52 discs-all ranging between 50+ and 60+ minutes, with 1 disc (Vol. 38-Jimmy Rushing and Tampa Red) clocking in at 79 minutes+ and 1 disc (Vol. 25-Little Willie John and Smiley Lewis) in the 49+ minute range. The sound (both mono and stereo) varies from artist to artist (and sometimes track to track) depending on the (vinyl) sources used. Audiophiles will not be enamored with the sound in places, but blues lovers used to slightly inferior sound from old sources will find the music takes precedent over the sometimes rough sound. I initially listened to this set through a good quality pair of headphones which puts everything front and center, and since it's not stated, I'm assuming this music has not been remastered in any way. This isn't a case of the music fighting background hiss, like old Paramount recordings-these are just older analog sources used for the music. Good quality tracks, for example, by Tommy Johnson or Skip James (Vol. 20), are harder to find, so background hiss, and snaps and crackles are inevitable. There are also occasional short sonic anomalies on a few tracks throughout the set, but nothing that really gets in the way of enjoying some great blues. The upside is that the music has a real warmth and straightforward honesty to it, which is sometimes absent from digital mastering. Anyone familiar with the 10 CD box sets like "Diggin' Deeper", "Rhythm & Blues", or "Goin' Mad Blues" (released by the same company-with duplications here so beware) will have some idea of the sound. But the chance to have so many fine early recordings in one, single collection, for blues lovers (like me), is to good to pass up. For the most part, each disc has two performers, with artists like Bo Diddley, Jimmy Yancey, and Robert Johnson each having an entire disc to themselves.
Each disc is in a fairly thick cardboard envelope with artist, song title, and song length on the back. The outer box (approximately 10"x10") is substantial cardboard, with a lid that slips completely off. The back of the box lists the performers, and has the (I'm assuming) caveat "Incl. Historical Recordings", which to me means the sound is less than pristine. But I didn't purchase this set thinking the sound was perfect-older recordings are what they are-it's the music that's important here. The photograph on the front of the box is carried over on all the CD sleeves. The box is divided into fourths, with the discs stacked in three compartments. The fourth contains the Hohner Puck harmonica, made in Germany, which is in it's own (1"x3") box-a nice touch. There's also a 4 page advertising pamphlet on Hohner Harmonicas included. The 27 page booklet (which is just slightly smaller than the outer box) contains some nice information (not always accurate) on the artists in alphabetical order. There are a few (b&w) photographs of artists included with their write-ups. However, it would have been nice (especially for blues newcomers-and easy for the record company) to have a photo of each artist next to their respective essay. But for those interested, photographs are found easily enough both on the internet and in stand alone books on the blues. A quick thought for newcomers-I recommend learning more about the blues, the era (s) and blues artists-it makes the music much more interesting and exciting.
This is an overview of the blues, from the country to the city. All the various styles of blues, featuring over 100 artists, are represented-acoustic country blues (Kokomo Arnold), New Orleans style (Huey "Piano" Smith), swamp blues (Arthur Gunter), big city electric blues (Buddy Guy), jump blues (Roy Milton), piano based blues (Jimmy Yancy), jazz/blues (Jimmy Rushing), religious (as opposed to true gospel) blues (Blind Willie Johnson), and some blues bordering on early r&b (Richard Berry-"Louie Louie"). Every style of blues has a number of representatives, from well known artists (Bobby "Blue" Bland, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, Skip James, Elmore James, Little Walter, Magic Sam, Charley (Charlie) Patton, Bessie Smith, Jimmy Reed, Son House, Junior Wells, both Sonny Boy Williams 1&2, Robert Johnson, and so on), to a quite a few that may be new (Blue Lu Barker, Barbecue Bob, Cousin Joe, Tommy McClennan, Frankie Lee Sims, Peetie Wheatstraw ("the Devil's Son-in-Law"), Big Maceo, Big Maybelle, Robert Nighthawk, Eddie Taylor, as examples) to the casual listener. To list all the artists would be quite a chore-so refer to the Amazon page, which lists the artists. As often happens, songwriting credits are sometimes a bit loose, but the music is still great, no matter who claims credit. The performances are not arranged chronologically according to when they were recorded, so this is not a disc to disc history of the blues as such. The artists are arranged more or less alphabetically, which makes for some aural jumps from style to style, but the music is so fine that that's a minor consideration.
The music is from the early years (even the big city blues artists), with nothing contemporary, which helps with the focus of this set. The country/acoustic blues are pure and straightforward, and the city/electric blues have some scorching performances. The sheer time that could (and will) be spent listening to this set is truly staggering. There is so much good music that demands to be heard that many people will find themselves going back for another listen to a favorite artist or possibly someone new to them. This is a box set bordering on overwhelming in it's scope and size. But the music is so good, so honest, so intense and passionate, that it makes this collection a valuable addition to virtually anyone's blues library.
Anyone who has a distinct bias towards the blues, no matter if you're a long time listener or are fairly new to the blues, will enjoy this collection. There will be tracks that are familiar, but there will also be unfamiliar music here (unless you're a deep collector) that will help fill in a number of areas of blues styles. This music has a deeper feel if you listen to it very late at night/very early in the morning when everything is quiet. The warm, sometimes slightly distant, (vinyl) sound of these tracks gives this music real atmosphere-at times you feel as if you're listening to one of the old radio stations that plays classic old blues records, which you've somehow stumbled across and picked up late at night-and that late night sound and feel gives this music even more magic.