Though his best-known music-themed graphics work is his classic cover to Big Brother and the Holding Company's concert album, Cheap Thrills, R. Crumb's musical sympathies have ever been toward older acoustic musicianship. His early underground comix are rife with refs to early blues platters (the cover to All New Zap Comix #1 contained a joking play on Blind Blake's "Diddie Wah Diddie" – and let's not forget the much-pirated "Keep on Truckin'" panels) while an alignment with record reissue companies like Arhoolie, Blue Goose & Yazoo resulted in a series of Crumb covers for old-time blues collections and anthologies.
Crumb's Yazoo elpee illos ultimately led to what was first proposed as a series of individually issued trading cards devoted to "Heroes of the Blues." As initially planned, Crumb's cards were going to be singly attached to new Yazoo releases, so that fans wanting to get a complete set would've been forced to shell out money for thirty-six long-players just to get the first full "Heroes" set. While I can appreciate the missionary motives that'd lead Crumb into wanting to expand his readership's listening experience, the obsessive collector in me is grateful that Yazoo ultimately decided to go a different packaging route with these cards, selling 'em as boxed sets instead.
The artist wound up doing three such collections for Yazoo, devoted primarily to obscure blues, jazz and country figures. Each hero (and occasional heroine – like the great blueswoman Memphis Minnie) was given a single card with a brief description of the artist's career written on the back by Stephen Calt, David Jasen or Richard Nevins. (Of the three sets, Nevins' country blurbs are the most info-packed.) Twenty years later, all three sets have been reprinted in a compact 6"-by-7-1/2" hardback, R. Crumb's Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country (Abrams). The book is a strong reflection of the artist's love for the largely unsung music of an earlier generation.
Utilizing old photos and snippets of newsreel footage as his primary source, Crumb tackles artists as diverse as the Memphis Jug Band to Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers to the more urbane sounds of Bennie Moten. A few more immediately recognizable names crop up in the three series – The Carter Family in the Country set, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in the Jazz collection – though as Terry Zwigoff notes in his introduction to the book, Crumb doubtless had the most fun doing pictures of figures only the most dieheart old music lover would immediately recognize.
Considering the limited source material that he must have had to work with, Crumb provides some marvelously evocative portraits. I have to admit to a fondness for the blues and country sets over the jazz pix: with the third series, he'd shifted to watercolors from Pantone color sheets, eliminating much of his trademark black ink shading in the process. The results are stiffer to my eyes, not as full of the artist's usual scruffy life.
Crumb's blues and country group shots are especially intriguing, often providing at least one of the figures in the frame with an expression that gets you wondering, "What the heck was on their mind?" That expression of aloofness on guitarist Nettie Robertson's (of Eck Roberston and Family) face or the pissed-off glare that's aimed at us by the second banjoist in the Southern Broadcasters – where'd they come from? And how about that wall-eyed look on Gus Cannon (of Jug Stompers fame), right behind the sleepy-eyed gaze of John Estes? Some of Crumb's portraits look not far removed from turn-of-the-century family funeral portraits (you know, the ones where they posed the open casket right amidst the surviving family members); others are more welcoming (a picture of bluesmen Curly Weaver and Fred McMullen playing guitar together is particularly warm). Even if their names are totally unfamiliar, you can probably imagine what the artists sound like on the basis of Crumb's graphics.
To help those of us with less imagination, of course, the publishers of Heroes have included a Yazoo sampler disc featuring 21 of the artists (seven per set) in the series. Though it does provide a good general sense of the sounds that Crumb's Heroes produced, the selection can be frustrating in places. Why, for instance, does the disc include Hayes Shepherd's "only solo effort" when Crumb's card focused on the Shepherd Brothers? For that matter, why is the Cannon Jug Stompers' version of "Minglewood Blues" featured when the only Stompers track described by writer Calt is the folk blues classic "Walk Right In"? Surely, the mighty Yazoo archives are vast enough to give us material that directly connects to the original trading cards?
Ah, but that's a small grouse: the main draw here remains Bob Crumb's loving music illos – which is what it's really all about. He may not wanna directly tell you what "diddie wah diddie" means, but he's ready to show you the way to learn for yourself . . .