The Globe and Mail
Butt nothing. Singer and guitarist Walter Vincson once said the reason for his taking up of string-band music and abandoning the farming life was that he was “tired of smellin' mule farts.”
Vincson (often spelled Vinson) was the bluesiest member of the Mississippi Sheiks, a popular troupe of Depression-era “musicianers” who are paid tribute by a new album of old music done freshly and charismatically, with proper doses of admiration and inquisitive liberty.
Steve Dawson is the driver behind this tribute to the Mississippi Sheiks.
Vancouver roots-music whiz Steve Dawson has eclectically corralled a number of prominent players and singers – Bruce Cockburn, John Hammond, Ndidi Onukwulu and many exceptional others – to celebrate the bedrock sounds of the danceable, howling, tuneful, string-band Sheiks. The Jackson, Miss.-based act – made up of Vincson and fiddler Lonnie Chatman, sometimes with the latter's brothers, Bo (Carter) and Sam – had hits such as 1930's Sitting on Top of the World – famously done in an electrified way by the British rock trio Cream, and done languidly here on fiddle, guitar and trickling banjo by the National Public Radio darlings the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Back to mule farts: It has been explained by some that the term (and Howlin' Wolf song title) “smokestack lightnin'” referred to the smelly toots of field-plowing beasts of burden, that their back-end emissions were as odious as the belching factory towers that poked the skyline.
Now, I know what you're thinking, that the blues is entirely too concerned with barnyard flatulence. Well, madam, that's not an unreasonable thought. Then again, consider the metaphor – isn't it true that, in one way or another, we are all weary of dealing with mule farts?
Likewise, the blues idiom takes flak for its predictable, mournful three-line stanzas, which sometimes begin with “woke up this morning” and often have to do with somebody's dog dying. But those dogs that die represent any poor situation – an inescapable circumstance that presents itself rudely at daylight.
Veteran jug-bander Geoff Muldaur sings on the old-timey The World Is Going Wrong : “Feel bad this morning, ain't got no home/ No use in worrying, because the world's gone wrong.” He's having trouble with his woman, his world is amiss – the lament is universal.
Daybreak is not any better to Kelly Joe Phelps, who contributes a sublime, gripping version of Livin' in a Strain on resonating guitar. Here we have a poor fellow who wakes up, looks at the rising sun and comes to the daunting realization that the anxiety he is feeling will take him “years to overcome.” Sound familiar?
The busy slide-guitarist Steve Dawson offers Lonely One in This Town , but his chief role is convener. This is a various-artist album that works – perhaps in recognition of his dogged commitment to the project, nobody mails in their performance. Sounds like they had a gas.