If the Coen brothers are looking for a follow-up to their phenomenally successful film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? then they need look no further than the story behind Modern Downhome blues field sessions of the early 1950s. The location would still be the Deep South, and so would the allusion to Homer's epic, 'The Odyssey'.
A vivid opening snapshot to our new series is given by notewriter Jim O'Neal, the founding editor of Living Blues magazine: The tale of their [the Bihari brothers] exploits in the land of cotton has all the elements of a Dixie docu-drama, complete with an indignant Southern heroine [Lillian McMurry of Trumpet Records], a double-dealing native talent scout [Ike Turner], small town sheriffs and police, subterfuge, disguise, raiders, traitors, spies, and clandestine operations. But no shots were fired in these skirmishes, and the only casualties were in lost record sales revenue, broken contracts, violated trusts, and one unfortunate blues artist's shattered career. The Biharis' battle wagon was a flashy new Cadillac, their artillery a four-channel Magnecord tape recorder, and their ammunition reels of magnetic tape and rolls of cash."
Ace Records is packaging these historic - and musically great - recordings into The Modern Downhome Blues Sessions. For this first volume "Arkansas and Mississippi, 1951-1952" we are concentrating on the recordings that Joe Bihari and his young talent scout accomplice Ike Turner made between November 1951 and January 1952 in North Little Rock, Arkansas-.-and in Greenville and Canton, Mississippi. The featured artists are enough to make any self-respecting blues collector salivate with anticipation: Elmore James, Boyd Gilmore, Drifting Slim, Junior Brooks, Sunny Blair, Houston Boines, Charley Booker and Ernest Lane. Otis "Red" Boyd is the odd man out, with a rare example of Mississippi big band music - it's almost downhome jazz.
Modern Records' partner Joe Bihari had made his first field trip to the South around September 1951 following the terminal breakdown in relations with Sam Phillips. This was after Rocket "88" by Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner ended up on Chess instead of Modern, and became a #1 R&B smash hit. Until then Phillips had been recording Modern's Memphis-area artists including B.B. King, Joe Hill Louis and Rosco Gordon. Following the split with Phillips, the first recording location was the "colored" YMCA in Memphis. It was here that Joe Bihari hit paydirt with B.B. King's 3 O'Clock Blues, thus encouraging Modern patriarch Jules Bihari to authorise further excursions into the South. The excitement level was high enough for the Biharis to launch a new - albeit short-lived - label for these field recordings, Blues & Rhythm, in February 1952.
The first major reissue of this material was in 1969 and 1970, when Frank Scott and Bruce Bromberg conceived the "Anthology Of The Blues" 12-volume LP series on Kent. Since then P-Vine of Japan has delved into the Modern archives with CD revamps of these LPs with bonus tracks. An Ace CD taster came with The Travelling Record Man in August 2001 (CDCHD 813).
With the opening volumes of this new series, Dave Sax and myself have tried to follow the actual field trip journeys, rather than compile on a strictly regional basis (ie not just Mississippi Blues, not just Arkansas Blues etc) as with previous reissues. The real beauty of these sessions is that the musicians are caught in a genuine time warp. The only nod to musical homogenisation was crude instrument amplification, otherwise this was literally the Delta Blues from the pre-World War II era.
The series is dedicated to the late Mike Leadbitter, the co-founder of Blues Unlimited, for his extraordinary and visionary research work on the Delta Blues an incredible 30 years ago. It is intended to roll out further volumes at regular intervals, also encompassing Modern's downhome blues output beyond the South.
In addition to Jim O'Neal's brilliantly researched notes here, Modern's Joe Bihari kindly agreed to pen an introduction. Joe was an incredibly brave man to be wandering the Deep South in the early 1950s with his tape recorder, looking for juke joint bluesmen. But as he says, "I was a gutsy kid who wasn't afraid of anything, travelling during a period where there was immense segregation and discrimination against African Americans. Indeed, I am proud of myself for doing what I could to resist this horrific prejudice. Looking back, I think I made major contributions to this rich music that we have all over America-.-and all my hard work paid off as this blues music is now recognised worldwide."
Suddenly, the scenario comes alive. The soundtrack could do for downhome blues what the O Brother, Where Art Thou? million-selling CD did for bluesgrass music. And, yes, George Clooney could play the part of Joe Bihari, the hip record man from Hollywood. Dreams, maybe, but at last the Modern Downhome Blues series is a reality."
by John Broven