If Christopher Guest were to make a mockumentary about the blues, it might open with a crate digger’s breathless recitation of time-worn details such as, “Louisiana native Cat-Iron was born William Carradine in 1896 and mis-nicknamed by the folklorist Frederic Ramsey, Jr.. Having converted to Christianity, Carradine was initially hesitant to lay down secular songs, but relented with a mix of blues and sacred hymns on a borrowed guitar, recorded in the front room of his house. The resulting 1958 Folkways LP included an eight-page booklet, was pressed on yellow wax, and quickly fell into obscurity.” What would make this absurd is its absolute truth in demonstrating how scholarly producers refashioned themselves into musical anthropologists who used hunches and recorders in place of maps and shovels.
Recorded in 1957 and released the following year, it was to be Cat-Iron’s only album, as he passed away in November 1958. Since then, two tracks appeared on anthologies [1 2], the album was reissued in the UK as a vinyl album in 1969, and domestically as a digital download and custom CD in 2004. Exit Stencil now returns the album to print as a limited distribution vinyl LP, struck on yellow wax, just like the original, with blues on side one and hymns on side two. Also included is a reproduction of the original eight-page booklet, including lyrics and Ramsey’s original liner notes. The latter sketch Cat-Iron’s background, the circumstances of the recording session, and provide Ramsey’s view of the blues as organic, communal literature.
As Ramsey noted, Cat-Iron sang everything with the combined fervor of the gospel and the blues, lending the former the grit of the latter, and the latter the eternal gravity of the former. The session began with the hymns placed on side two, with Cat-Iron accompanying himself on fingerpicked guitar that’s fretted with a glass medicine bottle and supplemented by the faintest, rhythmic thump of what was likely to be his foot. He’s carried away by the messages of “When I Lay My Burden Down” and “Fix Me Right,” and surprisingly melancholy on the first song he played that day, “When the Saints Go Marching Home.”
Of the blues numbers on side one, the most well-known (and regularly covered) is “Jimmy Bell.” It’s here that Cat-Iron’s regionalism is heard in the cultural themes he wrote and sang. As with most folk artists, Cat-Iron’s catalog is derived from lyrics he’d heard, borrowed, rearranged and augmented. The opening “Poor Boy a Long, Long Way From Home” is rooted in the oft-recorded “Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home,” with Cat-Iron changing the lyric from “Natchez,” where he resided and recorded, to “New Orleans.” He deftly weaves together lines from “Rambler Blues” and “Corinna, Corinna” for “Don’t Your House Look Lonely,” and sings “I’m Gonna Walk Your Log” with its similarity to “Baby Please Don’t Go” intact.
It’s something of a miracle that primitive field recordings, transcribed from analog to digital and back again, can transport the experience of a 1950s Mississippi living room into the twenty-first century. Cat-Iron’s voice is clear and strong, and balanced well against his guitar playing. There are hints of “studio” (that is, room) chatter around the edges of a few tracks, giving listeners a feel for the informality of the session; but once Cat-Iron gets going, his performances are authentic expressions of a hard life lived in a segregated nation that largely relegated its rural African-American population to clapboard shacks. For vinyl lovers who never crossed paths with the original artifact, this reissue will be a real boon. [©2016 Hyperbolium]