Matchbox Days

Really! The English Country Blues 1967-69

(Sleeve notes for Matchbox Days, Ace/Big Beat CDWIKD 168, 1997)

Although most of the written history of the British blues boom of the mid-to-late 1960s centres on the electric bands who were later to mutate into progressive rock and heavy metallurgy, when it peaked in 1967 to ’69 there was strong acoustic blues scene in this country as well. Many of the artists who suddenly found themselves the centre of much attention from the media had come up at least partly through the folk club scene. Overnight, they found themselves playing the same circuit as the major blues bands.

Those were interesting times indeed, but the beginnings of it go much further back, possibly as far as recorded blues music has been available in this country. English traditional singer Bob Copper vividly remembers buying 78 rpm records by country blues singers like Sleepy John Estes in the mid 1930s, and the white blues of Jimmie Rodgers was widely popular here. I can’t believe that there weren’t British musicians who felt inspired to learn the songs off those records.

Wizz Jones

It was in the 1950s that things really started to move. The same jazz scene that produced skiffle generated an interest in blues – initially the female vocalists of the ’20s like Bessie Smith who had worked with jazz band backings, later artists like Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Josh White and eventually Muddy Waters who were the first American players to regularly cross the pond. By the end of the decade, a thriving domestic blues scene had evolved, with the late and much missed Alexis Korner being one of the prime movers.

Sitting at the feet of those first visiting Americans and the British musicians like Alexis and Cyril Davies who were already up on stage were a handful of guitarists who would affect the whole course of guitar playing on the British folk scene. Chief among these were Davy Graham and Wizz Jones, who would later add other non-blues influences, large pinches of total originality, and inspire legions of subsequent players from Bert Jansch and John Renbourn onwards. English folk guitar colossus Martin Carthy readily admits that his legendary thumb work still bears the mark of styles that evolved in the days when Big Bill Broonzy was the No. 1. instrumental hero. Thus, blues became a major ingredient in the folk club repertoire throughout the 1960s.

In the early days of the folk revival, a lot of musicians learned their songs from books and magazines, simply because those were the only sources. In these days of several thousand roots CD releases a year, it’s hard to believe how little folk vinyl there was around in the early ’60s. Aspiring country blues players didn’t even have the written sources, though, and thus the repertoire centred around the very few records that became available; Broonzy, Terry & McGhee and Leadbelly were the main ones; a little bit later the excellent one-man-band Jesse Fuller made several tours here with his 12-string, harp rack and ‘fotdella’, and the Rev. Gary Davis started his regular visits. In the folk clubs, entertainers like Gerry Lockran, Royd Rivers and Cliff Aungier became very popular with repertoires from those kinds of artists.

Dave Kelly

Somewhere in the early ’60s, American labels – particularly Origin – started re-issue programmes of stunning country blues recordings from the 1920s and 1930s, and bit by bit those astounding albums like Really! The Country Blues became available here. Enthused by the records, which were altogether more primitive and exciting, young field researchers in the U.S.A. went hunting to see if the artists were still alive. Some, like Robert Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller and Charley Patton, were long gone. Others like Son House, Bukka White, Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt were found and persuaded to play again; Big Joe Williams had never stopped working, and Fred McDowell (discovered on a late ’50s field trip to Mississippi by Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins) had not been recorded before. All of a sudden the blues record famine was over, and these reissues and new recordings flooded into Britain. They were eagerly seized by a new generation of young enthusiasts who had been put off pop by Cliff Richard and Adam Faith, pointed in the right direction by The Rolling Stones and Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, and hooked on acoustic music by Bob Dylan (whose first LP was actually rather a fine white blues album).

Ian Anderson

We were incredibly lucky in those days. Starting in 1963, the German promoters Lippman & Rau began wheeling their annual American Folk Blues Festival tours around Europe, soon to be seen in most major cities of Britain in the peak years. In a short space of time, we were able to see and (if you were keen enough) actually meet and talk to musicians like Sleepy John Estes, Big Joe Williams, Fred McDowell, Lightning Hopkins, and, on the 1967 tour, Skip James, Bukka White and Son House all in one room. This was in addition to the R&B men like Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf who toured the clubs with bands, and seeing these wonderful old musicians made an incredible impression upon us young British players.

