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Arhoolie (ARHCD548)

Boss Man Blues, Backyard Boogie, Bad Luck And Trouble, Diggin’ My Potatoes, What’s Wrong With You, Chicago Bound, On Mr Walter’s Farm, Arkansas Blues, Terraplane Blues, Boogie Gal and more...

Little known country bluesman from Louisiana, Robert ‘Smoky Babe’ Brown has always been a marginal figure in the stories told, written and heard on the re-discovery of folk and blues in the late-1950s and early 1960s. Not included among local artists captured by Excello Records when tapping into the talents of the known Baton Rouge  blues scene, he was also largely over-looked by folklorists looking to record the older style of country blues before it disappeared. His sole break came through an introduction to Dr Harry Oster at a house party held by Mabel Lee Williams, sister of bluesman Robert Pete Williams.

Out of this chance encounter, Dr Oster periodically recorded sessions during 1960 and 1961, the results of which were later released as Hot Blues (Folklyric) and Hottest Brand Goin’ (Bluesville), well received albums at the time but now little known and pretty hard to find.

We are indeed very fortunate now then to find that when Dr Oster’s widow was recently clearing away the last of his possessions some additional tapes from these sessions were unearthed and forwarded to Arhoolie Records. It is the best of these that have now have included on this CD, appropriately sub-titled The Lost Dr Oster Recordings.

The first thing to note when considering the musical content herein is how well preserved and presented they are. The sound quality would be considered fabulous in any context but to think that they have been left unattended and gathering dust for decades, it can only be assumed that we have either been very lucky or the re-mastering team at Arhoolie are masters of their art.

Beyond this, it is simply question of marvelling at the quality of Smoky Babe’s blues. Recorded with just his own guitar accompaniment, his music is clearly cut from the same cloth as that of his friend, Robert Pete Williams. The most obvious difference perhaps is that Smoky Babe offers a greater range and variety of styles - while Robert Pete Williams intensity and singular style might make him a greater blues artist, Smoky Babe is clearly an easier listen.

The ease with which he sings, plays and presents such a variety of styles is impressive. Comparisons beyond Robert Pete Williams are inevitable; for example, on the rare occasion that he employs a bottleneck (as on I’m Goin’ Home On The Morning Train), Mississippi Fred McDowell is obviously brought to mind. And, Smoky Babe is wise enough to know that when something as precise as Robert Johnson’s Terraplane Blues has been recorded, you don’t fool with it, just re-create it as best as you can.

The finding of these recordings after all this time is an unexpected delight. And, as there are unlikely to be many more unknown classics like this still awaiting discovery, let’s savour moments like this whenever we can. 


Review Date: October 2014

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