Here in Australia we are blessed with some fine blues musicians, some surprisingly in the raw, primitive, rootsy style. Three artists stand out for me, Hat Fitz, the group Collard, Greens and Gravy and the inimitable C.W.Stoneking. How does Oz produce living anachronisms like Fitz and Stoneking when the genre emerged almost a century back in the U.S.A. born out of the black experience? Well there may be similarities in the culture apart from Australia's natural propensity to produce quirky offspring.
C.W. Stoneking spent his early years way out of the Alice on an aboriginal settlement, so the bio says. His West Virginian father was a teacher there. The parents split up, his mother returned to the U.S. Who knows, the bio may be Stoneking's story to flavour his art, much as Bob Zimmerman concocted his bio in the early years.
In fact there are many similarities between early Dylan and C.W. Stoneking. Both excellent songwriters, interpreters, singers, musicians, appreciators and appropriators of roots music, entertainers. Dylan with his Chaplinesque comedy on stage and C.W muttering away between songs in a rustic black American/aboriginal patois which requires subtitles and some tangential imagination to follow. Both artists steeped in the form, in its many guises. Both artists with a touch of sly wit, put on, hokum.
King Hokum is an extraordinary album. C.W. Stoneking is a deceptively fine guitarist and banjo player, not flash but subtle, spare and gutsy. The years of solo performing bear fruit. The addition of the Primitive Horn Orchestra on several tracks provides superb backdrop which finds you immersed in a New Orleans saloon in the late 1920s. The production by J. Walker is marvelously empathic; a warm atmosphere where less is more - a lesser producer with a modern brush could easily have ruined the album. Various ambient noises, the caw of a crow, toll of a bell, bustle of a bar add to the atmosphere.
Musical highlights are many. Mike Andrews' piano, particularly on the boogie piece `Goin The Country', Chris Tanner's clarinet on `Rich Man's Blues', Kirsty Fraser's sassy vocals on the vaudeville blues pieces, the rich, loose punctuation of the Primitive Horn Orchestra, but above all C.W.'s vocals and playing. His voice is tough and ragged, loud and languid. You hear echoes of Son House, Charlie Patton, Blind Willie Johnson and Blind Willie McTell mmmm - maybe closer is Walter Vinson from the Mississippi Sheiks... and in `Bad Luck Everywhere You Go' the screech of the Memphis recorded Howlin' Wolf - used also by Tom Waits, if memory serves me. In the guitar work you can hear Robert Johnson, Lonnie Johnson and Memphis Minnie.
His dialogue intros depict a rare understanding of the form and are witty and droll. There is a danger of pastiche but C.W. is too clever or honest for that. In the 20s style the double entendre and sexual metaphor is present, however it will fly over the heads of any teenagers listening. Unless you laugh. In which case you may have to explain why Willie's long necked lizard went limp or why she wanted a cockatoo!!
Each track is a gem, delivering more with further listening. Such conviction and artistry would lead lesser bluesmen to the crossroads. C.W. Stoneking is in his early thirties. We can look forward to further expression of his art. In the meantime, give praise.