In between rubber-stamping generous tax cuts and murky homeland security measures, Congress recently found time to christen 2003 the "Year of the Blues." You may have missed it, but PBS's programming wizards did not. They are marking the event with a lavish, upcoming documentary series that celebrates the musical idiom. Major record label executives have also jumped on the blues bandwagon, liberating their vaults of ancient, overlooked three-chord artifacts ripe for repackaging.
As a result -- like the man said -- the blues are falling down like hail. Good news if you are a fan seeking slick, state-of-the-art collections that pay righteous wine-and-cheese tribute to Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and the other usual gods.
But before you lay down your lunch money on yet another anthology that reexamines such already-over-anthologized artists, you may wish to consider a more humble, ultimately richer tribute disc.
Labor-of-love label Yazoo offers the audaciously titled The Best There Ever Was, a powerful à la carte sampling of 20 key, if somewhat overlooked, blues pioneers. The album might be particularly important to those who write off all Depression-era Delta artists as sounding the same. It provides ample evidence to the contrary.
The collection offers, for instance, Blind Willie Johnson's terrifying "I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole," where the singer yearns for salvation, even though his brutal delivery suggests he knows that a darker fate awaits him. Robert Wilkins, meanwhile, sings like a smitten teenager on "I'll Go With Her Blues," and Jaydee Short is much more directly sexual on the raw "Barefoot Blues." And while Skip James' ghostly vocals on "Cypress Grove" may make you shiver, Mississippi John Hurt's voice certainly won't -- his corn-bread-and-honey style makes even his warning that "She might shoot you/She might cut you" in "Ain't No Tellin'" sound like an invitation to a picnic.
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Veteran blues fans and freshmen alike owe it to themselves to seek out this hard-to-find collection. In fact, in light of Congress' proclamation, it may just be your patriotic duty.