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Ed Bell: Complete Recordings 1927-1930 (Document)

Some areas are noted for their music, whilst others - just next door - are, through the vagaries of history, barely represented in the recorded legacy. Such a one is Alabama, which - despite its location in the very core of the black belt - between Georgia & Mississippi - was hardly touched in the early period of recording.

Yet, as the scant evidence demonstrates, there was no shortage of talent. And, of that talent, the outstanding guitarist was undoubtedly Ed Bell.

There’re few parallels to Bell's mature style on record - perhaps Mississippi’s Reuben Lacy or the Reverend Edward Clayborn, in different ways might be the closest - although, if we were to include white mountain banjo players, other comparisons could easily be made.

Because, like those players, Bell’s style is, at times, uncannily like that of African kora players, with their intricately looped arpeggio lines that inevitably return to worry the same handful of notes. There’s precious little role for harmonic construction in this type of music - changes are alluded to more than made & if it wasn’t for the vocal line, you'd hesitate to talk about chord changes at all in much of Bell's core material.

Even at the time, Paramount billed him as “Ed Bell and his weird guitar”. And, when you listen to his music, it’s not hard to understand why...

From his signature tune “Mamlish Blues”, to the strangely withdrawn “Mean Conductor”, or the oddly syncopated “Frisco Whistle Blues” - which sounds like it'd be easier to play backwards! - Bell's work is nigh on unique. Because, despite the parallels I've alluded to above, he's very much his own man.

Take my favorite, “Squabblin’ Blues”, for example. Pitting a hypnotically pulsed rhythm against a syncopated descending line that interlocks w/the vocal melody, it’s a tour de force by any estimation - and one of the supreme moments in prewar blues. That it’s little-known outside of collectors’ circles has more to do w/geographical fetishism than anything else (you know - all great blues comes from Mississippi?) and, if even one other person latches onto Bell as a result of this review, then I’ll think myself amply rewarded.

Because he was a truly great artist…

John Henry Calvinist