All of a sudden, the kind of blues you heard from Broonzy, McGhee and White seemed rather slick and fell somewhat out of fashion. People began hacking necks off wine bottles, hunting for National steel guitars and singing in very Mississippi accents. When you’d read Paul Oliver’s book Blues Fell This Morning and Sam Charters’ The Country Blues, bought the Robert Johnson album and just seen Fred McDowell, it didn’t seem at all preposterous to feel that you could change overnight from an 18 year old English person into an elderly black Mississippi sharecropper. All around you were people doing it with ease!

Or so it seemed. In my case, I learned to play blues guitar in the coffee bars and (later) pubs of that authentic blues town, Weston-super-Mare. Other school friends did it too. I mixed blues with other things from the typical folk club repertoire until, when I’d moved to nearby Bristol, I first encountered a visiting white American called Spider John Koerner who toured here regularly in the mid ’60s. Seeing him convinced me it was OK to specialise in blues, so that’s what I did for the next four or five years.

Back in those days, blues players were a regular feature of many folk clubs. You fairly quickly learned what was acceptable (just once in 1966 I hauled an electric guitar, an amplifier and a bass guitarist into a Bristol folk club to do a bit of pretending to be Muddy Waters – just once!). One occasionally met other local folk blues guitarists – a popular one in Bristol was Al Jones, for example – but the inkling to us Bristolians that they might be more widespread first came in 1966 when Mike Cooper from Reading turned up to do a floor spot, National steel guitar glinting in the candle light. He told us about some other players he’d recently met from South London, so early in 1967 the widening circle of bluesers in Bristol persuaded the owner of the Bristol Troubadour (a six-nights-a-week folk music coffee house) to let us hold monthly blues nights, booking Cooper for the first of them. This became Britain’s first ever specialist country blues club.

Jo Ann Kelly

That first night was full and went really well. Cooper recommended a guy called Dave Kelly from London, so we booked him for the second. Nobody had heard of him, but such was the blues buzz going around that the place was packed. As he took out his bottleneck and roared into Fred McDowell’s Write Me A Few Your Lines, a selection of Robert Johnson numbers and other Delta blues classics, the place erupted and we knew something special was happening. We had kindred spirits!

After that, the Troubadour was too small. We moved the club, by then called Folk Blues Bristol And West, down to a city centre pub; within a year we were in a room that held 250 and was regularly packed with a queue around the block. Blues became big business in Bristol – the top local electric band, The Deep, eventually providing musicians for the John Dummer Band, the Groundhogs and my own later trio. Our first guest in our new premises was Dave Kelly’s big sister, the late and much-missed Jo Ann Kelly. In those days, audiences were used to female singers being Joan Baez clones, and this small blonde girl in spectacles didn’t look awfully like a blues person. She unpacked her frightfully cheap-looking guitar from a soft case, sat down, and immediately became an unholy mating between Memphis Minnie and Charley Patton as she piled through Moon Going Down and Nothing In Rambling. Hey, not even blokes could do Charley Patton that well (this was 1967, remember, and men were not so liberated). In Bristol, a star was born …

Mike Cooper

By now, a grapevine had started and musicians began to crawl out of the national woodwork. Following our Bristol model, Mike Cooper started a club in Reading, the Kellys began one at the Elephant & Castle in London. People began to turn up like Simon Prager & the late Steve Rye, who played a supercharged version of the Terry/ McGhee style with lacings of Gary Davis and the first Sonny Boy Williamson; the Missouri Compromise, a very wild trio of approximately 17 year olds with a black singer who sounded not unlike Tommy McLennan; and the Panama Limited Jug Band who (in their first incarnation) had really got to grips with the authentic sound of the Memphis Jug Band, Gus Cannon and others. Jug bands were always a popular feature of the folk and blues club circuit, and they sprouted, changed their personnel and vanished again much like their 1920s equivalents must have done.

I think Mike Cooper was already a full-time musician when I first met him. By the summer of 1967, so was I – there were too many late night homecomings from gigs to make doing a proper job seem any sense at all. As we travelled around the country, we discovered other localised blues scenes where there were really excellent cells of players who had followed the same course, inspired by those scratchy old blues re-issues. From Brighton to Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester, round in South Wales and especially in Leeds and South Shields, there were strong country blues scenes apparently just waiting to find out about others elsewhere with a like mind.

The Panama Limited Jug Band


t the beginning of 1968, as all the main singers were regularly appearing in the Bristol club, Mike Cooper and I took an idea to Gef Lucena of the local record label, Saydisc. We’d both made limited edition EPs through him which had sold out quickly, so we proposed starting a blues label which got called Matchbox. Over the next few months, both of the Kellys, Cooper, myself, Prager & Rye, the Panama Limited and Missouri Compromise went out to an echoing Quaker Meeting House on the outskirts of Bristol at Frenchay. Gef set up his ancient mono Ferrograph and we huddled around the microphone and an old iron stove, recording tracks.

