Blues And Ballads

By Matt MacDonald
April 2016

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Luther Dickinson

Blues & Ballads – A Folksinger’s Songbook: Volumes I & II

New West Records, 2016

In this day and age of ever more efficient methods and levels of instant gratification, everything about this album – before even pulling the CD out much less listening to it – seems to struggle against it.

The 1920s layout front cover, the discovered-in-an-attic-trunk tintype of Dickinson centering the back, and the 21 song listings from both volumes (all on one CD) – many with titles not of this era – all shout out, “Slow down! This is going to take awhile.” And the bone white background of the cardboard case just about exclaims: “HANDLE WITH CARE.”

For Blues & Ballads, these subliminal album cover messages are all true. The songs are largely acoustic in instrumentation and sound, and completely acoustic in their minimalist approach, with string instruments, sweet voiced singing partners and the occasional creaking chair as the musicians lean in to play and sing, lending themselves to this effort. These things – along with Dickinson’s easy vocal delivery – succeed in establishing and maintaining a very relaxed vibe fitting for a Sunday evening back porch jam.

This, in fact, may be the biggest weakness of the album. Going through all 21 from start to finish takes time and, listening on my earphones, after awhile I couldn’t help but check which one was playing – something I try to avoid doing at first listen. I’m pretty sure it was Track 13 (“And It Hurts,”) but I can’t quite remember because, by then, the duets had begun to blend into each other and my endurance was starting to wear thin. That’s not to say that there aren’t attempts to change pace.

The fast tempo “Bang Bang Lulu”, the B3 driven spiritual “Let It Roll”, and the ‘50s style rocker “Blow Out”, among others, add variety.

Beyond that, the personal and powerful “Ain’t No Grave”, with Mavis Staples’ understated backing, highlights the album. But, despite this, Blues & Ballads never quite breaks out of its overriding sound. And what is this sound? Although subtitled, A Folksinger’s Songbook, there are elements of fife and drum (Dickinson spent some time with Otha Turner) and other blues on it, although not nearly as rough edged. Someone once described the categorical difference between some rock and blues as the difference between being mainstream and white (Stevie Ray Vaughan) and being obscure and black (Albert King). I found myself thinking that this might also be true for folk and blues (minus the mainstream). I was disappointed in myself for thinking this way so easily, but I suppose it’s human nature to want to compartmentalize things.

With a little effort, however, I was able to consider this CD in terms of Duke Ellington’s music categories: good and bad and, without any effort at all, I slotted it firmly into the former. That’s all that matters.

Although Blues & Ballads – when taken in one full swig – may possibly dull the senses, when taken in relaxed, unmeasured sips, its full flavor and potency can be truly appreciated.

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