Tuesday, October 10, 2006

R. Crumb’s Heroes

R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country
Introduction by Terry Zwigoff
Harry N. Abrams

The man behind Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural, is also a notorious record collector. Having assembled a famous collection of 78’s, R. Crumb is a recognized authority on early blues, jazz, and country artists, the more obscure the better. His relationship with Nick Perls of Yazoo records, led to three series of collector cards, all of which are reproduced in a larger 5 x 7 size in R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country.

Some legendary musicians are included in Heroes, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Son House, and Peetie Wheatstraw. However, there are many lesser known artists, like blues artist Rube Lacey, who “recorded two dance tunes for Paramount Records; four years later he became a minister.” (p. 40) As Crumb’s documentary biographer Terry Zwigoff explains in his introduction:

“The existence of available photographs partly determined the musicians he chose to include. It’s a minor miracle that someone had a photo of Mumford Bean and His Itawambians, a band so obscure that their one existing 78 has only been heard by maybe a dozen hard-core country collectors, and has never been reissued.”
The accompanying text by Stephen Calt, David Jasen, and Richard Nevins is actually most extensive in the country section, making some insightful connections between early blues and country. In describing the Shepherd Brothers, the following comparison is made:

“Melodically, many blues bear a notable resemblance to early white-fundamentalist religious music. The limited scales are almost identical and they share a common modality. If the speed of an archaic primitive Baptist hymn is doubled, the striking similarity to blues is apparent.” (p. 200)

Crumb’s art captures each musician’s personality. Notable was his choice to portray a young Sidney Bechet, instead of drawing from the more familiar photos of Bechet in his older Paris years. There are some interesting tidbits to, like the jazz clarinetist Jimmy Noone, appearing “with the Bowery Boys in the Monogram Pictures film Block Busters (1944) just before he died.” (p. 156)

Packaged with a cool sampler CD featuring tracks from featured artists like Noone, Benny Moten, Skip James, and Frank Stokes (for the record, that’s him featured on the cover), Heroes is a neat little volume. It should cross genre boundaries and maybe lead to interest in different, but in some cases frustratingly hard to find, artists.