The time was just right. In March ’68, Alexis Korner wrote a major piece about British blues in Melody Maker where he mentioned us acoustic players alongside the electric bands who were already achieving vast cult followings. Mike Raven was playing tracks off the EPs on his Radio 1 blues show. When the first Matchbox LP, Blues Like Showers Of Rain, appeared in July ’68 – it was such a shoe-string operation that Gef had to hand-stick the first couple of hundred sets of labels to get it out at all – everything went silly. John Peel, then as now the first to spot something good happening at the roots, played it every night and had most of the artists guesting. Melody Maker went to town on it, followed by the rest of the music press and even national newspapers.

Jerry Gilbert put on the first major British country blues festival at Farnham in Surrey. In September, the first of two National Blues Conventions was held in London and people from all over the country – players, collectors, enthusiasts and heavyweight purists – got to meet each other and enthuse or come to blows. Major record companies descended in swarms, datesheets filled solid. National steel guitars became the ultimate status symbol of the year, and very expensive – early birds like Cooper and myself counted ourselves as rather lucky to have found our first ones for under a fiver each when nobody wanted them at all.

Liberty Records jumped in with a second anthology titled Me And The Devil, produced by the Groundhogs’ Tony McPhee. I formed a trio called, after a piece of stunning inspiration by Al Stewart, Ian Anderson’s Country Blues Band, moved to London and recorded an album called Stereo Death Breakdown which also came out on Liberty.

Steve Rye, Simon Prager

Their Andrew Lauder (later Demon and Silvertone bossperson) was quite keen on this stuff – he also issued the only album by a new discovery on the Me And The Devil set, Andy Fernbach. Mike Cooper recorded for Pye, Jo-Ann Kelly for CBS, Dave Kelly for Mercury, The Panama Limited for Harvest, South Shields’ Gordon Smith for Blue Horizon. Most of these records are now collectors’ items. More anthologies, including second sets from Liberty and Matchbox, and heaps of full albums came along with the recording debuts of John James, Frances Gilvray, Jim James & Raphael Callaghan from Merseyside, Blue Blood, The Dharma Blues Band, Brett Marvin & The Thunderbolts, Roger Hubbard, Graham Hine and many more. Still others were already causing a stir then who didn’t get recorded until a bit later – Sam Mitchell, Dave Peabody (around that time fronting a good-time band called Tight Like That) and a legendary player from Leeds called Steve Phillips – much later to emerge as a Notting Hillbilly – were notable examples.
Like many musical fads in this country, the available literature suggests it was a London based phenomenon, but this certainly wasn’t true. Apart from the Bristol ferment, there was the Leeds area, for example, where I remember doing six different clubs in the space of two weeks (a real strain on the repertoire, especially with the aforementioned Steve Phillips as support act), and the North East has continued to be a stronghold for this music.

But back to ’68. At the end of the year, a motley collection of enthusiasts which included Alexis Korner, Radio DJ Mike Raven, Ron Watts (later to be the first promoter to regularly book the Sex Pistols, but that’s another story…) and myself formed a short-lived organisation called the National Blues Federation, initially out of the Notting Hill flat which Ron and I shared (to the consternation of our neighbours). It didn’t last long, but I think its finest achievement was the club and concert tour we set up for Fred McDowell from the payphone in the hall. With roadie Gareth Hedges, he spent a month on a triumphant circuit of Britain, playing to packed houses and getting mobbed everywhere he went. Having him as our house guest during that tour and being lucky enough to support him with my trio on many of his dates still remains one of my most treasured experiences in music. A wonderful man.

After that, it seemed to wane as rapidly as it had come. But things never really dropped away entirely. A whole generation had a bit of blues injected into their bloodstream, and racks full of records by the American originals have stayed visible ever since. Whilst some of us went off to explore other musical territories, others stayed working away at blues music – people like Dave Kelly, Dave Peabody, Steve Phillips, Brendan Croker and others now having decades of experience to draw on.

Al Jones

And most unlikely of all, after skipping several generations in the States, there is at last a flurry of young black country blues players – Corey Harris, Eric Bibb, Guy Davies, Alvin Youngblood Hart and others who were only being born at the time of the British craziness – who are getting heavily into the same sources. Now that’s a turn up for the books!

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