These days, the irrepressible playlisters who put together the Rough Guide compilations have turned to the public domain. With digital music having flatlined as a consumer product a long time ago, one way a record label can survive is to reissue hundred-year-old blues songs that don’t require licensing or royalties. And these Rough Guide oldtime blues playlists are good! Each has lots of music, the greats alongside lesser-known talents. One of the best is the Rough Guide to Blues Women, a twenty-five track mix of guitar, piano and larger-group recordings, mostly from the 1920s, released in 2016 and streaming at Spotify.
There isn’t a lot of obvious material on this one. Among the iconic figures here, Ma Rainey is represented by a proto-dixieland version of Stack O’Lee Blues. Likewise, Bessie Smith’s Careless Love has chattering brass and piano. The Memphis Minnie track here is the lesser-known, upbeat shuffle Frisco Town. Sippie Wallace has a big band behind her in the speakeasy tale Parlor Social DeLuxe, while Victoria Spivey – the sweet-voiced Madonna of the 1920s – closes the album over some tasty stride piano with Hoodoo Man Blues.
For those looking for instrumental flash, check out the neat two-guitar intertwine in Ruth Willis’ Man of My Own, Lottie Kimbrough’s gorgeously chiming Rolling Log Blues, and Mattie Delaney’s elegantly pouncing fretwork in Down the Big Road Blues.
The blues can get pretty grim. Leola Manning’s Arcade Building Moan gruesomely recalls a lethal fire, and Greshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas’ contribute the alllusively grisly Pick Poor Robin Clean.
There’s risque material here too, notably Lucille Bogan’s barrelhouse tune Shave ‘Em Dry. Ida Cox’s Moaning Groaning Blues is somewhat subtler. And Hattie Hart fronts the Memphis Jug Band throughout a jauntily shuffling take of Cocaine Habit Blues, a.k.a. Take a Whiff on Me.
Pearl Dickson’s Little Rock Blues is built around a fleet-fingered, cascading riff, Louisa Johnson channels a brittle unease over thumping piano in By the Moon and Stars, otherwise known as I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down. Hattie Hudson’s surreal, imagistic Black Hand Blues makes a good segue.
There are a handful of ringers on this album. Louis Armstrong is one, with Bertha “Chippie” Hill fronting a piano-trumpet-vocal trio on a steady version of Trouble in Mind. Likewise, Blind Willie McTell backs his wife Kate in what seems an impromptu homemade version of the Prohibition-era relic God Don’t Like It. The version of Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do here is by Fats Waller, with Sara Martin on the mic. And Irene Scruggs sings over Blind Blake’s sparkling picking on Itching Heel Blues.