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This Week on NPR: Gems & Rarities from Genesis, Hour 2
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April 20, 2015 08:46 AM PDT
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Well, folks.... the big news around here is that our humble radio show, Blues Unlimited, is now being distributed through NPR's "Content Depot" distribution system. This means that it's officially available to any NPR station in the country. And we're hoping a LOT of radio stations take notice. If you haven't yet, be sure to call or drop a line to YOUR local NPR station, and tell them that Blues Unlimited is now available through NPR! And we thank you!

Genesis was a legendary series of albums compiled by British Blues experts Mike Leadbitter and Mike Rowe between 1972 and 1975. They were a lengthy celebration of the Chess catalog -- each volume was a box set that held four different LPs, complete with lavish illustrations and extensive notes about the music and the performers.

Over the last 40 years, the Chess catalog has been extensively reissued, but some of the cuts off of Genesis remain rare and hard to find even today. Although Genesis volume one stuck largely to material that had previously been issued on 78, volumes two and three opened up the gates with rare unissued cuts and alternate takes that had not seen the light of day since they were first recorded. It’s those cuts off of Genesis that we’ll be focusing on most with this program -- along the way, giving us a chance to highlight these critically acclaimed series of LPs, while hearing some great nuggets from the Chess vaults all at the same time.

Although 12 volumes were originally slated for the Genesis anthology, it was sadly not to be. Critically acclaimed at the time they came out, it was either due to lack of sales, or perhaps due to co-compiler Mike Leadbitter’s untimely death in 1974 that saw the series grind to a halt after just three installments. The third and final volume, compiled by Mike Rowe, was dedicated to Mike Leadbitter when it came out in 1975. Today, they’re prized collectors items, holding a special place of honor among those who are lucky enough to have them in their collection.

This Week on NPR: Gems & Rarities from Genesis, Hour 1
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April 20, 2015 08:37 AM PDT
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Depending upon your point of view, Genesis refers either to a book of the bible, a popular rock group, or a plot device from Star Trek. If you’re a blues fan, it only means one thing — a series of three box sets that came out between 1972 and 1975 celebrating the Chess catalog. Rare gems and classic nuggets from Genesis, on this episode of Blues Unlimited. (Part 1 of 2)

Pictured: Genesis Vol. 3, which was dedicated to British Blues expert Mike Leadbitter.

Preachin' the Holy Blues: Field Recordings from Dallas, Texas (1927), Hour 2
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April 16, 2015 08:05 AM PDT
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Join as we get into our time machine, and journey back to Dallas, December 1927. That was when Columbia Records became the first major label to make extensive recordings there — on Washington Phillips, Blind Willie Johnson, Coley Jones, Lillian Glinn, and more. In addition, we'll hear from two primary movers and shakers of the Dallas music scene in the late 1920s, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Texas Alexander (a figure that is largely overlooked today).

Closing off the program is a fascinating little footnote from the Rev. William McKinley Dawkins. Included for the sake of "historical accuracy," his performance dates to the fall of 1925, when the OKeh label became the first record company to send a field recording unit to Dallas. As far as we know, he was the only blues or gospel artist recorded during that 1925 trip. Why OKeh didn't record anything further is a puzzle that remains a mystery to this day. It would be another two years before another field recording unit came to town, which would be Columbia, in December 1927.

For the last word, it is given to Blind Willie Johnson's timeless, ethereal masterpiece, "Dark Was The Night - Cold Was The Ground." It was, quite famously, chosen for inclusion on NASA's "Sounds of Earth" golden record that accompanied Voyagers 1 and 2, into outer space. We've been told -- by someone of good authority -- that when it came time for the committee to select pieces of music for the Voyager project -- that there were no arguments and no discussion when it came to "Dark Was The Night - Cold Was The Ground." The vote was unanimous by the committee.

Join us, then, as we explore some amazing blues and gospel from Dallas — including everything from the fiery and low down to the celestial and the heavenly — on this episode of Blues Unlimited.

Preachin' the Holy Blues: Field Recordings from Dallas, Texas (1927), Hour 1
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April 16, 2015 07:45 AM PDT
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Join as we get into our time machine, and journey back to Dallas, December 1927. That was when Columbia Records became the first major label to make extensive recordings there — on Washington Phillips, Blind Willie Johnson, Coley Jones, Lillian Glinn, and more. It’s blues and gospel from Dallas, Texas, on this episode of Blues Unlimited.

Pictured: Texas Alexander, largely forgotten today, was such a popular seller that he was one of the few artists to collect royalties from the sale of his records.

When Giants Walked the Earth: The 1968 & '69 Memphis Country Blues Festivals, Hour 2
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April 04, 2015 09:44 AM PDT
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The 1960s were heady times when many "rediscovered" Blues musicians of the 1920s and '30s enjoyed a second career — playing and touring overseas and around the country, and occasionally making records. In Memphis, however — a city rich in musical history — one didn't have to go very far to hear a genuine, bonafide blues legend whenever you wanted. In an attempt to bring greater recognition to some of this living history, the Memphis Country Blues Society was formed, in part by Bill Barth, resulting in the short-lived Memphis Country Blues Festival, held between the years 1966 and 1970. Luckily, recordings were made at the 1968 and '69 Festivals, which will be the focus of this program. We'll hear from classic and legendary performers like Bukka White, Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes, Rev. Robert Wilkins, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and many more. A tribute to the Memphis Country Blues Festival, on this episode of Blues Unlimited.

