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...for occasional dipping into and listening, the music is a lot of fun.

Music Review: Jimmy Blythe Messin’Around Blues

I remember the first time I came across a working player piano. At first I didn’t know that it was any different from a regular piano, the doors over the keyboard which hid the secret of the piano's workings were closed, all I could see was the typical eighty-eight keys and two peddles. Then the friend of my family who owned the machine sat at the bench and began to play, and had only played a few bars when he lifted his hands, and lo and behold if the keys didn't keep playing on their own.

Of course he was still pumping merrily away on the foot pedals when he reached out and slid the doors open that had hidden the piano roll from view. I remember thinking that the apparatus reading the scroll reminded me of pictures I had seen of people reading braille. As far as I can recall there were two or three metal arms that traced a series of bumps and cuts, and they somehow were translating that into instructions the piano was able to turn into music.

I was fascinated by the machine and would have spent countless hours playing the same tune over and over again if given the opportunity, and remember being bitterly disappointed finding out that the friend of the family had disposed of the piano. Lacking any musical skill, the player piano represented an opportunity to at least feel like I was playing an instrument. So ever since, I've always been on the lookout for another to play.
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Although they still make the rolls for player pianos, they have become increasingly hard to find. Their heyday was from the late 1880s to the the 1930s when millions of them were made. According to the folk at Delmark Records who have begun the process of transferring some of the old scrolls onto CD, there were two types of the scrolls made during this period. The earliest type were drawn by hand by skilled musicians, but by 1915 most of the companies had developed recording equipment that allowed a piano player to sit at a specially equipped piano and create the rolls that way.

In fact the quality of these recordings was so good they far surpassed the results achieved from using the primitive audio equipment of the day. It's because of these rolls that we have records of some performers whose work as a soloist would be lost. Jimmy Blythe was known as a great accompanist, playing with such luminaries as Ma Rainey and in small combos around the south side of Chicago. But he also recorded over two hundred piano rolls for what was first The Columbia Music Roll Company as well as under their new name of Capitol.

Very little is known of Jimmy Blythe outside of the fact he was a prolific piano player who died young, around the age of thirty, from meningitis. But from the time he showed up in Chicago in 1919, from his native Kentucky, he was incredibly busy. There are at least forty copyright entries in his name with the Library of Congress, signifying music he had composed.

Jimmy Blythe, Messin' Around Blues, is the first release in Delmark Records' new series of enhanced pianola roll recordings that have been digitally re-mastered from the original rolls (borrowed from the private collection of Bill Burkhardt). produced by Ed Sprankle, and restored by Frank L. Himpsl. Mr. Sprankle’s participation is significant because he was the original producer of the material. While single piano rolls were sold with the name of the performer and the composer written on them, it is more difficult to figure out the provenance of the old Nickelodeon roll with ten songs on each scroll. It's been the work of musicologist Mike Montgomery that has assured the identification of individual performers on those rolls, and it was through him that a number of the songs on Messin' Around Blues were identified as being performed by Jimmy Blythe.

The title, Messin' Around Blues, is slightly misleading as the music has more in common with Scott Joplin than Janis; ragtime piano instead of twelve to the bar blues. However, it's not what you'd call ragtime either. It has many of the characteristics that modern audiences have come to associate with ragtime, (especially those of us who remember the movie The Sting featuring Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" as its main theme), a lilting, melodic line, that repeats throughout the song with little or no embellishment or variation. The big difference is that the bass on all the songs is much stronger and given more emphasis then I'm used to with ragtime, and that is probably what would have given it a "Blues" designation during its time period.

Thinking about it, and thinking about piano rolls, you can see how this music was ideally suited to that technology. I doubt that a scroll could have handled anything as complex as a Bach or Beethoven piano concerto with all their inherent complexities. But songs like "Black Gal Made It Thunder" with its simple bass chords and basic melody played over and over again were made for it. It's interesting to think about the relationship between the two and wonder how much influence the technology had on the structure of popular music at the time. How many people like Blythe churned out song after song that was appropriate for the technology instead of writing more complex pieces?

The nineteen tracks on Messin' Around Blues show the songs are all pretty much interchangeable. The differences between them are so minimal that you could probably get away with switching the titles around and very few people would notice the difference. Each song follows the same pattern, melodically and rhythmically, with the only variations being the difference between the boogie bass line used on songs like "Farm House Blues" and the earlier mentioned "Black Gal Made It Thunder". But to be honest, unless I had read that in the liner notes I don't know if I could have told you the difference.

That being said, Blythe's playing is such that you don't really mind. It says a lot for the quality of the original recordings, and the skill of those involved with the re-recording, that I was able to discern how good a player he was. There's a spirited nature to the tracks that you don't normally hear on older piano recordings, and you can easily picture him siting at his piano having a great time making these records. It's fun to try and imagine them being played against the noisy backdrop of a workingman's bar on a Friday night on the South Side of Chicago. Doing that also makes it easier to understand why the melody is so simple and the chords are played so emphatically. You try being heard over a bar crowd in the days before amplification, and you'd end up developing a style that was easy for people to hear and enjoy.

Jimmy Blythe Messin' Around Blues may not be what most of us consider the blues anymore today, and suffers a little for the repetitive nature of the music. But for occasional dipping into and listening, the music is a lot of fun. As a historical record of an era, this is a valuable disc, that its also a good listen is a bonus you don't often get on recordings of this type.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.

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