Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Ma Rainey: Heroes of the Blues: The Very Best of Ma Rainey [Shout! Factory, 2003]
Because she recorded for the famously cheapjack Paramount label, connecting with the woman that label dubbed "The Mother of the Blues" can be tough--cleaned up though they were, many vinyl-era reissues sound like she's singing behind a closed door. But specialists generally single out Yazoo's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom vinyl as a significant improvement, the CD version improves on that, and this much later collection improves on the Yazoo. This is easy to tell because five of Yazoo's 14 selections are also among Shout! Factory's 16, including the actively catchy warhorse "Oh Papa Blues." Just one example of Rainey's commitment to the Southern tent-show circuit, where she thrived for two decades before she began recording at 37, is her transformation of the lines Bessie Smith rendered as the copyrighted but unidiomatic "And if you care for me/You will listen to my plea" into the wilder "I'm almost goin' insane/I'm forever tryin' to call his name." But her peak was the braggadocious "Prove It on Me Blues," where the third verse catches me up every time: "Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/They must have been women 'cause I don't like no men." Because Rainey was muffled in the studio and assigned second-rate songs, she signifies most readily as history--black history, women's history, musical history. But because she reveled in a roughness avoided by the showgirls who put their names on so much classic blues, and because she felt natural fronting jug bands and ad hoc New Orleans ensembles, the soul, grit, and fun she was full of get closer to the surface with every advance in mastering technology. A-