What was the name of the Maria Muldaur album a decade or so ago? Naughty, Bawdy, & Blue, that’s it.
That would also work for this new set from Rory Block, the latest in her ongoing mission tracing the historical importance and continuing influence of the blues masters.
While the previous six volumes of her Mentor Series honoured “founding fathers of the blues” she encountered as a teenager, Block has now turned her vision to the ladies with the “Power Women of the Blues.” No better singer to feature on the initial set than Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues.
This is how I like my blues. Entirely acoustic with multi-tracked accompaniment (Block also offers unconventional percussion from hat boxes, guitar bongos, plastic tubs, and wooden spoons to go along with her gorgeous, masterful guitar playing) allowing the character of the music to reverberate internally. Stripped of any finery, we are left with the essentials: guitar, bass, voice, and fervent passion.
There is no shortage of double entendre across these ten songs including “Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl,” “Do Your Duty,” and “Kitchen Man.” Other songs offer additional vital relationship insight. “Black Mountain Blues” suggests a razor and a gun, while advising “the bullet will get you if you start your dodging too late.” Little highbrow here with “Gimme a Pigfoot and A Bottle of Beer” and an extended and groovy “Empty Bed Blues” receiving relaxed but riveting, powerful performances. Within “Empty Bed Blues,” Block reveals the ache and hunger of the protagonist in every note she sings.
As appealing as those songs are, and Block’s execution is stellar, I find greater interest in songs like “Weeping Willow Blues” and “I’m Down In The Dumps.” While there is much to dissect within the ‘naughty, bawdy, and blue’ songs—culturally, socially, even politically—when Block presents a more nuanced song, she is at her strongest. Of course, no one advocates wrapping chains around oneself and jumping into the river over the loss of a man, but Block plums the emotional depths of these songs so effectively they sound inspirational. Naturally, Block’s “On Revival Day” is uplifting and heartening.
Bessie Smith was a prolific artist, and volumes have been written of her influence on twentieth century music. That continues today with prominent performers like Rory Block (and Bonnie Raitt and Muldaur) doing their duty in keeping this vibrant music relevant ninety-five years after Smith’s first recording session.