Stealin’, Stealin’ (Sam Charters’ reissues)

If there is one reason I ended up where and who and what I am today, it is that I had an older half-brother who was into acoustic blues. Dave was nineteen years older than me, and apparently he was a great guitarist, though The Country BluesI never heard him during my childhood, because he didn’t like to play in front of people. But he had all the right records, and there were a few years when I guess he didn’t have a regular place to live, or anyway a place for the records, so he left them with us. That’s where I first heard Joseph Spence, and Jelly Roll Morton, and he had all the first round of country blues reissue albums, starting with the canonical, seminal The Country Blues, compiled by Samuel B. Charters.

For a while I thought of that LP as kind of a blues “greatest hits” collection, since it had “Stealin’,” “Walk Right In,” “Statesboro Blues,” “Matchbox Blues,” “Key to the Highway,” “Fixin’ to Die”… all these songs that everyone seemed to know and play, including a couple that even turned up on the radio. It was only later that I realized those songs were so familiar because Charters compiled and released them. We all knew “Walk Right In” and “Stealin'” — even if we got them from Jim Kweskin, Dave Van Ronk, or the Rooftop Singers rather than directly from Cannon’s Jug Stompers or the Memphis Jug Band — because Charters chose those songs to represent those groups on that LP.

It also included the first reissue of a Robert Johnson song, and tracks by Leroy Carr, Washboard Sam, and Lonnie Johnson, which actually led to a wonderfully tiny tempest in the hardcore bluesophile teapot: some rival collectors were so incensed at the inclusion of these obviously urban blues performers in a collection of country bluesReally the country blues that they rushed out their own anthology, Really! The Country Blues, which didn’t include any urban artists. It was great, too, and my brother had both of them, so I also got to hear Tommy Johnson’s “Maggie Campbell” and Skip James singing “Devil Got My Woman.”

I didn’t actually play many of the songs on The Country Blues, but both “Stealin'” and “Walk Right In” were so ubiquitous that I couldn’t avoid learning them, just by osmosis — hell, I remember Arlo Guthrie’s version of “Stealin’,” and Jose Feliciano’s performance of “Walk Right In,” with verses in Spanish and Yiddish. (Which, incidentally, is coming in my next post, at least the Spanish part.)