Various Artists – Crime & Punishment (review)

Various Artists – Crime and Punishment (Fantastic Voyage) review

There are times when we need a collection like this to set us straight.  While we complain about a dead cell phone battery or the loss of a favorite TV show, many of the artists featured on this set were grappling with just how to stay alive.  Once again, Fantastic Voyage records does an incredible job of taking old music and packaging in a fresh new way.

All 50 tracks included on Crime and Punishment: Bloody Ballads, Prison Moans, and Chain Gang Blues, come from over 60 years ago, a time, much more difficult than our own.  The music permeates with real life; these aren’t singers in a posh studio cranking out tunes for the masses, or hamming it up on a youtube video. Performing, for some, was their only means of survival, and most of their lives didn’t end on happy terms;  a lot of time was spent behind bars.

The “Crime” disc opens with the chilling prediction of “I’m Gonna Murder My Baby” from Pat Hare, who spent time with both Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.  Recorded in the famed Sun Studios in Memphis, it features one of the nastiest guitar tones ever put in wax.  As in several of the songs here, Hare would go on to fulfill that prophecy by shooting his girlfriend a few years later and spending the remainder of his life in prison.  This ain’t no American Idol here folks.

The tracks are sequenced just like you’d make an old mix tape – mingling the familiar with the relative unknown.  So, you get heavyweights like Johnny Cash doing “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” and the Everly Brothers with the unusually gruesome (especially for them) “Down in the Willow Garden,” coupled with sides by Peetie Wheatstraw (“Gangster’s Blues”), and Cisco Houston (“The Killer”).  Continuing with the running theme, John Lee Hooker gives us the blood-curdling “I’m Gonna Kill That Woman,” and Sonny Boy Williamson burns through “Your Funeral and My Trial.”

But, there’s more to Crime and Punishment than simply being a compilation of songs.  By including  the ubiquitous “Strange Fruit” from Billie Holiday, and Paul Robeson’s take on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” (songs that seem to have come from some other universe) it reminds us of just how far we’ve come as a society.  The law that hounded Charlie Patton in “High Sheriff Blues” had nothing to do with real “justice,” they were after him because of his skin color.

Disc two, the “Punishment” one, opens with a spoken-word piece from “Bama,” recorded by John and Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in 1947 on location at Parchment Farm in Mississippi.  Here, the prisoner boasts about his exploits, even while incarcerated in one of the most notoriously-heinous penitentiaries in history.  In fact, they’ve included several tracks from these recording sessions – these are people, despite their crimes, that were being abused and taken advantage of, turning a profit for this farm under slave labor conditions.

Mixed in with the actual prisoners are legends like Lightnin’ Hopkins (“Jail House Blues”), and Woody Guthrie (the chilly “Slip Knot”).  There are songs that you may be familiar with, but here are presented by different artists.  The Kingston Trio went to the top of the charts with a glossed-over “Tom Dooley,” while the New Lost City Ramblers put back all the gory details.  Led Zeppelin pillaged “Gallows Pole” for their third album, while Odetta gives the song a more emotive quality.  “Stagger Lee” was a smash for Lloyd Price, which removed some of the more unpleasantries – Frank Hutchinson is more frank in his delivery of “Stackalee.”  Occasionally a more produced track is included – the aforementioned Johnny Cash number, or the Crickets (sans Buddy Holly) doing “I Fought the Law” – it’s amazing how little Bobby Fuller changed for his 1966 hit version.

While there have been other collections that have dealt with arguably more gruesome subject matter, what really elevates Crime & Punishment is the fact that most of these artists actually lived the crazy tales they sang about.  There has never been a more harrowing set of music compiled.   A must for classic blues and folk fans.   –Tony Peters