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Sonny Boy Williamson--Keep It to Ourselves


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Sonny Boy Williamson

Alligator AL4787

Rice Miller--"Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2"--is one of the blues' most important, yet enigmatic, figures. An acknowledged harmonica master, he seemed obsessed with keeping the details of his life and his intimate feelings hidden from the world. He delighted in giving conflicting information about his name, his birth date, and nearly everything else about himself; as Johnny Shines has said, "He speaked lying lies!" Even Miller's music, eloquent as it was, often seemed to hide more than it revealed.

Crusty and cantankerous, Miller barked out commands to his bandsmen and interspersed his lyrics with sly, half-whispered asides and slices of worldly folk wisdom. His voice, with its warm, throaty vibrato and subtle nuances, was among the most expressive in blues, and he approached soloing with a childlike sense of fun and adventure that hinted at a tenderness submerged beneath the hard-bitten cynicism. His songs spun convoluted tales of outrageous relationships and unlikely sexual misadventures, fables he offered up as life lessons to both himself and his audience with his trademark ribald humor and occasional forays into spine-chilling poetic imagery and penetrating emotional insight.

Miller's persona enveloped him so completely that one never knew whether he realized (or cared) what an eccentric figure he cut--entirely contained in his own reality, apparently putting little stock in convention and even less in mainstream social acceptance. Toward the end of his life (he died 25 years ago), after he'd been lionized in Europe, he affected the fashion and demeanor of a British gentleman--formal suits, derby hat, umbrella, leather attache case for his harps. And such was the power of his personality that there was little apparent incongruity in rough-hewn American blues coming from such a dandified figure.

Keep It to Ourselves is a reissue of some sides Miller cut in Copenhagen in 1963. Originally released on the Danish Storyville label, they've been unavailable for years. By putting him in an intimate acoustic setting with guitarist Matt Murphy and pianist Memphis Slim, they provide a rare and penetrating glimpse into Miller's musical personality. The gentle spirit that seemed to lurk beneath his curmudgeonly persona is revealed here with unusual directness.

"The Sky Is Crying," the opener, sets the mood for the entire endeavor: soft and mournful, it bears little resemblance to Elmore James's original version, as Murphy picks gently in the background and Miller's harp blowing achieves a sweetness it didn't often attain when he played with a band. His musical communication with Murphy is exquisite; throughout this recording, Miller addresses his sidemen by name, making the listener feel privy to an intimate conversation among friends.

Even in a setting this low-key, however, Miller could summon intensity. "Once Upon a Time" features his trademark harsh harmonica warble, and his voice achieves that distinctive fusion of fierceness and warmth. The lyrics are outrageous in the grand Rice Miller tradition: the song starts out as if it were going to be a bluesy, autobiographical tale of hard times: "Once upon a time I was broke and hungry / And I didn't have a lousy dime." But when a young lady takes him in, they set up a typically improbable household: "She wasn't but 11 years old but I kept on, kept on sending the little girl to school / Steady teaching her and training her to learn her daddy's rules . . ."

This recording highlights Miller's metronomic feel for timing and rhythm. Several of the most impressive cuts are unaccompanied, with only Miller's tapping feet and snapping fingers to provide percussion, yet you rarely miss the presence of a drummer. An especially impressive example is "Don't Let Your Right Hand Know," a reprise of a theme Miller used several times on record. In a spoken introduction he claims that the idea for the lyrics was given to him by a lady friend. The song features Miller in his country-philosopher role, as he lectures both the lady and the listener on the finer points of how to maintain an illicit love relationship; interspersed with the verses are trainlike harmonica chug-chug-chugging and broad-toned single-note phrases. At one point he manipulates the tone so it sounds uncannily like a Jew's harp. It's all punctuated with finger snaps and tongue stops, a tour de force in a style that relies on subtle tonal shadings and an unerring sense of time rather than flamboyant flourishes.

