By art auction standards, it was chump change. But eyebrows went up last year when John Tefteller paid $37,100 for a 1929 78 by Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson. Tefteller is as famous for his passion for vintage blues as for the deep pockets that have enabled him to amass the largest private collection of this music. For the eleventh consecutive year, Tefteller has shared his riches in the form of a calendar with `period’ advertisements for early blues recordings and a CD of the music. Both the recordings and the promotional material for them offer fascinating glimpses into 1920s African-America.
The August illustration from the 2014 the Classic Blues Artwork Calendar, Vol. 11 (Blues Images) shows a pensive man standing at a riverbank gazing towards a distant steamboat. The original ad copy reads in part: “What a tragedy—what a sadness! Longing and lonesomeness are too much for him, so he decides to end it all in the river.” The ad promoted Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Long Lonesome Blues,” a hit in1926 which effectively launched the `male blues singer accompanied by guitar’ genre on record. The CD offers the song “digitized from an original test pressing with the words `new recording’ written on the label.” In other words, this sounds as good as this historically-significant recording will ever sound. We aren’t so lucky with Blind Blake’s “Miss Emma Liza” and “Dissatisfied Blues,” but we get to hear the sole known copy of the battered 78 that surfaced in a flea market last year. The 24 songs on the CD range in both musical and audio quality, and while the emphasis on rarity makes it primarily of interest to collectors, the wonderful visuals (including some previously unpublished) make the 2014 Blues Images calendar a revealing tour of a musical museum of which Mr. Tefteller is its most ardent curator.
Not that he lacks company! In England, a new reissue label named for a once-popular soft drink, Nehi, launched in November with three vintage blues CDs. Peabody Blues offers 26 1929 recordings made at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. The ten featured artists/groups include the well-known Furry Lewis doing “John Henry Blues,” and Russell Beecher’s liner notes argue a `site-specific’ bond between the venerable hotel and the blues/jugband artists who likely had to use the `servants entrance’ to record there. Jackson Stomp—The Charlie McCoy Story is a welcome acknowledgment of one of the lesser-known greats of the genre. McCoy was just 19 when his recording career began accompanying Tommy Johnson in 1928. The 26 tracks start there and end in 1941 with McCoy backing Sonny Boy Williamson. As both leader/vocalist and sideman on either mandolin or guitar, the caliber of McCoy’s playing and variety of his recordings make this collection a fine overview of pre-WWII blues. Finally, St. Charles Blues—Sonny Boy Nelson and Bo Carter offers 28 recordings made Aug. 15, 1936 at the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans. Location aside, the music’s from Mississippi, funky and fine.
Join Mark Humphrey the 4th Saturday of most months for a mix of music on KPFK’s Roots Music & Beyond, Saturdays 6-8 a.m. 90.7 fm. The show is archived for two weeks after broadcast at KPFK’s website.