Graded on a Curve:
Hayes McMullan, Everyday Seem Like Murder Here

Perhaps there was a time when the frequency of Mississippi Delta blues rediscoveries produced a sense of the blasé; if so, those days are long gone. What’s here right now is the unveiled recordings of Hayes McMullan, a sharecropper, church deacon, and long-retired musician encouraged by roots scholar, author, and certified blues nut Gayle Dean Wardlow to pick up a guitar, play his old repertoire, and reminisce over his former vocation. Until recently, only one song had squeaked into the public consciousness, but now Light in the Attic’s Everyday Seem Like Murder Here offers a copious and illuminating helping of the sessions. It’s out on double vinyl, compact disc, and digital.

By 1967, the year Gayle Dean Wardlow met Hayes McMullan in front of a grocery store in Tallahatchie County, MS, the Delta blues had begun its journey from cultural neglect to proper recognition as an integral thread in the 20th century’s grand artistic weave. But for many African-Americans of the period, the blues, and particularly the hard and sometimes harrowing Delta variety, was not an uncovered treasure but a blight on the community.

McMullan wasn’t playing the blues in front of that grocery store, and in fact he’d had nothing at all to do with the music for decades, having quit the lifestyle after his brother Tom, himself a bluesman, was reputedly killed by poisoning. Today, the Delta blues is the stuff of multidisc retrospectives and book length enthusiasms, but in the time of its creation, when McMullan crossed paths with Ishmon Bracey, Willie Brown, and Charley Patton, playing the music was an often-dangerous pursuit.

For the churchgoers that counted McMullan in their number, the blues was simply taboo, and Wardlow’s efforts to record his discovery have the air of the clandestine. But given a guitar and ample time to recollect his material, the sessions eventually took place with discretion in McMullan’s home and in a small studio in the city of Jackson; these four vinyl sides hold the results.

It opens not with a song but with spoken words by Wardlow and McMullan; offering a few biographical specifics and establishing a documentary impulse and atmosphere of camaraderie, the ambiance is far preferable to the occasionally exploitative nature of field recordings. “This is Hayes McMullan” sets the stage, but “Fast Old Train” makes it immediately clear the microphone was capturing a significant talent.

Accompanied only by a tapping rhythm, McMullan’s assertive guitar lines are enhanced with glistening resonances working in tandem with his warm vocalizing, the singing closer in approach to John Hurt than to the severity of Skip James. It leads into “Look-a Here Woman Blues,” the one previously available McMullan song, found on the CD augmenting Wardlow’s book Chasin’ That Devil Music: Searching for the Blues.

Wardlow and John M. Miller contribute liner notes here, with the latter rating “Look-a Here Woman Blues” as a masterpiece of the Mississippi style. Connecting as more direct than “Fast Old Train” but with no less complexity in the guitar department, the piece’s brevity brings added punch as the singing takes on a deeper intensity, leaving the relaxed Hurt-like tones behind.

No doubt the retrieved wares of many unearthed bluesmen are primarily for aficionados, but even with false starts (the enticing fragment “Back Water Blues”), numerous interjected segments of conversation (much of it concerning the figure of Wardlow’s most intense interest Charley Patton), back-to-back takes (of “’Bout a Spoonful”) and incomplete tunes (such as “Hitch Up My Pony,” a variant of Patton’s “Pony Blues”), McMullan’s obvious skill makes this set a smart pick for the intrigued Delta novice.

The 8-bar groove of “Goin’ Away Mama Blues” and the lyrically sharp “Every Day in the Week” show off his range, the guitar elevating the former as words in the latter point toward future developments in the blues chronology. Additionally, the relatively spacious “Hurry Sundown” shows how much he could achieve with crisp repetition.

From mirroring his vocal lines to laying down a thick buzzing strum between the verses, “Sugar” is a tidy guitar showcase intensified by the close warmth of the audio, which is far preferable to surface-noise burdened 78s. “Smoke Like Lightning” follows, recorded after Howlin’ Wolf emerged with “Smokestack Lightnin’” of course, but clearly predating the Memphis-to-Chicago titan as part of McMullan’s core of recollected tunes.

“Goin’ Where the Chilly Winds Don’t Blow” illustrates that from inside stylistic parameters the man was anything but monochromatic, while “Spider on the Wall Blues” benefits from vivid lyrical imagery. On the opposite end of the spectrum, “Spanish Fandango” delivers a superb instrumental enlivening of the well-known parlor guitar piece, its Spanish tuning also featuring in the title track. As pointed out in Miller’s notes, the selection holds both musical and lyrical affinities to Skip James’ “Special Rider Blues.”

This underlines the expected overlap with assorted Delta peers and the recurrence of standard tunes (“Kansas City Blues” for instance, with its “T for Texas, T for Tennessee” refrain used more than once here, as is the phrase “hurry sundown”), though “Who Gonna Be Your Baby?” and “Gonna Get Me a Woman (aka Sunday Woman)” resist easy association with specific geographical precedent. The latter does find him adjusting the lyrical angle of “Every Day in the Week,” however.

The minimal groove of “Bo Weevil Blues” has basically nothing in common with Patton’s frenetic take on the same subject, while “’Bout a Spoonful” oozes familiarity but without getting tethered to one specific source. By the point of “No Triflin’ Kid,” the guitarist’s abilities are well established, with the recording highlighting the rapport between Wardlow and McMullan.

“Delta Walk” is a pleasant, somewhat folk-bluesy instrumental, and “Roll and Tumble”’s dig into traditional soil produces fresh results that culminate with laughter in the room. The assurance and dynamic breadth of Everyday Seem Like Murder Here’s final song “I’m Goin’, Don’t You Wanna Go?” reinforces Hayes McMullan, born in 1902 and passed in 1986, as a fount of uncut Mississippi Delta spirit. That the album appears when this regional style has been seemingly all but exhaustively documented only increases its value.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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