Featuring 58 recordings and a 52-page booklet by blues expert Martin Hawkins, “Blues Kings of Baton Rouge” may be the most comprehensive collection of Baton Rouge blues ever assembled.
Released by Germany’s Bear Family Records, the set gathers such relatively famous artists as Slim Harpo and Lazy Lester alongside obscure performers whose folk styles predate commercially-marketed swamp-blues.
Slim Harpo released four charting songs, including the major hits “Baby, Scratch My Back” and “Rainin’ in My Heart.” Like his peers Lazy Lester, Lightnin’ Slim and Tabby Thomas, he recorded at J.D. Miller’s studio in Crowley, 80 miles west of Baton Rouge. Miller’s distribution deal with Nashville’s Excello Records gave Baton Rouge swamp-blues artists national reach and exposure.
Concentrating on recordings made from 1954 to 1971, “Blues Kings of Baton Rouge” hits the swamp-blues highlights. It’s familiar territory to Martin, the album’s reissue producer, a veteran British chronicler of American blues who wrote the Slim Harpo biography “Blues King of Baton Rouge.”
Slim Harpo’s nasal singing and otherworldly studio productions helped him emerge as the swamp-blues genre’s most idiosyncratic character. And his “Baby, Scratch My Back” must be the funkiest blues song in history. Lightnin’ Slim — maybe the second-best-known swamp-blues artist after Slim Harpo — obviously borrowed from Chicago and Memphis blues. His voice is so strong and distinctive, however, and his grasp of the material so complete, that it often doesn’t matter. Singer-harmonica player Raful Neal, a swamp-blues mainstay who somehow never recorded for Excello, is heard in his 1958 Peacock recording “Crying Hard.”
Hawkins wisely includes fascinating folk- and country-oriented recordings by Robert Pete Williams, Clarence Edwards and the duo Butch Cage and Willie B. Thomas. They recorded for LSU faculty member Harry Oster’s Folk Lyric label. Next to Excello blues, Williams’ stark murder ballad “Angola Special” and Cage and Thomas’ old-time fiddle song “Jelly Roll” sound as if they’re from a much earlier era. Their presence in “Blues Kings of Baton Rouge” reveals how diverse the city’s blues legacy truly is.