Newport Folk Festival: Best Of The Blues 1959-68

Various Artists

Vanguard Records, 2001

REVIEW BY: Duke Egbert


Once again, Vanguard Records continues its efforts to increase historical awareness among music fans with their latest Newport Folk Festival collection. For this, if nothing else, this recording should be commended for documenting historic musical performances. But let's go a little deeper than that.

The Newport Folk Festival's short history is best remembered for its folk performances, including the historic performance in 1965 when Bob Dylan "went electric". However, Newport caused another revolution, albeit a smaller one, by resuscitating the careers of several twenties and thirties bluesmen who had, after their brief time of fame recording "race records", sunk back into day to day existence.

Many of those artists were assumed dead; considerable detective work went into finding them. Mississippi John Hurt, perhaps the greatest blues songwriter of his day, was found only because he had recorded a song in 1928 that named his hometown as Avalon, Mississippi. Bukka White was found the same way, based on a 1940 recording of "Aberdeen Mississippi Blues". Skip James, who had to relearn his own songs as he hadn't played them in thirty years, was located in a hospital in Mississippi; Son House was found in Rochester, New York. A small group of dedicated festival advisors and blues fanatics found these men and brought them to Newport; many of them were signed by record labels on the spot and started new careers, among them Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

As with the first volume in this set we reviewed, these are recordings of live blues performances at Newport during its first incarnation, before the festival was closed in 1969 (to be reborn in the mid-eighties). Unlike the bluegrass volume, these are divided by type of blues: disc one is Delta Blues, disc two is Country Blues, and disc three is Urban Blues, and each needs reviewed separately.

Disc One, "Delta Blues," is excellent and accessible. The magnificent Mississippi John Hurt kicks the disc off with seven tracks, and other artists represented include Muddy Waters, Son House, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. The only odd note is Skip James, and that's a stylistic one; James' eerie falsetto combined with blues is unsettling and takes time to get used to, but is oddly beautiful in its own way.

Disc Two, "Country Blues," is the hardest of the three to like, and that may be me as much as the music. The rough twang and wail of the music on this disc is very, very hard for me, at least, to appreciate, but there are some powerful performances on here, including two tracks from Reverend Gary Davis and the tracks from Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, especially "My Baby Done Changed The Lock On The Door".

Disc Three has both the highest and lowest point in the three-disc collection. The highest is the magnificent, magnificent John Lee Hooker, including four never-before-released performances. The infectious "Boom Boom" is the best of a really, really great lot. Performances by Lightnin' Hopkins, Memphis Slim, and Muddy Waters and Otis Spann are also great. However, I question the inclusion of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band; the tracks are weak, the performance weak, and if I wanted to hear Butterfield Blues Band I can go dust off my Woodstock CDs.

All in all, however, Newport Folk Festival: Best Of The Blues 1959-68 is a must for blues fans and an enjoying listen through musical history for everyone else. (As a recent convert, I tell you that if you haven't heard Mississippi John Hurt, you haven't heard music. Take this to heart.) Vanguard Records should be commended.

Rating: A-

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© 2001 Duke Egbert and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Vanguard Records, and is used for informational purposes only.