Bay Area Blues poet and roots music savant, Blind Lemon Pledge (aka James Byfield), spent his lockdown year away from the stage creating a new batch of songs and revisiting older tunes in anticipation of creating his next project. The prolific writer and recording artist returns with his ninth album, A Satchel Full Of Blues, the timely follow up to the well-received 2020 release, Goin’ Home; Pledge’s stripped down set of acoustic blues and Americana classics. The collection of a dozen new tracks, delivered as a mostly mellow but not entirely acoustic affair, are an homage to the songwriters who influenced him since his youth and as he says, “launched his ongoing fascination with the magic synergy between melody and lyrics.” In the liner notes Pledge gives thanks to Gene Autry, Willie Dixon, Randy Newman, Mose Allison and Hoagy Carmichael, a short but expansive list of songwriters that clues you in to the breadth and scope of the musical landscape held within.
The jaunty “Wrong Side Of The Blues” opens the set with bass player Peter Grenell and drummer Juli Moscovitz backing up Pledge’s acoustic guitar and wailing harmonica, as he recounts hard luck of a bluesman’s life. The loping number, “If Beale Street Was A Woman,” speaks of one man’s obsession with the home of the blues and the music that grew up on her streets, delivered and supported by a sparse, yet lilting musical accompaniment. Pledge drops some greasy slide guitar leads on the Delta rambler “Black Eyed Susie,” and sings the praises of his lady love on the breezy “Sherri Lynn.” He spells out the trials and tribulations of amour on the country blues “Heart So Cruel” and the sentimental jazz ballad “Blue Heartbreak,” each filled with romantic melodrama. Pledge has a little fun playing out the notion of a school-boy crush on the shuffle number “Teacher, Teacher,” with his tongue firmly in cheek. The dark tale, “I Killed The King Of The Blues,” puts a new spin on the classic blues mythology of selling one’s soul to the devil, accented with melancholy slide guitar and blues harp. The up-tempo “Detour Blues” has a Hank Williams feel and employs that paradoxical form that works so well in the blues…happily singing about hard times and troubles to cathartic effect.
The album’s lone cover song is a lovely acoustic take on a traditional tune, “Alberta,” accredited to Lead Belly and oft recorded by folk music mavens. Pledge works his Dreadnaught and Steel guitars with equal measure creating a high lonesome sound on the Americana hymn “Before I Take My Rest.” The final exploration, “Death Don’t Ask Permission,” is a channeling of Son House and Blind Willie Johnson, both Delta Blues progenitors, who famously used the blues pulpit to preach about mortality and the hand of fate with vocal power and emotional intensity.
A Satchel Full Of Blues is yet another intriguing chapter in the musical anthology of Blind Lemon Pledge.