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September 2001

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Various Artists
Newport Folk Festival: Best of the Blues 1959-68

Newport Folk FestivalThe Newport Folk Festival has its place in music history (in the history of modern pop culture, in fact) secured for decades to come. This is where Bob Dylan, backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, first plugged in, in 1965, forever changing the face of rock music. 

To blues fans everywhere, Newport is also a familiar name on account of the famous 1960 performance by Muddy Waters and his band that produced their sensational rendition of "Got My Mojo Working". (Actually, this took place at the Newport Jazz Festival, not the Folk Fest). This performance, released by Chess as one of the very first live blues albums in history, is by itself responsible for two defining characteristics of modern-day blues. The song "Got My Mojo Working" has now been played live by 79,853 different bands, AND the "live at Newport" version of it by Muddy was in fact the very first time the majority of the white population of the U.S. ever heard live blues. 

Should you want more oral proof of the importance of Newport in the '60s in keeping the blues alive, then the three-CD set Newport Folk Festival: Best of the Blues 1959-68 (Vanguard) would be the final proof. Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Son House, Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker, as well as scores of other blues legends, all played there. They all played well, because every record company was represented, ready to offer you a recording contract on the spot. This was the "folk blues" boom. 

Rather than presenting the performances in a chronological way (such as on another three-CD Vanguard reissue, Newport Folk Festival: Best of Bluegrass 1959-66), the compilers have grouped the performers according to "style." Disk one is titled Delta Blues, Disk two features Country Blues, and Disk three has Urban Blues. I suppose it's a good thing, but I would still have liked to know when each performer was recorded. We are forced to make some (more or less) educated guesses, or we can simply enjoy the music.

Disk one opens with what appears to be a complete set by septuagenarian Mississippi John Hurt. We learn in the liner notes that each performer had about 15 minutes on stage. Hurt's six songs, which certainly sound like they were recorded at the same event, total more than 19 minutes, most probably on his second (and last) appearance at Newport. Every song he sings is a classic, and he is just as good as he ever was. Skip James has only two tracks on this compilation ("Devil Got My Woman" and "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues"), but they provide the most haunting and eerie moments on this whole box set. Following James' two cuts is a complete set by Son House. Together with Hurt and James, Son House was the biggest "rediscovery" of the era, and it's fitting that Disk one should open with these three giants, as the Newport Fest played a major role in bringing these "living legends" back to the spotlight. In all honesty, it must be said that of the three, it's Son House's playing that had suffered the most from all these years away from music. Still, he sings very forcefully and draws the biggest applause. As a bonus of sorts, the rest of Disk one features a few tracks from three very different slide guitarists, none too shabby, in Bukka White, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Muddy Waters (including the latter's "I Can't Be Satisfied," another highlight). This CD by itself would be enough to recommend buying the box-set. 

But there are two more! The Country Blues CD also has its share of historically significant performances, including Robert Pete Williams' brief set (three songs, 12 minutes). After his release from prison in 1959, Williams was forbidden to leave the State of Louisiana for five years. His first out-of-state appearance in 1964 was at the Newport Folk Festival. As he's nearing the end of "Levee Camp Blues," the opening track on Disk two, you hear police sirens in the background; you wonder if Williams was nervous at all. Like Williams (and Disk one's Fred McDowell), Mance Lipscomb got his start thanks to the blues revival of the end of the '50s and '60s. He was in his 60s when he started recording. Lipscomb's three tracks on this compilation include some amazing slide work (with the blade of a knife) on "God Moves on the Water," yet another highlight. The rest of this so-called Country Blues disk features performers who were certainly very accustomed to the big city life. Jesse Fuller, a long-time San Francisco resident, is featured on two sing-along (or clap-along) poppy songs, while Reverend Gary Davis' two cuts are the only two songs of a religious nature on this box set (apart from John Hurt's "Here I Am, Lord, Send Me"). Then we are treated to a full set (or is it parts of two sets?) of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, including two previously unreleased tracks, "The Train is Leaving" (complete with intro by an unnamed emcee, and a brief definition of the blues given by McGhee) and "Drink Muddy Water." The lone Sleepy John Estes cut that closes Disk two, "Clean Up at Home," features Yank Rachell on mandolin and Hammie Nixon on harmonica and jug. 

If Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee could have been featured on the Urban Blues disk, then Lightnin' Hopkins, who opens Disk three with three cuts, could conversely have been considered a Country Blues candidate, except for the fact that a plays an electrically amplified guitar. On the extremely brief and rocking "Shake that Thing," he's backed by drummer Sam Lay (moonlighting from his gig with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band?). As far as I can tell, John Lee Hooker's tracks were recorded on three different occasions. He is heard playing acoustic guitar with Bill Lee accompanying him on bass, he is heard playing acoustic guitar by himself, and, on three previously unreleased tracks, he plays electric guitar with an unnamed bassist. This is Hooker at his mesmerizing best, emphasizing his taste for ultra slow dirges over the boogies that had made him famous a decade or two before. None of the four cuts by Memphis Slim (fronting a quartet, according to John Milward's notes, though only a drummer and a bassist can be heard with the pianist) were ever issued before. They're not essential, and Matt "Guitar" Murphy's presence is missed, but they are nice enough. Two more previously unreleased tracks follow, and they're something else. Credited to Muddy Waters & Otis Spann, "Blow Wind Blow" and especially "Flood" feature Muddy's stellar singing (and some minimal guitar strumming) with some amazing, stunning, astonishing piano work from Spann. It's absolutely impossible to understand why these two cuts have never been issued before; they're pure jewels with which every blues fan should be familiar. Needless to say, the last two bands (The Chambers Brothers and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, both recorded in 1965) don't stand a chance after this.

Were it not for the inexcusable lack of info regarding dates and personnel, this three-CD set would be pretty close to perfect. As it is, it's still an essential listening experience and a great memento of a time when the blues was being introduced to (and starting to be made by) white people. 

--- Benoît Brière

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