues”) is notable for being a previously unreleased side from his 1946 Columbia session in Chicago–it predates his famous first session for the Chess brothers at Aristocrat (later Chess) Records in 1947. But there seems little purpose to most of the rest of the program: Bessie Smith’s classic blues singing (“Saint Louis Blues”) segues harshly into Blind Lemon Jefferson’s emotive Texas starkness (“Match Box Blues”); Lonnie Johnson’s lithe sophistication (“Low Down Saint Louis Blues”) is juxtaposed against Charley Patton’s fierce Delta growl (“Revenue Man Blues”).

Most of these artists have been well anthologized elsewhere, in settings that do them more justice. Yet I should point out that this set pales only in comparison to most of the rest of the series; everything on this disc is worthwhile, but as a compilation it lacks the sense of purpose and planning the others have. Now maybe Columbia will treat us to a similar project dedicated to the living blues tradition.