The Blues & Salvation could easily get lost in the ocean of blues compilations. That would be a shame -- this terrific two-disc collection from Labor Records gathers 38 tracks by famous blues greats and lesser-known musicians, most of them previously unreleased, to show how vibrant and emotionally deep country blues is. Blues fans will know Rev. Gary Davis, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee, but George Higgs, Deneen McEachern, and others here impress just as deeply.
Rev. Gary Davis must have played “If I Had My Way” many times over the years, and it was the title track of an album he made for Smithsonian Folkways in 1954. The roughly recorded live version included here reinforces his reputation as a fierce master of blues guitar and a powerful singer. The Blues & Salvation contains 16 tracks by Davis from 1955 to 1957, including a sermon. Some of the recordings have a good bit of background noise, but it doesn’t diminish their beauty. Davis is a master whose spirit hovers over nearly every track on this set.
George Higgs died in 2013 at age 83, and didn’t release his debut album, Tarboro Blues, until 2001. He released only two more discs, Tar River Flood (2005) and Rainy Day (2007). With so few recordings available, it’s good have these five additional tracks he recorded in 2008, one with Jemima James. “Who Told You Woman” and “Sweet Little Girl” show off his direct fingerpicking style and his strong tenor, full of experience and conviction. When, in “Sweet Little Girl,” he sings “I been almost everywhere, from St. Paul to New Orleans,” the simple line evokes years of things seen and memories carried with them.
Louisiana Red’s excellent guitar and strong blues shout carry his three tunes from 1975 and make you hungry for more. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee have a track together, and each has a solo track as well. Deneen McEachern has one album to her credit, Hard Dark Love (2005), but her wonderful, gospel-tinged “There’s Nothing Left to Say” is a high point of this set. She also appears with the Wooten Singers and Arnetta Aiken in “His Name Is Jesus,” which just might spark an altar call in your listening room.
The inclusion of Jemima James is puzzling -- she leans more toward folk than blues, though the songs are pleasant enough. Her tracks aside, producers Kent Cooper and Heiner Stadler’s choices give a clear picture of the power of acoustic blues to move in ways both spiritual and earthly. Malcolm Addey’s excellent mastering ensures that recordings of varying quality, dating from the mid-1950s to 2008, go together well and with ease.
. . . Joseph Taylor