Birthright: A Black Roots Music Compendium

Various artists
Birthright: A Black Roots Music Compendium
Etta Baker photo courtesy of Craft Recordings/Concord Archives.

This double-CD’s 40 tracks represent a wide swath of black roots music, from zydeco to gospel, from a Mississippi fife-and-drum crew to one-man band Jesse Fuller. If some of the cuts are familiar, others are likely unknown.

Selections aren’t arranged chronologically or ganged according to style – thus providing a fascinating shuffle experience, from a work gang in a Texas prison to the Staple Singers’ electric gospel to a duet of bluesmen Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’. Guitar takes center stage with Mississippi Fred McDowell’s keening bottleneck on “Highway 61,” Skip James’ eerie “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” Mississippi John Hurt’s playful “Candy Man,” and Bahamian Joseph Spence’s insular style and melodic mumbling on “We Will Understand It Better By And By.” Contemporary artists like the Carolina Chocolate Drops string band and the Campbell Brothers’ sacred steel intermingle with earlier works by Lightnin’ Hopkins and Odetta.

Welcome exposure is given to underrepresented artists such as fingerpicker Etta Baker (“One-Dime Blues”), jazzy Lonnie Johnson (a spirited treatment of “St. Louis Blues” with rhythm guitarist Elmer Snowden), and Virginia songster John Jackson (a ragtimey “Step It Up And Go”).

It’s a well-executed cause for celebration.

This article originally appeared in VG’s May 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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