Thanks to the internet, there are no secrets anymore. Those of us who began our musical journey in the pre-internet era used to be able to take some degree of pride in finding out about the cool stuff that nobody else knew about. I remember when I first got into R.L. Burnside, and I had to twist arms to get people to realize that mid-tempo Chicago shuffles with wanky guitar solos weren’t the only form of blues currently in existence. Fast-forward a few years, and I’m at the Deep Blues festival hearing yet another band play maybe the sixth version of Shake ‘Em On Down in a day, and I am no longer a unique snowflake.
When we’ve got full biographies and discographies devoted to artists as obscure as Omo the Hobo, to choose an example, you might think that everything that could be said about anything musical has already been covered to death on the intertoobz. So why isn’t there more out there about one of my all-time favorite records, Mississippi Delta Dues by McHouston Baker? Seems like I’m either the only person who likes this record, or I’m the only person who knows it exists. Or both. Me, I love this record.
I don’t think there are a lot of copies of the original LP on Blue Star, and you can’t have mine. The album got the deluxe CD reissue treatment (which you are not allowed to scoff at) in 2004. There’s only one review of the reissue on Amazon, and it’s by some idiot who dismisses the string arrangements as “truly cheestastic” and the record as being “About as ‘Mississippi Delta Blues’ as Seals & Crofts.” As Robert Gordon once said, referring to a negative review of Alex Chilton’s Like Flies On Sherbert, “Such a statement reveals a dickhead writer with a bad record collection.” Sure enough, if you look at said reviewer’s history, he gave four stars to middlebrow NPR blues like Chris Thomas King and Rory Block, while giving the thumbs down to one of my favorite albs. (Seriously – fuck this guy.)
Clearly, there is a general lack of appreciation for this album in the world.
The McHouston Baker behind Mississippi Delta Dues is none other than the man better known as Mickey Baker, who you of course know from the single Love Is Strange, the album The Wildest Guitar, and from playing as a session cat on just about every record on every label you can think of (Atlantic, King, RCA, Decca, OKeh, and more that I don’t even know about) back when record labels put out good records with good people playing on them.
Better known for his electric, jazzy guitar style on both his session work and eponymous releases, Mississippi Delta Dues is a bit of a departure. There are some tasteful additions to add some color – percussion, maracas, bongos, electric bass – but mostly it’s a straight-up acoustic guitar album. Stefan Grossman, a name that you will be familiar with if you are any kind of guitar nerd, plays some backup guitar. Baker’s voice is deep and resonant, and he sings with a laid back authority. Almost makes you wish he hadn’t spent most of his career recording instrumentals, or backing up other singers. Recorded in London in 1973, it’s got the feel of men playing together live in a good room with good microphones. Great sounding recording.
A problem with many blues albums is the dilemma of the overplayed standard. This record even includes a version of Sweet Home Chicago, and if you are like me, you are probably thinking, “I never need to hear another version of Sweet Home Chicago as long as I live.” But it’s good, and breathes new life into a tired tune.
Other selections are less well known, like the great version of J.B. Lenoir’s Good Advice that opens the album.
What really sets the record apart are the string arrangements. I absolutely love the string arrangements on this album. Mickey says in the liner notes for the CD reissue that he wanted to “put together new arrangements that would bring something new to the table, but still convey the original country blues feel.”
It seems that the general knee-jerk reaction to the idea of combining blues music with strings is total disgust, in 1973 or 2013. Quit yer whining. Mickey – wait, make that Mr. Baker to you – says:
As we were trying to create a different kind of blues record, I decided to write arrangements for a full string section, to be layered on top of the acoustic foundation of guitars and percussion. That was pretty daring, as indeed it went against the grain of the sentiments of blues purists at the time, but we deliberately chose to ignore that mentality. Since the record company had not voiced any particular opinion about the artistic direction of the record, we felt free to go for a more progressive approach. In any case, I really wanted to create some special aural effects via the writing of the string section arrangements, in combination with the original folk blues guitars.
This doesn’t end up sounding as radical on the record as it does in theory, actually. When you get down to it, violins and cellos are acoustic wooden instruments, just like acoustic guitars. With the good sound they had going on in that studio, they end up complimenting each other quite nicely. Lest we forget, Baker is an accomplished technical musician and arranger. He’s even written his own course on jazz guitar. The man knows his shit, but he doesn’t let his technical side overpower the feel of the material. This isn’t like Yngwie Malmsteen combining metal and classical, to the detriment of both styles.
The result is something really unique and special. The cliché associations for blues music are often bipolar – it’s either all raucous drinking and good-timing in dirty roadhouses, or it’s all forlorn and mournful, lonesome moaning. Yeah, maybe the clichés are accurate in some cases, but they also sell the genre short. If that’s all there is to the blues, where would an album like The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt fit in?
It’s nice to hear a blues album that can also bring to mind lying in bright sunlight on a green southern hillside. Mississippi Delta Dues is an album infused with light, even on darker songs like the original composition Alabama March (the arrangement of which Baker says was inspired by composers like Penderecki and Xenakis) or the Son House tune My Black Woman. Mono no aware never sounded so good.
McHouston Baker is still alive and kicking at 86 years old, and I think Mississippi Delta dues sounds as great today, and as antithetical to the “blues purist” (if there are even any of those left anymore), as on the day it was recorded. It still hasn’t been duplicated, although lesser musicians have tried. Where do you think I got the idea to include cello parts on those instrumentals that begin both of my one man band albums on Voodoo Rhythm?
But hey, this is the future. You don’t have to take my word for it.