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The Mississippi River of Song:
A Musical Journey Down the Mississippi

Smithsonian Folkways (

This two-disc collection is the companion to a PBS series that portrays the eclectic musical cultures along the Mississippi. The journey begins in upper Minnesota and is divided into the four regional sections. "The Headwaters" is the most diverse, with selections from the Chippewa Nation, Skal Club Spelmanslag (Swedish), Wang Chong Lor (Laoian), Karl Hartwich (German Polka), and even a norteño group, the Quad Cities' La Otra Mitad. Bluegrass and singer-songwriters are key to the Midwestern Crossroads (the John Hartford cut is totally milquetoast) while the redeeming moments arrive with Missouri roots-rockers the Bottle Rockets and the Ste. Genevieve Guignolée Singers, a group of French medieval revelers. "Southern Fusion" features soul-quaking gospel from Kentucky's Boundless Love Quartet and The Mississippi Mass Choir, string-snappin' delta blues from Big Jack Johnson and Robert Lockwood, Jr., the Memphis Horns' flawless tonality, and shuffling blues from Levon Helm and James Cotton. "Louisiana, Where Music is King" features Cajun crooner D.L. Menard, zydeco blazer Geno Delafose, French Quarter buskers David and Roselyn, followed by Eddie Bo and Henry Butler putting on a New Orleans' piano clinic in Armstrong Park. Irma Thomas sings the song the Rolling Stones stole, "Time is on My Side," and the album closes with 71-year-old Isleño Irvan Perez singing (in Spanish) an a cappella ballad about crab fishing. This is not just another compilation of previously released tracks. All were taped live for this project, adding to the vibrancy. Several performers, like jazz heater Manny Lopez, are not recording artists hawking product but just everyday players motivated by the love of their craft. The Mississippi is a rich, majestic river. River of Song is an equally rich, majestic portrayal of its musical people. - Dan Willging

David Olney
Through a Glass Darkly
Philo (

Sometimes it seems as if there isn't merely a melancholy, but a howling despair festering in the rural heart that beats beneath the sunny American dream. Skies are gray, threatening snow. Times are hard. Dirty dishes and the fossil remnants of forgotten meals lie stacked on a stained wooden table. A faded photo of a long lost love and a half-empty, half-full bottle of rot-gut whiskey mock each other beneath the harsh glare of a bare ceiling bulb. I picture David Olney sitting alone at this table, channeling these stories. The instrumentation is both more raw and traditional than that on Olney's 1997 "Real Lies," but his gritty vocal and tales of the lost, the obsessed, and the just plain incomprehensible are just as riveting. The calm country fiddle and banjo of "Dillinger" are counterpoint to the dissonant narrative of a bank-heist getaway; as one of the gang lies dying in the back seat, this Depression-era Robin Hood reveals a vicious disregard for pretty much everything. "Avery County," a bleak waltz rendered ominous by a vibrato guitar, chronicles the life of the runaway son of a moonshiner; there is some vagueness as to just who did what to whom, but not a hint of lesson, moral, or redemption. Darkness and misfortune are not only triumphant, but unopposed, hope subsisting only in escape. The upbeat jugband spirit of "JT's Escape" makes an infectious lark of the jailbreak of an old man, and the resulting reverse redemption of his son, the sheriff. "The Colorado Kid" makes dramatic use of a tango beat with piano and violins in turn exotic and lush as a wanderer weighs love against obsession. "Racetrack Blues" is a quick, peculiar blues, driven by a fiddle vamp and the oblique testimony of a fun-lovin' guy. Olney adds an eccentric New Testament glimpse in "Barabbas," a folky waltz with a glistening harp about a small-time hood groping for the meaning of his unexpected pardon. David Olney has a dark, unblinking narrative vision. - Jim Foley

Fred McDowell
The First Recordings
Rounder (

"Mississippi" Fred McDowell ranks with Leadbelly, Muddy Waters and Son House as the most important African-American blues artists recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax. This is the first of the Lomax Collection Portraits Series, dedicated to the many outstanding artists of traditional music with whom Lomax worked. His auspicious encounter with Fred McDowell, a cotton sharecropper by day, was the standout blues find of Lomax's 1959 field season. This distinctive array of blues and spirituals includes ten previously unreleased tracks, and many that McDowell never again recorded. During his remaining 13 years, McDowell's Delta slide guitar and singing style would instruct a generation of North American and European initiates, infiltrate rock and roll, and quicken the living soul of blues history. Recorded on four sultry September evenings outside McDowell's cabin, this is a spirited introduction to a distinguished blues discovery. This release testifies to the vitality and resilience of rural Mississippi African-American life-ways and folk song style, precisely as the Civil Rights movement was poised to transform the racial formation of the south - and the nation - forever. - Michael Stone