- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 5, 2002

It could be argued that rock 'n' roll began with a single chord. Follow the logic: In 1941, bluesman Robert Petway cut a song built around a single E chord called "Catfish Blues." Years later, Muddy Waters took parts of the same song and turned it into "Rollin' Stone," a bluesy tune that, in turn, gave the Rolling Stones their name and ended up as the title for a little '60s rock mag that is today a corporate behemoth.
Delving into this kind of back story is exactly what "When the Sun Goes Down," a new four-disc compilation from Bluebird Records is all about. The subtitle for the series is "The Secret History of Rock and Roll," and the name is apt.
Few modern listeners will recognize the names of the performers here, but the songs themselves should immediately spring to mind, as many are rock and blues standards. Such tunes as "Frankie and Johnny," "The Midnight Special," and "Baby, Please Don't Go" are just a sampling of songs from the first disc.
Co-producer Barry Feldman and audio engineer Doug Pomeroy dug deep into the archives of RCA Victor and Bluebird Records to unearth many of these tracks from the 1920s to the 1940s. Producer and roots music historian Colin Escott came up with the idea and provided extensive liner notes (with help from blues historian David Evans).
The result is a history lesson, a musical detective game and a revelatory listening experience all wrapped into one. Many of the songs haven't been heard since they were originally released on 78s, yet the quality of some tracks makes one praise those early producers for their skill in capturing live music.
Elvis Presley backers have recently made a point of emphasizing his role in the origin of rock, and while it's hard to argue against his influence, the "Elvis is all" explanation is a little too tidy. As the long history of "Catfish Blues" suggests, rock and roll is a wayward child of the blues, with a dozen aunts and uncles named jazz, country, ragtime and gospel guarding the cradle.
One of the things that becomes clear in listening to the massive volume of material 100 tracks that stretch over more than five hours is how much artists shared material and built upon one another's music.
For example, A.P. Carter's "Worried Man Blues" was supposedly picked up from an itinerant black musician whose name has long been lost in history. The recording of it here, enlivened by the trademark harmonies of the Carter Family, is taken from 1930, and the song eventually became a folk standard.
Or look at the long journey of "Baby, Please Don't Go," recorded here by Big Joe Williams. It was an outtake on Bob Dylan's "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" but became a hit (one of the few) for Van Morrison and Them. A funny side note one of the session guitarists who played on the Them version of the song was an up-and-coming man by the name of Jimmy Page.
Speaking of Led Zepellin, that band was built on a solid foundation of old blues songs, and one of their standards is here "Girl I Love, She Got Long, Curly Hair," which they altered to "Long, Black Wavy Hair."
One of the strengths of the collection is authenticity. As dedicated as Zeppelin was to the blues, the early performers here were living in the midst of segregation and discrimination. Some had served time in prison and others were all too familiar with the rampant poverty and desperation of the Great Depression.
Ever wonder how the band Canned Heat got its name? From a song by Tommy Johnson called "Canned Heat Blues," about, in the words of Mr. Escott, "a paraffin-based cooking fuel that became a last resort source of alcohol."
How about that old rock song "The Midnight Special?" It's a prison tune from Leadbelly named after a night train that passed by the Sugarland penitentiary in Texas. Listening to "Pearl Harbor Blues" by Doctor (Peter) Clayton is fascinating, as he wrote the song only three months after the infamous attack and as the country was just becoming embroiled in war.
These are just a few surface examples from a collection a listener can get lost in for weeks. The set is divided into four parts and the music ranges widely in quality, style and performance, focusing mostly on the Memphis, New Orleans and Chicago scenes.
Rock fans who decide to find out what happens "When the Sun Goes Down" will be richly rewarded. It places rock as part of an evolving tradition, a torch passed from one generation to the next.
In the hazy mists of time, it's only the music that survives.

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