Original poster advertising the 1968 Memphis Country Blues Festival. Image courtesy of Mike Vernon/Blue Horizon Records.

When Giants Walked the Earth: The 1968 & '69 Memphis Country Blues Festivals, Hour 1
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April 04, 2015 09:36 AM PDT
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Join us as we aim the spotlight on the Memphis Country Blues Festivals of 1968 and 1969. We’ll hear from Bukka White, Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes, Rev. Robert Wilkins, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and many more. A tribute to the Memphis Country Blues Festival, on this episode of Blues Unlimited.

Pictured: Furry Lewis. Image by Dick Waterman.

Studs & Big Bill (Part 2, Hour 2)
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March 24, 2015 08:06 AM PDT
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Join us for part two of our special on the legendary interviews of Studs Terkel and Big Bill Broonzy. Things get lively as special guests Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee help Big Bill and Studs discuss the spirituals and the blues; Big Bill pays tribute to some of his old friends during his last-ever recording session; and Pete Seeger and Big Bill tell stories and swap verses on old favorites like "John Henry" and "The Midnight Special." Our host for all this is Studs Terkel, the preeminent author, broadcaster, and oral historian of the 20th Century.

For further reading, we highly recommend "I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy," by Bob Riesman.

Book excerpts taken from "Talking To Myself," by Studs Terkel. Published in 1977 by Pantheon Books. Due to broadcast time constraints, some passages were edited.

Studs & Big Bill (Part 2, Hour 1)
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March 24, 2015 07:52 AM PDT
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Join us for part two of our special on the legendary interviews of Studs Terkel and Big Bill Broonzy. We’ll hear stories, conversation and song, along with special guests Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

Pictured: The Verve box set, which contained Big Bill's last recordings.

Studs & Big Bill (Part 1, Hour 2)
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March 08, 2015 09:36 AM PDT
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What do you get when you take one of the foremost oral historians of the 20th century, and sit him down with one of the most beloved blues musicians of all time? The legendary interviews of Studs Terkel and Big Bill Broonzy, which took place over a period of several years, between 1954 and 1957. Luckily for us, some of these were captured for the sake of posterity at the WFMT radio studios (where Studs hosted a daily radio show for almost half a century), finding eventual issue on the Folkways Record label. A box set of his last recording sessions, “The Big Bill Broonzy Story,” also featured music and additional dialogue between these two iconic figures, and fast friends.

As for Studs, he always seems to ever so gently guide the proceedings, while clearly taking delight in what transpires. Although he never appears to be intrusive, he does occasionally stop to ask a question, if it seems that some minor point needs clarifying. As for Big Bill, he seems most intent on telling his story — his truth, as it were — so that the events and details of his life could be shared and remembered. So that we could know, firsthand, what it was like to be a blues musician or a railroad porter, a short order cook or a plowhand, a janitor or a dishwasher, or to work on a levee camp — in other words, too many to count. But as Big Bill later reveals, to have the blues, you had to have lived that life. And in turn, everything that Big Bill was or ever did, became the very fuel and fodder for the hundreds of blues songs he wrote and sang over the decades.

Although it’s hard to know exactly how to describe what you’re about to hear over the next couple of programs, suffice it to say that we find two men — each of whom has great respect and admiration for the other — engaged in a fascinating and compelling dialogue. One that is coupled with an underlying and ever so faint sense of urgency. To try and get the story out before it’s too late.

The week after Big Bill’s last recording sessions, in July 1957, he underwent surgery for lung cancer. He’d had a rather worrying hunch about it, one that he confided to Studs. He told him he was afraid they were going to cut his vocal cords. Studs tried to reassure him, saying it wasn’t his throat they were after, it was the lung. “But the knife....” he told Studs. But the knife....

Big Bill Broonzy passed away one rainy and stormy August morning in Chicago, in 1958. As Studs later put it, it was just one more storm this Big Man was passing through.

After interviewing thousands of people around the world and authoring countless books, Studs Terkel passed away at the age of 96, in October 2008. And while it’s hard to grasp the enormity of his lifetime of achievement — being, as it were, the ears to the world — there remains something extraordinarily special about those times that two old friends, Studs and Big Bill, sat down in front of a microphone and talked about the blues. One of them had a guitar in his hands. The other kept an eye on the ever-revolving spool of audio tape. And what transpired between them, it’s fairly safe to say, will always have a special place in the hearts and minds of blues fans.

Studs & Big Bill (Part 1, Hour 1)
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March 08, 2015 09:08 AM PDT
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Join us as we take an extended look at the legendary interviews of Studs Terkel and Big Bill Broonzy. We’ll hear stories, conversation and song, along with special guests Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

Pictured: Legendary radio broadcaster, oral historian and author, Studs Terkel.

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