Ben Hunter, Phil Wiggins & Joe Seamons,
A Black & Tan Ball
(independent, 2017)

Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons are two Seattle musicians steeped in the traditions of American folk and vernacular music. I loved their previous album, Take Yo Time, which I reviewed in this space on 20 December 2014. On A Black & Tan Ball they've joined forces with Phil Wiggins, the harmonica half of the long-lived but no longer extant folk-blues duo Cephas & Wiggins. Guitarist John Cephas died in 2009.

The three offer up bare-bones if fully realized arrangements of songs and tunes that attest to their wide-ranging knowledge. They include fiddle tunes ("Shanghai Rooster"), ballads ("John Henry"), blues ("Bullfrog Blues") and jazz ("Do Nothing Til You Hear from Me"). Even when the material is familiar on the surface, the group works up novel yet resonant ways of presenting it.

"John Henry" must be the most famous American folk ballad, and over the course of a long listening life connected to traditional music, I must have heard dozens of versions. HWS's is learned from a field recording; Alan Lomax collected this variant, which I have in my own CD collection, from Sid Hemphill in Mississippi in 1942. Still, HWS's arrangement positively staggered me. It's a thing of such intensity and beauty that -- strange as it no doubt sounds -- I felt actually privileged to hear it. Not quite the standard narrative, it's more akin to Mississippi John Hurt's out-of-the-ordinary reading -- he called it "Spike Driver Blues" -- and even boasts a darkly enigmatic verse most prominently associated with the banjo tune "Swannanoa Tunnel."

Through memory's fog I recall the other outstandingly moving "John Henry" performances of my life: a 10-minute one played on oldtime banjo by the late Fleming Brown (heard once in a Chicago folk club many years ago), Hurt's, Bill Monroe's and Louisiana Red's. I now add HWS's to the list, to be returned to on any future occasion when I seek spirit restoration.

There is also an unforgettable take on "Po Howard," distinctive not just because it doesn't simply recycle Lead Belly's. Actually, for a long time I thought Lead Belly wrote it. He didn't, but I learn that it's older than I would have thought. I'd have placed it in the latter 19th-century South. The liner notes inform me, however, that it came to be in England a century earlier, known in its first incarnation as "Old Ponto is Dead." Though the refrain is "Po Howard's dead and gone," the song bursts with celebration and exhilaration. There are no bad versions of it -- the most recent I'd heard till now is a modernist arrangement on Robert Plant & the Sensational Space Shifters' 2014 release Lullaby & the Ceaseless Roar -- but HWS's feels bottomlessly joyful.

Recorded in 1928, Mississippi songster William Harris's classic "Bullfrog Blues" is rendered almost laconically. Here vocalist Ben Hunter gives it a harder-edged treatment, more in the spirit of an urgent Delta blues. Whatever other variations there may be, Hunter retains that startling opening line, "Did you ever wake up with bullfrogs on your mind?

The r&b standard "Do You Call That a Buddy?", arranged as a 1920s jazz-pop song, is as unnerving a tale of homicide in the making as you'll ever hear. A more conventional murder narrative, "Bad Man Ballad" comes from a Parchman Farm recording of African-American prisoners. It's related, though not identical, to a much-recorded folk song known variously as "Little Sadie," "Bad Lee Brown" and "Cocaine Blues." The album closes with "Stop & Listen Blues," the Mississippi Sheiks' reworking of the ur-Delta "Big Road Blues," first recorded in 1928 by Tommy Johnson and destined for countless alternative lyrics and interpretations under numerous titles in the decades to come.

On their website Hunter & Seamons generously provide videos of most of the source material. Thus, you can compare the originals to HWS's. They aren't the same, and the differences, surprising and delightful, place HWS firmly inside a living and evolving tradition. I'm no psychic, but I predict that A Black & Tan Ball is destined to be among the most acclaimed (and prize-winning) folk and blues albums of 2017.

music review by
Jerome Clark

5 August 2017

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