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V/A - Desperate Man Blues

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Artist: V/A

Album: Desperate Man Blues

Label: Dust-to-Digital

Review date: Dec. 7, 2006

If you have an album that’s been sourced from 78 rpm discs, chances are that Joe Bussard had something to do with it. The septuagenarian from Frederick, Md., has 25,000 of them in his basement, and he's devoted his life to their collection, care, and dissemination. The Desperate Man Blues CD is a companion to a documentary about Bussard; its 19 tracks all call his basement home, and he loves every one of them. Chances are you feel the same way about at least a few of them — many of these tunes aren’t exactly obscure. If you have even a remote interest in music from between the world wars, or even the salad days of blues-rock, you have probably already heard Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues,” Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo-Coo Bird,” and Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground.” Arguably most of the American folk, country, bluegrass, rock, and blues that constitute the bulk of this nation’s worthwhile cultural bequest to the world radiate outward from these tunes like cracks from the center of a dried-up lakebed, and while there’s no denying their brilliance, there’s also no disputing their familiarity.

Still, there are reasons why even a seasoned enthusiast would pick up this set. The transfers from 78 to digital date from 2006 and they’re remarkably clear, rendering the music in splendid detail. The compilers have salted the record with some less well-known tracks. Gitfiddle Jim’s “Mandolin Blues” obliterates the boundaries between hillbilly and blues with the breakneck abandon of a runaway train scattering cattle; Billy Banks’ hot jazz “Bugle Call Rag” moves so irresistibly that knee replacement specialists could use it to create business; and the Tennessee Messarounders’ “Mandolin Blues” reminds that Bussard was once a musician and whose Fonotone imprint, mainly devoted to performances he had taped in his basement or on location throughout the rural southeast, was the last 78 rpm label in the land. And in the booklet there’s Bussard’s pithy and affectionate commentary upon each track. It is infused with unabashed awe for the accomplishments of a vanished America, the final generation to grow up without radios on farms where they grew their own food and music. If this music hasn’t grown on you yet, Desperate Man Blues should be the vehicle that brings you home.

By Bill Meyer

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