It's funny how popular music always seems to get such a bad name for itself when it's just starting out. Everything from early Delta bues to rock and roll has been referred to as "The Devil's Music" at one time or another in its existence. Yet while other music always seems to somehow or another become "civilized" or acceptable to mass audiences, the blues has continued to be on the outside looking in.
Back in the 1920's when Robert Johnson was playing in juke joints and honky-tonks in Mississippi the blues was considered the dark side of what was sung in the church on Sunday. Instead of setting people's minds to thinking of the sacred, it kept their minds firmly fixed on the profane by singing about wine, whiskey, and women. As they years have gone by, the secular nature of the blues has come to matter less and less, but while it retains a core following of faithful listeners, it has never achieved the wide spread success that so many of its offspring have realized.
Even though rock and roll co-opted blues for the majority of its sound, and a great many of its early hits were blues songs re-worked to suit the new genre, the blues continued to be marginalized. The blue's biggest strength, its raw passion and emotional power, has probably been the primary reason for its lack of commercial success with the mainstream audiences in North America. Most people look to entertainment as an escape from the real world, and the blues' isn't about running away, it's about testifying to the troubles of the world.
You only have to listen to something like Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards' latest release, Roamin' and Ramblin', on the Earwig Music label, to hear how how raw and honest the blues can be. "Honeyboy" was born in 1915 in Shaw Mississippi and is one of the last of the great Delta Bluesmen left among us anymore. Like most of his contemporaries he did very little commercial recording early in his career, with his first tracks being recorded by Alan Lomax in 1942 for the Library of Congress. Like many other African Americans, Honeyboy left the South in the early fifties and moved up to Chicago, which has been his home base ever since.
It was a hard scrabble life playing in small clubs and on street corners. In 1953 he recorded several songs with Chess records, but they were never issued until recent years. That's not to say he didn't make any records, but the majority of his music appears to have been released on various anthologies, rather than under his own name up until the late 1970's. In 1979 when Michael Frank founded Earwig Records, Honeyboy recorded his first disc under his own name since 1953 with the release of Old Friends.
Since then he has released another eight albums, won a Grammy for best traditional blues album for Mississippi Delta Bluesman in 2001, and in 2007 was awarded the W.C. Handy award for Acoustic Blues Artist of the year.
For Roamin' And Ramblin' producer Michael Frank wanted to create a tribute to all the fine harmonica and guitar duets that Honeyboy had taken part in over the years. In his career, Honeyboy played with probably every great harmonica player to come down the pipe from Little Walter to Cary Bell. Unfortunately not only are many of these great players no longer with us, some of them never recorded with Honeyboy. The next best thing was to recruit two of the best harmonica players on the Chicago scene, Billy Branch and Bobby Rush to record with Honeyboy for this album.
Mixed in amongst the tracks recorded for this disc are older recordings taken from some live gigs with Walter Horton on harmonica in the seventies, a couple with Michael Frank sharing the stage with Honeyboy, and two from those Alan Lomax sessions back in 1942. The first time I listened to the disc, I didn't have the cover in front of me, so wasn't aware of the particulars of each track. While there are some obvious difference in sound quality between the tracks recorded in 1942 and the ones recorded in 2007, I defy anybody to date them by the sound of Honeyboy's voice or the quality of the music.
"Crawling Kingsnake" was recorded in September of 2007, "Jump Out" in 1975, and "Army Blues" in 1942, and each one features a strong voiced, impassioned singing, and high energy performance from David Honeyboy Edwards. Whether he's performing solo with his guitar like he did in 1942, or matching note for note with a harmonica in 2007 the man is an incredible performer. At ninety-two years of age, which he was in the fall of 2007, he had more get up and go in his performance than most guys even one third his age seem to be able to generate.
Of course, the stuff that make his performance so remarkable is the very stuff that's been working against blues music ever gaining widespread popularity. It's full of raw, honest emotion without any compromise. He sings directly from the heart at all times and makes you truly understand what the word soul means when talked about in terms of music. Hearing his rough hewn voice accompanied by the lonesome sound of the great harmonica players on this disc is enough to send chills up your spine on more than one occasion.
Sometimes when a musician is billed as a living legend, or the last of his kind, he's hauled out like some museum piece and placed on display like an exhibit. His or her talent might be a thing of the past but that doesn't stop people from exploiting them for their own purposes. That's not the case with David "Honeyboy" Edwards' latest collection of blues music, Roamin' and Ramblin' This is as fine a collection of acoustic blues that I've heard in a long time, and proof positive that the blues are still some of the most emotionally honest and powerful music to have ever been performed.
This is one legend who doesn't rest on his laurels and can still teach anybody who listens to him a few lessons in how to live life to its fullest. Roamin' And Ramblin' is a great recording by a great performer, and a must own for any fan of the blues.