Playing for the Man at the Door review – vital snapshot of mid-century African American music

This invigorating 66-song set of broadside ballads, blues, spirituals and other field recordings from the mid-20th century American south comes with a telling title. It reveals the power dynamics at play when songs performed by African Americans were taped by white male folk collectors. The extensive archives of folklorist Mack McCormick were also selective: he called his subjects “tribal people”, as they lacked middle-class aspirations, and the recordings are also largely of men.

Nonetheless, this lavish, liner-note-heavy set aims to expand our ideas of who these men were, and of the talents they had. Lightnin’ Hopkins is its superstar, his voice and guitar full of fire and grit on eight tracks. But other gripping storytellers jostle alongside him. There’s James Tisdom, a regular at Texas rodeos, barbecues and fairs, whose steel guitar and half-spoken Salty Dog Rag are both spikily frisky. Then there’s the oaky-voiced Mance Lipscomb, a Texas tenant farmer who went on to play major folk festivals, singing about angels, the Titanic and a white farm owner, Tom Moore, who terrorised Black workers (Lipscomb’s name wasn’t included on an earlier release of McCormick’s, for fear of reprisals).

Distinctive instrumental performances also arrest the ear, from CeDell Davis’s slide guitar played with a butter knife to the quills of Joe Patterson (a panpipe-like early American folk woodwind instrument, which he plays here from his bed in a psychiatric hospital, having made them himself out of river reeds). George “Bongo Joe” Coleman’s eerie steel drum is also glorious as he half-recites, half-sings This Whole World’s in a Sad Condition in 1959, busking on the Galveston pier like a griot foreshadowing Gil Scott-Heron. In this track and others, you hear real personalities reverberating, not historical records.

Also out this month

The Pulitzer prize-winning Rhiannon Giddens continues to showcase her talents beyond folk with a glossy solo album, You’re the One (Nonesuch). Celebrating what she calls “American music” – a mix of the blues, jazz, Cajun, country, gospel and rock – the starry production makes many songs sound oddly bland, but you can’t deny Giddens’ soul chops on Wrong Kind of Right or the dreamy orchestral rush of Who Are You Dreaming Of. Ballads of Seduction, Fertility and Ritual Slaughter (Was Ist Das?) is a fittingly weird 50th anniversary tribute to The Wicker Man’s startling soundtrack. Magpahi’s synth-drizzled Maypole, Dean McPhee’s Sunset and Meg Baird’s Willow’s Song are particularly gorgeous. Spookily stunning too is Female Rambling Sailor, the debut LP by Irish-Austrian trio Plúirín na MBan (self-released), using drones, fiddle delays and bodhran rhythms to brilliantly tell ghostly tales of the sea.