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Various Artists: The Memphis Blues Box: Original Recordings First Released on 78s and 45s, 1914-1969 (Bear Family)

20 December 2023

Looking for that perfect gift for the music lover in your life? Venerable reissue label Bear Family has just the thing. The Memphis Blues Box includes twenty disks’ and over 500 songs’ worth of blues recordings from one of the United States’ most important musical cities, almost all from the first half of the twentieth century.

The track listing is staggeringly impressive. The usual suspects abound: the Memphis Jug Band (probably the most well-documented act on the set), Memphis Minnie, Memphis Slim, Bukka White, Furry Lewis, Rufus Thomas, Little Milton, Sleepy John Estes, Junior Parker – and, of course, blues superstars like Howlin’ Wolf, Bobby Bland, Albert King, and B.B. King. The set also covers names more associated with the deep blues – artists like Yank Rachell, Frank Stokes, Willie Cobb, Robert Wilkins, and Joe Hill Louis, who’ve avoided obscurity but aren’t exactly first on the lips when pondering the blues. First wave rockabillies like Sonny Burgess, Carl Perkins, and Elvis, Scotty & Bill (led by some dude named Elvis Presley) make appearances, as do Ike & Tina Turner, as a reminder of where they began their career. And, of course, W.C. Handy, the man who codified the idea of Memphis as a major music town, begins the set with his 1952 recording “Mr. Crump and the Memphis Blues.”

But the most important finds here are the gems made by musicians long forgotten. The earliest cut here comes from 1914 (!), featuring brass band the Victor Military Band performing “The Memphis Blues – One Step.” That kicks off a dizzying number of cuts from names passed into history, from country blues man Little Buddy Doyle’s 1939 lament “Grief Will Kill You” and Swift Jewel Cowboys’ harmonica-led instrumental take on vaudevillian Frankie Jaxon’s “Fan It”, to big-voiced belter Woodrow Adams’ 1955 chunker “Baby You Just Don’t Know” and Sadie James’ bawdy 1927 piano blues “What Makes a Bow-Legged Woman Crazy ‘Bout Her Knock-Kneed Man?” Not to mention the various alter egos of the Memphis Jug Band, including the Carolina Peanut Boys (“Move That Thing”) and the (shudder) Picaninny Jug Band (“Bottle It Up and Go”), along with tracks credited to band members Will Shade, Charlie Burse, Vol Stevens, and Will Weldon but performed by the band.

It’s a lot to absorb, especially given Bear Family’s well-deserved reputation for thorough research. Fortunately the set includes a massive book edited by Martin Hawkins that takes you through it – not only annotating the disks, but providing essays from various authors covering topics like the Memphis jug band style and “The Golden Age of the Independent Record Companies.” Though it’s way too big for a stocking stuffer, The Memphis Blues Box is a must for anyone on your gift list who’s not only obsessed with the blues, but who wants to understand the evolution of American music in general.