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Peter Stenshoel's Album of the Week: 1963's Blues at Newport

KPCC board operator Peter Stenshoel's weekly feature continues with Blues At Newport, recorded live at the Newport Folk Festival, 1963.

My uncle John Rockne had a cool pad in Rushford, Minnesota.  Every time we stayed there, my brothers and I would take advantage of a record-changing turntable upon which ten discs could easily be stacked one atop another.  John had eclectic tastes.  So did we.  So a typical stack might hold the Doors, Dietrich Buxtehude organ music, Erroll Garner, Readings By Jack Kerouac On the Beat Generation, Albert Ayler, Frank Sinatra, and Frank Zappa.  One of our favorites is the featured album this week, Blues at Newport.  It’s a live document from the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, curated by George Wein of Newport Jazz Festival fame. 

It opens with the irrepressible Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry*, a harmonica and guitar duet wherein hoots and howls complement droll lyrics and a vocal lyricism.  Mississippi John Hurt is represented after a 40-year hiatus from recording.  His gentle finger-picking guitar style and round-tone voice were pure revelation to ears raised on a more rough-edged blues aesthetic.  John Hammond sounds a little cowed by the sheer talent of the other acts.  Or is it my imagination this talented White bluesman was exaggerating his growling delivery?  Deadheads will appreciate that Reverend Gary Davis renders a highly spirited “Samson and Delilah” here.  I believe this Vanguard release is where Bob Weir first heard the piece that inspired the Grateful Dead’s version.

You can rarely go wrong with John Lee Hooker and he turns in his trademark subdued emotional fire for two cuts on side two. In contrast to John Hammond, Dave Van Ronk, the other White singer in the bunch, comes off sounding like he was born to the music.  And his 27-year old voice could easily be 40 years older, as so much command and natural grittiness is abundant here.

Those visits to Rushford were a sweet musical treat.  Thank you, Uncle John!

*(Editor's note: Word is they didn't actually like each other. -- Rabe)