Various Artists

Why shell out $50 for yet another collection that reveals for listeners the musical cave paintings that eventually became the language of rock 'n' roll? Because this one might be the one, that's why.

This anthology digs deeper than most roots-music compilations, stretching beyond the obvious. Not only does the collection uncover fresh helpings of overlooked Mississippi Delta antiquities, but it also burrows into other genres to find important musical DNA in the jazz, minstrel, gospel and hillbilly talent pools. Culled from the vaults of the defunct Bluebird and Victor labels, the massive boxed set -- 100 songs strong -- captures a time when the lines that separated those musical categories were less defined than they are now. And those raw styles of yesterday mesh with a natural beauty that would be unthinkable now.

Consider the incredible "Blue Yodel # 9," where C&W pioneer Jimmie Rogers pairs off with jazz legend Louis Armstrong. Rogers' hickory-smoked vocals blend perfectly with Armstrong's raucous horn work. Now try to imagine a modern undertaking of the same proportion -- say, something like Wynton Marsalis meets Garth Brooks. At best, it sounds like an overproduced clash of egos.

But this collection is more than a trip to the musical boneyard. These songs brim with an earthy immediacy. "Red" Allen's "Get the Mop" is a rowdy feast. Rev. J.M. Gates' creepy sermon "Somebody's Been Stealin'" would seem at home in either a church or a saloon. Lizzie Miles, meanwhile, sounds dangerously sincere when she croons "I Hate a Man Like You" to Jelly Roll Morton. And when Tommy Johnson sings "I asked her for water and she gave me gasoline" -- in "Cool Drink of Water Blues" -- it marks one of the cruelest moments in all of music.

RCA sells its collection short when it dubs it a "secret history of rock & roll." Sure, every British "invader" from the 1960s borrowed or stole something from this music, but there are seeds here that tie together such diverse artists as Woody Guthrie, Peggy Lee, Merle Haggard -- and even Lawrence Welk.


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