Those in Hollywood looking for rich veins should expense this volume, limited to 5,000 copies. So vast are the mini narratives within the catalog of biographies in the "Field Manual" that you can imagine HBO or the Coen brothers drooling as they flip through it.
Mattie Dorsey, purveyor of "Love Me Daddy Blues," earned her keep in the mid-'20s as a male impersonator. Harry Reser, who recorded as Jimmy Johnston, bragged of first broadcasting from the Statue of Liberty in 1921. Scholars of gender and sexual politics should dig into this volume to better examine the out-and-open lifestyles of blues singers Ethel Waters and Alberta Hunter. The namesake artist of Horace George's Jubilee Harmonizers stole whole hog a triple-clarinet trick (called in the book a "triple-licorice stick trick") from a competing player, which prompted a feud that culminated in a complaint to the National Vaudeville Assn.
With each turn of the page or album side too comes another prototype.
For example, Papa Charlie Jackson, according to Van der Tuuk, was "the first male who was recorded by a record company accompanying himself on a guitar — or a banjo guitar, in this case." Sales were so good on this and other blues and jazz titles that, said the scholar, "soon enough they figured, 'Well, we need to find more of these people.'"
They did, in the form of early recordings from rising cornetist Louis Armstrong, when he was a sideman in Joe "King" Oliver's band. "Riverside Blues," recorded 90 years ago, offers a glimpse of Armstrong as one among the many brilliant players in the band. Blind Lemon Jefferson too owes Paramount for his early success (even if it and other labels routinely stripped the artists of publishing and sales royalties) as the first country blues artist to see commercial success. He did so on a roster that also included Blind Blake and, later, Charley Patton.
The Depression wiped out Paramount and many other imprints — but that's for the second volume, due out in fall 2014 and offering 800 songs.
That's an overwhelming prospect, considering I've barely dented this volume. Amid the bounty, though, it's a few lesser-known sides that have popped the loudest. One is Sweet Papa Stovepipe's "Mama's Angel Child," a song that Blackwood too favored.
The first time he heard it he was awe-struck, he said. "It's like indie rock. What is this? How did it get recorded and who green-lighted it for release? That's one that both Jack and I went, 'Can you believe this?' How great is this? It sounds like he's gonna cry, and he's talking about how whatever happens to him, he's his mama's baby child."
It's true. Sweet Papa's forlorn moan seems to puncture the present. That something so old can retain so much heat is a wonder to behold. That it sits alongside so many other objects of equal density is remarkably and often fantastically overwhelming.