A Woman’s Soul: Tribute To Bessie Smith
Stoney Plain Records 2018
Review By David Bowling
Rory Block has immersed herself in the blues for literally her entire adult life and part of her teenage years as well. Her five decade career, her prowess as a guitarist/vocalist, and her respect for the history and traditions of the blues have propelled her to the forefront of the American blues pantheon.
For the last decade she has been issuing a series of albums that have channeled, copied, and paid tribute to classic blues masters. Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, and Skip James have all been subjects of her approach. Her latest album explores the legacy of Bessie Smith.
A Woman’s Soul: Tribute To Bessie Smith is unique in that Smith is a woman and was primarily a vocalist.
Bessie Smith, 1894-1937, was a child of poverty who produced a gritty form of the blues. He songs were raw, as was she, and she was not admired within much of the blues community of the day for the crudeness of her approach. She was, however, one of the most commercially successful artists of the pre-second World War era as her songs resonated at a basic level.
Her stories were sexual, reflected the poverty around her, and dealt with the racial tensions of her time. “Gimme A Pigfoot And A Bottle Of Beer,” “Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl,” “Weeping Willow Blues,” “Empty Bed Blues,” and “Do Your Duty” traveled her earthy journey.
To her credit, Rory does not try to imitate Smith but rather updates her music. Her guitar brings Smith’s songs into the 21st century and fills them in ways that were not available at the time of their creation. Her voice is smoother, which gives the material a different sheen. The songs survive in a different form and format and while they are lodged in the past, they remain powerful.
In many ways A Woman’s Soul: Tribute To Bessie Smith, is the most adventurous release in the series. It is a wonderful call from the past that should not go unheeded.