Rant ‘N’ Roll: 2023’s Blues

The hippest wall calendar of them all – “Classic Blues Artwork from the 1920s” from Blues Images out of Grants Pass Oregon – has put out its final calendar and it’s a doozy. The rare photos and post-war songs, plus delicious nuggets of information on days like January 12 when Blind Gussie Nesbitt was born in 1910 in Spartanburg, North Carolina and February 12 when Baby-Faced Leroy Foster was born in 1923 in Algoma, Mississippi, have always made me smile. Every year for the last 19 years these calendars have done that, and I’ve been honored to work with a real hero of the blues, John Tefteller, head of Blues Images, through covering his work and following his lead. 

The legendary Paramount Records label in Port Washington, Wisconsin put out a stunning series of “race records,” as they used to be called, in the 1920s. The original poster-art ads for these records were stored in boxes for decades collecting dust before some empty-headed Paramount suit in the 1980s saw no value in them and tossed them out into a dumpster.  Two reporters from the Port Washington News then made the historic discovery and rescued over 4,000 original promotional advertisements in that dumpster. Some of them were thought to be lost for over a half-century and some hadn’t been seen since their original publication. Enter John Tefteller. He wound up purchasing the whole lot of them in 2002 and made them into a calendar, adding 150 new discoveries along the way.

The calendars have always come complete with a free CD. This reporter used to go downtown to the Newark Library, get a stack of 78s, put on headphones, and spend hours listening to artists like Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, and Blind Blake. I put up with the horrible surface noise of that era’s primitive recording techniques.  

In 2017, the four-part PBS American Epic documentary took the original vintage 1920s studio playback equipment, combined it with highly specialized ultra-modern technology, and created, in the process, a revolutionary new way to digitally restore old 78 r.p.m. vinyl free of hiss and skips, and almost free of surface noise. It made a world of difference. It made those long-ago-and-far-away artists sound as if those legends were performing in your own room. Blues Images has latched on to this spectacular technological progress.

The new CD accompanying the calendar this year – amongst its 25 tracks – has 12 gems from some of those artists I’d listen to in the library. It also has “new” music from Funny Paper Smith, Irene Scruggs with Little Brother Montgomery, Edith North Johnson, and Playboy Fuller that have never been heard since the original releases. Other highlights include the first version of blues standard “Ain’t Gonna Worry My Life No More” by Memphis Willie Borum [1911-1993], a song since covered by Mississippi Fred McDowell, BB King, Louisiana Beau Jocque & His Zydeco Hi-Rollers, and rewritten by Duane Allman as “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More.” 

We asked Tefteller why this is the last one and if there’s a chance he’ll change his mind. The answer came back in the negative, as he cited “rising printing, production and postage costs, as well as a world where many no longer use wall calendars nor appreciate CD-quality sound. So we’re saying goodbye.”

I’ve been thrilling to some of these tracks by the likes of Ida Cox (“Worn Down Daddy Blues,” 1928), Ma Rainey  (Big Boy Blues,” 1927), Brother Full Bosom (“A Sermon On A Silver Dollar,”1931), and, especially, Scrapper Blackwell’s 1930’s “Springtime Blues.” But most importantly, it’s going to be another fun year of posting on social media the day Lightnin’ Slim died (July 27, 1974, in Detroit), for instance, or the day Peg Leg Howell died (August 23, 1996, in Atlanta).