Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

American Epic: The Best of Blues [Lo-Max/Third Man/Columbia/Legacy, 2017]
Anyone interested owns somewhat fainter and scratchier versions of tracks on this definitive country blues compilation. But conceptually and song for song, these 17 clear, rich, cannily sequenced Duke Erikson remasters--Delta guys mostly, with hokum bands and two Texans mixed in for extra flavor--leaves them in the dust. Bernard MacMahon defies convention by beginning with an anachronistic culmination--Robert Johnson's mythic "Cross Road Blues" was cut in 1937, well after country blues's 78-rpm flowering. He blends in the warhorses-in-waiting "'Tain't Nobody's Business," "Walk Right In," and "Sitting on Top of the World." He welcomes Mattie Delaney's polished, still obscure "Tallahatchie River Blues" and Geeshie Wiley's eerie, now canonical "Last Kind Word Blues" into an assertively male canon. And he justifies the ongoing mystification of Blind Willie Johnson's hummed, moaned, postverbal "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" by closing with it, as if to prove that, in the end, the message of this music is beyond words. But it isn't. "Every day seem like murder here." "Ain't no heaven, there ain't no burnin' hell / Where I'm goin' when I die can't nobody tell." "Come on mama on the road again." A