In my life, I have had three perception-altering experiences with the blues. The first was when I heard Howlin’ Wolf; when I first heard the guttural moan and growl which came off songs like “Smokestack Lightning,” it rattled me to the core and hooked me with the inherent danger of it. The second time the blues changed my life was when I heard Worried by Asie Payton; by then, I had become convinced that the blues was a spent force and all that remained was a bunch of rock bands trying to recreate the magic and make a buck doing it. Worried proved to me that the blues was alive and well in the souls of players who weren’t trying to do anything more than bring a bit of joy to those in broken-down bars in down-at-heel towns – basically, it showed that not much had really changed in a century, it just wasn’t happening in the big city centers. Finally, the third time the blues shook my foundations, altered my perceptions and really got me excited again was yesterday; yesterday, I heard Sings Blues and Hymns by William “Cat-Iron” Carradine and it put the devil back in me.
There is simply no easy way to qualify what one hears from the moment “Poor Boy a Long, Long Way From Home” opens the A-side of Sings Blues and Hymns until “When The Saints Go Marching Home” closes the B-, because while aspects of the sound and songs ring as slightly familiar, they bow easily to no qualifier for any of the classic, regional blues paradigms. It does not hold tightly to a simple I IV V pattern like Robert Johnson did in his recordings, but it’s not obviously technically proficient or overtly stylized like the blues which came to be associated with Piedmont. It isn’t modal like the blues which came out of Holly Springs either – it is absolutely, positively unique unto itself. That it is clearly blues but peerless is what’s most engaging about it; there are similarities of course but (and this is so key) not enough to tie it to any community. The personal stamp on Sings Blues and Hymns is enormous and really defines it.
… And, as it plays, that Sings Blues and Hymns doesn’t sound like anything else becomes one of the more exciting and gratifying things about it. Songs like “Don’t Your House Look Lonesome,” “Tell Me, You Didn’t Mean Me No Good” and “Got A Girl In Ferriday, One In Greenwood Town” on the album’s A-side and “When I Lay My Burden Down,” “Old Time Religion,” “Fix Me Right” and “When The Saints Go Marching Home” each tweak convention, and the results are unreal; lyrics (and the obvious ideas behind them) about players two-timing women and making sure they never see each other fly in the face of the single beloved vision declared by common, pivotal lines that other players made famous like “I got a woman way across town/ she’s good to me” and present a grittier image which is further upheld by the “field recording” style and production of the album.
The same is true in “Fix Me Right,” where a soldier accepts mortality (“If I die on the battlefield, Lord fix me right”) instead of waving the “When Johnny comes marching home again” flag, and the idea of absolution found in faithful military service in “O, The Blood Done Signed My Name” (where the singer begins with “The blood done washed me clean”). None of these angles could be mistaken for the “standard form” normally found in the blues, and listeners will find themselves quickly revelling in the difference. Because it is not formulaic, the sentiments expressed on Sings Blues and Hymns are instantly attention-grabbing and fans of the blues will find themselves wanting to inhabit them; the “new-ness” is exhilarating.
In the end, as the last standard leaves listeners with puffed chests and feeling proud (as any performance of “When The Saints Go Marching Home” tends to do – it will have listeners humming along as it spirals to a close), they’ll still be hooked. I certainly was – the first thing I did was listen to the album straight through again four more times. That’s the kind of record Sings Blues and Hymns is; it is a genuine classic and that Exit Stencil Recordings has put it back into service is thrilling. That said, it’s important to note that this reissued pressing (on transparent yellow vinyl, by the way) is limited to just five hundred copies. That small number could almost be called criminal; this music needs hearing, so readers are advised to go find themselves a copy now. It’s worth it.
(Exit Stencil Recordings)
The new reissue of Cat-Iron’s Sings Blues and Hymns LP is out now. Buy it here directly from Exit Stencil while quantities last! www.exitstencil.org/store/cat-iron