When the Sun Goes Down

***1/2Vol. 1: Walk Right In (Bluebird, 2002)
***1/2Vol. 2: The First Time I Met the Blues (Bluebird, 2002)
****Vol. 3: That's Chicago South Side (Bluebird, 2002)
****Vol. 4: That's All Right (Bluebird, 2002)
****1/2Vol. 6: Poor Man's Heaven (Bluebird, 2003)

When the Sun Goes Down tries to reach for a concept: the alternate title is "The Secret History of Rock & Roll," while the promotion emphasizes how many of these songs have been covered by big name rockers. But more often than not it feels like something the cat dragged in, its merit an eclectic smorgasbord from RCA's deep blues catalog. As samplers go, it also helps that the four CDs are available separately as well as in a slipcase.

Vol. 1: Walk Right In is the old stuff, judged not by date but by its primitiveness. For instance, Trixie Butler's "Just a Good Woman Through With the Blues" was recorded in 1936, but harkens back to her vaudeville act in the 1910s. Leadbelly's 1940 "Ham an' Eggs," with the Golden Gate Quartet, recreates the sound of a chain gang. Tommy Johnson moans one of the most primeval blues lines ever, "I asked for water and she gave me gasoline." Amédé Ardoin crawls out of the Louisiana swamp, while Milton Brown stomps the "Garbage Man Blues," DeFord Bailey plays his harmonica on the Grand Ole Opry, Frank Crumit eulogizes "Frankie and Johnnie," and Paul Robeson sings proletarian opera. Stark, diverse stuff.

Vol. 2: The First Time I Heard the Blues and Vol. 3: That's Chicago South Side are more typical sets of prewar acoustic blues. The former features jazz-backed Female Blues (Victoria Spivey has a top-notch band including Red Allen, while Lizzie Miles makes do with just Jelly Roll Morton) and the blues across the south from Blind Willie McTell in Atlanta to Bo Carter in New Orleans and a whole lotta Memphis in between. The latter, of course, is the first wave of Chicago blues, centered around Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red. Perhaps because it is more focused, the Chicago set is the most listenable in the series.

Vol. 4: That's All Right collects later material, from "Pearl Harbor Blues" up to 1951 when RCA lost interest in the blues. But during this period there was a rich assortment of diverse material not all that far removed from what came to be rock and roll. Some highlights include Lil Green's "Why Don't You Do Right," Arthur Crudup's pre-Elvis "That's All Right," Red Allen's jump blues "Get the Mop," Piano Red's "Right String, But the Wrong Yo-Yo," and the first ditty that Little Richard recorded. A fun set.

In 2003, Bluebird added five more volumes to the initial set, each with similar layout and artwork. Four of these were single artist compilations (Leadbelly, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Blind Willie McTell). The other, Poor Man's Heaven, dug deep into their catalog for rare songs linked to the Great Depression: more country than blues, a few show tunes like "Brother Can You Spare Me a Dime," a tearful comedy bit by stock speculator Eddie Cantor. It's a unique, extraordinary document -- just in time for another Great Depression.



  • Rolling Stone Review, by Joe Caramanica (****):

    One of the year's most entertaining rock & roll albums is a four-volume anthology of people who are almost all dead. So you've been listening to garage rock lately? Here's the junk buried under the garage, the blues and country and black vaudeville and blackface Western swing and ancient death boogie from great American musicians who went to their rewards before hearing their songs covered by everyone from the Grateful Dead to the White Stripes. When the Sun Goes Down is programmed for listeners, not scholars, but no matter how well you already know the blues, there are raw surprises all over the place, such as Ishman Bracey's rare 1928 classic "Saturday Blues": "I got four or five puppies and I got one shaggy hound/It takes all them dogs to run my women down."

    The four CDs roam from the Twenties to the Fifties, from the roots of Walk Right In to the postwar R&B of That's All Right. Start with the two middle volumes: The First Time I Met the Blues has sure shots from Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers, Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Willie McTell and the Mississippi Sheiks. That's Chicago's South Side has Washboard Sam's "Bucket Got a Hole in It," a big-pimpin' vow to sell moonshine by day and peddle dope at night; Joe Pullum's mournful "Black Gal, What Makes Your Head So Hard?"; Tommy McClennan's psychotic "Bottle It Up and Go"; and Jazz Gillum's "Key to the Highway," which calls for a kitchen table, a long winter night, a bottle of Jack and a broken heart.