I've been spending a lot of time lately with the American roots of rock & roll music: blues and country (aka hillbilly or mountain music). I'm not talking about what passes for most blues or country today. I'm talking about the blues and country that began in the American South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These two styles share so many commonalities, yet back then they were worlds apart simply because of skin color.
They were both the music of the downtrodden and lower-class. They sang of heartbreak and bad luck, and praised Jesus. They dreamed of having more than they'd ever have, and arriving in Heaven an equal with everyone else.
As a guitarist, I've been drawn to both of these styles equally. And because of the wonders of modern technology, I've been able to recently bolster my collection of both musical styles considerably.
There are two collections I recently picked up that deserve much praise, and many, many listens.
The first, Goin' Mad Blues, is a 200-song compilation of the real roots of American blues music. It's got the Bigs: Big Bill Broonzy, Big Joe Turner and Big Joe Williams. The Blinds: Blind Boy Fuller, Blind John Davis and Blind Willie McTell. The John Lees: John Lee Hooker and John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson. Leadbelly, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, "Hot Lips" Page, Lightnin' Hopkins, the one and only Robert Johnson, and many, many others. Without this music, there would be no Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin or Beatles or Who or any rock & roll. This is where it all began.
The next collection is Friends of Old Time Music: The Folk Arrival 1961 - 1965. This three-disc box set of 55 live performances (53 previously unreleased) comes from 14 concerts in New York City in the early '60s. It's a wonderful cross-section of traditional American bluegrass and folk music, with performances by legends like Fred McDowell, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, Doc Watson and Maybelle Carter (of the Carter family), as well as lesser-known artists Annie Bird, Joseph Spence, Fiddlin' Arthur Smith, Ed Young and Emma Ramsay, and Jesse Fuller.