James "Yank" Rachell

James "Yank" Rachell
A Tribute to the Legendary Blues Mandolin Man

Yanksville Records

By Rachel Lee
June 2009

While the mandolin isnít commonly thought of as a blues instrument, a few blues artists played, and still play, mandolin. This style of mandolin should pique the interest of Americana and roots music lovers everywhere, and anyone digging into this style would want to start with James Yank Rachell

First generation bluesman Rachell was born in 1910 on a farm in Brownsville, Tenn. He played with Sleepy John Estes and harmonica player Hammie Nixon during the Memphis jug band crazes of the 1920s and 30s. He moved to Chicago briefly but then later moved back to Brownsville where he hooked up with Sonny Boy Williamson. Though not a household name, Rachell had a 66-year recording career starting in 1929 with the Three Jís Jug band in Memphis. Rachell later lived and played in Indianapolis where this disc was produced.

The musicians on the record range from local Indianapolis artists such as Karen Irwin, Andra Faye, Stan Smith, and Jim Richter, as well as national artists such as John Sebastian and Mike Seeger, and international artists such as Jean Louis Mahjun from France.

The songs incorporate many styles including bluegrass, gospel, folk as well as blues.

Starting off the disc is “Texas Tony” from folk Grammy award winner Tim OíBrien on mandolin. The song is bouncy opener and more bluegrass than blues.

“Shotgun blues” is a funky number done by Rich DelGrasso a writer, mandolinist and Blues Award nominee.

“She Caught the Katy,” a song covered by Taj Majal as well as the Blues Brothers, is done here by Irwin, who also wails on “My Mind Got Bad.”

The prelude to “Tappin That Thing” is probably the highlight of the disc, in which John Sebastian of the Loving Spoonful recounts the tale of meeting Rachell for the first time before launching in with David Grisman on the song.

“Deep Elam Blues” is sung by folk singer and music historian Mike Seeger

“My Babyís Gone” is a bluesy number done by Faye, a nurse-turned-blues singer who befriended Yank in Indianapolis and became a notable mandolinist in her own right.

“Sitting on Top of the World,” recorded by Charlie Patton, Howling Wolf and Cream is covered here by Panama Peter Rowan, a former instrumentalist and singer for Bill Monroe, Earth Opera and Seatrain.

“Bluesy Little Tune,” written by Stanley Smith, tells the story of Rachell.

“Depression Blues” sung by Steve Brown is a song as relevant today as it was 70 years ago.

“Let Me Tangle in Your Potato Vines” is sung and played by Orville Johnson, an all-around Americana musician.

“Brownsville Blues,” written by Sleepy John Estes, is given a Delta blues treatment from bluegrass mandolinist Richter and vocalist Gordon Bonham

“Seems Like a Dream” is an up-tempo number from Bert Deivert, a Boston-born blues artist who now lives in Sweden and plays mandolin and guitar, specializing in Delta and country blues

“Lake Michigan Blues” is sung by Rachellís granddaughter, Sheena Rachell, and is the most soulful cut on the disc. Soon after the recording she was diagnosed with a rare lung disease and proceeds from the disc will help offset some of her medical expenses.

“Cigarette Blues” is recorded here by Mahjun a French artist who, in addition to playing mandolin, plays the violin a la Jean-Luc Ponty, and who credits Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix as his influences

The record ends fittingly with “Freedom,” which was said to be Rachellís favorite Gospel song, and is recorded here by his daughters and granddaughters.


<- back to Features