It’s gotta be cool to be the owner of a record label. Take Steve Dawson, the creative force behind Vancouver-based Black Hen Records. Dawson fell in love with the music of the Mississippi Sheiks, one of the most popular and prolific groups in the early days of recorded music. And as a musician and producer himself, he decided the time was ripe to re-examine the marvelous body of work left behind by Walter Vinson and brothers Sam, Lonnie, and Armenter Chapman.
Hence we have this collection, a marvelous celebration of some of America’s formative musical material, key threads in the tapestry of 20th-century song.
While the aforementioned quartet formed the core of the Mississippi Sheiks, it was, like most outfits of the era, a working band with various contributors over the years. Traveling widely, they rose from street-corner scuffling to a by-invitation performance for President Roosevelt. Their material has become part of the lexicon, with their most famous track, “Sitting On Top Of The World” (here performed in an ‘old-timey’ style by the Carolina Chocolate Drops) covered countless times and recently inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame.
Dawson, who plays guitars and various obscure instruments (among them something called a ‘marxophone’) on roughly half the tracks and delivers his own take on “Lonely One In This Town,” set out to recruit artists who’d respect the music’s origins but who’d treat the tunes less with reverence than with enough creative license to bring these songs comfortably into a contemporary setting. On hand to help out are top-notch talents like veteran bluesmen John Hammond and Bob Brozman, seductive chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux, jam-band darlings The North Mississippi Allstars, and Canadian folk icon Bruce Cockburn, along with fellow Vancouverites Jim Byrnes and gospel quartet The Sojourners. While some tracks feature solo or group performances, many of the contributors are backed by a ‘house band,’ so there’s a general consistency to proceedings lacking from the hodge-podge aggregations that comprise most tributes.
If it’s hard to pick highlights among the disc’s seventeen tracks, it’s equally difficult to pinpoint any weak spots; there simply aren’t any less-than stellar performances here. From the authentic (the aforementioned Chocolate Drops, or Geoff Muldaur and the Texas Sheiks’ “The World Is Going Wrong,” both sounding period-perfect) to the more adventurous (Ndidi Onukwulu’s “Things About Comin‘ My Way,” with its skittery percussion, or Bill Frisell’s playful guitar-and-trombone version of “That’s It”), every track is a sonic and artistic delight.
The songs may bear the weight of close to a century (and many were arguably assembled from fragments even older, a common practice in the years before complex copyright laws took effect), but there’s nothing tired or dusty here. These are tunes that have withstood countless interpretations and re-inventions, yet they require no ‘modernization’ to retain relevance; love and trouble, hard times and religion affect our lives just as much now as then.
The ultimate test of music, though, is whether it’s fun to listen to, and on that score this collection gets top marks, matching timeless material with masterful interpretations that respect the source while providing ample room for each artist to make his or her mark. Great stuff!