Elly Wininger is two wonderful things: A throwback to the golden age of folk and blues artists of the 1960s and ’70s, and a contemporary singer/songwriter whose music is just as vital and engaging now as it was a half-century ago.
And it was almost a half-century ago when a very young Elly Wininger performed on opening night of the historic CBGB (for Country, BlueGrass & Blues) club in New York City’s East Village in 1973. The club soon became a punk rock and new wave hotspot, but Elly stuck with the music that had caught her ear when she listened to old blues on her parents’ 78rpm records. (Some of you might actually remember those!) She also stuck with the Village folk and blues scene, and we are still getting the benefit of those years.
She has continued to write, sing, produce, host workshops and make albums — this one is her fifth since the late ’90s. And she is a member of New York Blues Hall Of Fame.
This latest album, filled with some great older material and four originals, turns the melancholy title song into a positive statement about music that still has a lot of life left. Some of it is timeless material from some of the greats. Elly’s four originals do their best in the same tradition, including the title track. She has an effortless, fluid guitar style, with vocals to match.
Here’s the track list from the album, with Elly’s notes about each song (shamelessly copied from the album cover). There’s not a false musical or emotional note to be heard.
➊ LET THAT LIAR ALONE 3:11 (Traditional) More relevant than ever unfortunately! Although A.P. Carter has a version of this song, I was inspired by Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s version.
➋ SKINNY LEGS BLUES 3:39 (Geeshie Wiley) I left out the verse about her slitting the guy’s throat.
➌ RIGHT KIND OF TROUBLE 4:21 (Elly Wininger) I envision Jessica Rabbit singing this…
➍ SPECIAL RIDER BLUES 4:04 (Skip James) The isolation of life in certain areas of the south, like James’ home town Bentonia Mississippi, echoes throughout his songs. This one sounds so West African to me.
➎ ALABAMA BLUES 3:14 (Elly Wininger) Another sadly relevant song. I was really angry when I wrote this.
➏ THE BLUES NEVER END 5:14 (Elly Wininger) How many blues songs can you find referenced in this song? I was listening to a lot of Mickey Newberry when I wrote this.
➐ (I WANNA BE LIKE) ROSIE 4:00 (Elly Wininger) This is my paean to Zydeco accordion player and songwriter Rosie Ledet, tipping my hat to some of her songs.
➑ AS THE CROW FLIES 4:05 (Tony Joe White) I stripped this down to what I heard as the rural roots of this song, and added a little gris gris.
➒ BLACK SNAKE MOAN 3:20 (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Huddie Ledbetter) A Dixieland band brought this to life for me!
➓ GOD MOVES ON THE WATER 3:01 (Blind Willie Johnson) Gospel? Blues? Blind Willie Johnson has got to be one of the spookiest and most unique artists ever. No wonder he’s in a space capsule.
⓫ RANGE IN MY KITCHEN 3:03 (Texas Alexander, Lonnie Johnson) Seemed like a woman should be singing this.
⓬ LEAVIN’ BLUES 4:23 (Huddie Ledbetter, Alan Lomax) Slowed it down a bit. Added slide.
⓭ OLD RILEY 4:00 (Huddie Ledbetter) I didn’t understand this song when I heard it as a kid. Now I get
why it’s up tempo. Riley’s running for his life from Rattler, the dog.
In another shameless copy and paste, here are a few of Elly’s thoughts about how this album was created. When it’s possible, I like to let the artist to speak. There’s a reason that they’re making the music, and I’m not.
What I was thinking while putting this album together: Traditions endure and remain vital when artists interpret rather than just copy. This set of 13 songs, including 4 original compositions, brings a contemporary set of aesthetics, rooted in tradition, to a variety of blues and gospel styles. You’ll hear influences of Cajun, ragtime, old timey, jazz and country, affirming the proximity and cross pollination of all these styles, and their commonality in actual practice, both today and historically. We Americans grew up together with an incredible richness and variety of musics. I hope this album encourages an appreciation and enjoyment of that living diversity.
I would only add that Elly Wininger is doing her best to share her enjoyment of that living and historic musical diversity. It’s hard to hear this music and not agree.
Here’s the opening song rom the album:
One of the song credits caught my eye — “Skinny Legs Blues” by Geeshie Wiley. I had never heard of her. She recorded only six songs on three records in 1930. There are no known photos of her, and the audio of those recordings. Her singing is stark and haunting, often with lyrics to match.
Here’s her version of “Skinny Legs Blues.”