A Woman’s Soul: A Tribute to Bessie Smith
Stony Plain Records
In 2006, after more than three decades as one of the finest contemporary interpreters of traditional country blues, and as an accomplished songwriter in the country blues tradition, Rory Block released an album called The Lady and Mr. Johnson, a magnificent tribute to Robert Johnson, the Delta blues singer, songwriter and guitarist who made a series of what would eventually become highly influential recordings in 1936 and 1937 before his death at age 27 in 1938. Rory followed that album with a series of equally fine tributes to her mentors – blues legends she met and was influenced by while growing up in Greenwich Village – including Son House, Skip James, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White and Reverend Gary Davis.
Now, with A Woman’s Soul: A Tribute to Bessie Smith, Rory begins a new series of tributes to legendary women blues singers. Bessie Smith (1894-1937) was a logical artist with whom to begin this series. The 160 recordings Smith made between 1923 and 1933 remain among the most influential of the classic blues era and earned her the title of “The Empress of the Blues.”
While Smith recorded with pianists and other jazz musicians – including Louis Armstrong – Rory has arranged these songs in her own country blues style for vocals and guitar, sometimes overdubbing more guitar parts, bass, homemade percussion and harmony vocals herself. So, while these 10 songs are familiar from Smith’s versions, Rory makes them her own – with her powerful guitar playing and soulful singing.
Among my favorites here are “Jazzbo Brown from Memphis Town,” a song that pays tribute to a turn-of-the-20th-century musician from before the recording era; “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer,” which evokes a Harlem speakeasy during Prohibition; and a very sexy version of “Empty Bed Blues.”
I’m looking forward to more volumes in Rory’s tribute series to legendary blues women with great anticipation.
The photo of Bessie Smith, taken in 1936, is from the Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection at the Library of Congress.