"I Can't Understand," another solo effort, starts off with a slow wail, then kicks into a propulsive boogie shuffle, with sparse harp notes laid crisply above the rhythm of Miller's foot taps. Few harpists could solo as Miller does here, unaccompanied and unembellished but with sure, energetic sharpness.

The addition of Memphis Slim on a few tracks lends a feel of urbanity to the proceedings. Slim's treble flurries and gently rolling stride bass lines are impeccable as always, and his vocal contribution on "Same Girl" is notable for its melancholy evocation of hard-won joy. The song is a riotously funny tale (despite its slow blues tempo) of two men in love with the same woman. It features Miller at his most devilishly creative as he continually manages to extract the most outrageous poetry from the most prosaic situations, finally departing from linearity almost entirely and venturing into Beatlike surrealism: "My best friend got mad with me because I wouldn't write a letter to his girlfriend / I was in love with her sister, God knows I didn't want the girl to know what the little boy had in his skin."

"Slowly Walk Close to Me" again features Miller's convoluted ways with the English language ("Your love and presentation, your company make me feel so grand!"), as Murphy supports him with a chunky 4/4 pattern that brings even more rhythmic impetus to Miller's percussive playing. "Movin' Out," playfully introduced emcee-style by Memphis Slim, adds drummer Billie Stepney as well as both Slim and Murphy, on electric guitar this time. It's played in a loose, swinging groove, and Miller sounds as if he were improvising lyrics on the spot. He comes in behind the beat occasionally but always maintains the rhythm as well as his endlessly inventive wit.

That inventiveness is especially evident in Miller's variations on lyrics he'd used previously. "Girl Friends" starts out as a reworking of Miller's 1960 Chess recording of "Lonesome Cabin," which itself was based on Mercy Dee Walton's "One Room Country Shack." The song soon attains a new life, however: the narrator has obviously been affected by modern technology. Whereas in the earlier version Miller's cabin was so small he couldn't "even put up no cooking stove," now he "can't even hear my own radio"; and before the song's over he's watching television and trying vainly to contact a string of girlfriends--one for every day of the week, dutifully listed by name: "All the seven girls I couldn't get in touch with 'em / And I want to know have they moved out!"

Miller's knack of mixing rowdy enthusiasm with artistic sensitivity rarely left him, and it's among this record's most distinguishing features. He introduces "Gettin' Together" thus: "We call this number "M.T. Murphy and Sonny Boy Williamson Gettin' Together'--oh yeah, baby, from Chicago!" Then he fires up the song with harmonica hawk screams before swooping into a series of choppy middle-register phrases as Murphy comps serenely. Even in the gentle-sounding "Why Are You Crying?" the lady is treated with Miller's characteristic harshness ("Why are you crying / When all you done throwed away was mine?") while Miller provides us with a taste of his trademark triplet harp riff, which some of his imitators have overworked into a tired cliche. Miller used it sparingly enough that it never lost its freshness.

Finally, though, it's "Coming Home to You Baby" that lingers most in the mind. The song is a slow, deeply moving blues about a tired traveler arriving home, wondering what awaits him after being away so long. One can't help thinking of Miller's own weary return to Helena, Arkansas, after his 1964 European tour. He told friends that he'd come home to die, and did just that on May 26, 1965.

But it's wrong to conclude on such a somber note; Rice Miller's blues never became depressing. The crystalline clarity of Miller's harmonica tone on "Coming Home to You Baby" lends credence to the story that he picked up some pointers from Big Walter Horton somewhere along the line. He warbles sweetly on his harp, while Murphy picks tenderly behind him.

Miller's music was as entertaining and fun as any that emanated from Chicago during the city's blues heyday. His canon is among the most consistently high-quality of any bluesman's, and this recording is an important addition to his legacy. It's an exquisitely crafted, often hilarious peek into a side he seldom revealed. And between the astonishing demonstrations of harmonica virtuosity and the mind-boggling lyrical convolutions, the genius of Rice Miller soars at unfettered full throttle.

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