Frank Stokes – The Victor Recordings (1928-1929)
There are a number of ways to get your Frank Stokes. While there is no disputing the importance of Yazoo Records when it comes to preserving SO much great country blues music, their masters, it must be said, often suck. In the case of Stokes’ recordings, I definitely prefer these Document versions.
I’m not sure one can really understand the history of this music without having knowledge of Frank Stokes. He cast a long shadow over Beale Street and what’s come to be known as “The Memphis Sound” (tho he had strong roots in Mississippi) and while that was often his neck of the woods, and while he and his mate—and sometime fellow Memphisian—Furry Lewis certainly share some sonic similarities, Stokes and Mississippi John Hurt, to mention but one example, shared some shared traits as well.
More important than all that, however, is that Stokes is a “bridge” figure between the era of minstrel and medicine shows, and the era of classic blues. In his playing—striking for its precision and clarity—you hear the breadth of influences that would come to mark the canonical innovations of country blues.
If for some reason Stokes is still an omission in your musical knowledge, you must remedy said omission, instanter.
Furry Lewis – In His Prime 1927-1928
Furry Lewis is often both reputationally and stylistically coupled with his compatriot Frank Stokes as a prime exponent of an early-era Memphis sound—a sound that sits somewhere between the ragtime-ish fingerpicking bounce of the Piedmont sound, and the more aggressive, rougher-edged sound of the Delta. The sonic placement is about right, as is the grouping with Stokes, but at the same time, something about Lewis really does set him apart, and whatever it is that this quality is, it’s most clearly evident on these early recordings.
While Stokes may at least arguably be fairly credited with fathering a “Memphis Guitar Sound,” Lewis’ music takes things a step further by managing to synthesize a number of different strains and influences into his sound—jug band music, minstrel songs, country blues, delta blues, ragtime, and what for lack of a better term might be simply called “folk” songs. Kassie Jones (the spelling on Furry’s version) being a prime example.
Unlike Stokes, Lewis lived to see the “revival” in the 60s, and accordingly enjoyed a second career, but in all honestly, unlike some of his peers like Bukka White and Skip James, Lewis’ skills had not only slipped a bit, but they didn’t really come back to full flower either. Accordingly, these early recordings really are the ones to enjoy. His wit, his flair, his technique, and the seriousness of his craft are all in evidence, and it’s a positively sparkling collection of music we simply can’t possibly expect to see the likes of again. Be thankful it’s preserved for our edification today.