|Blues poet and roots music savant from the Bay area, Blind Lemon Pledge (aka James Byfield), spent his lockdown year away from the stage digging deeper into the metaphysical minutiae of songwriting and lyrical exploration at the heart of American music. The prolific writer and recording artist returns with his ninth album, A Satchel Full Of Blues, the expedited 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 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 ragtime 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 Jimmy Rogers feel and employs that paradoxical form that works so well in the blues, of 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 Dobro 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 Pledge’s namesake 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.
Rick J Bowen
Byfield has a lifelong love of music and penned his first song at age eight, launching his ongoing fascination with the magic synergy between melody and lyrics. In his early teens, he discovered a world of great music through the twist of his radio dial. The pre-WWII Country Blues, including the great recordings of his stage-namesake Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Skip James and others had a huge influence on his early musical development; at the same time, he also absorbed an influencing mix of rock, folk, country, jug band, zydeco and other genres, sometimes called Americana and Roots Music.
In high school, the young musician joined his boomer contemporaries in the 60’s rock explosion. Over the years, he played in a variety of bands, as well as finding time to explore more exotic forms of music including jazz, a 5-year stint studying Chinese classical music and an abiding interest in electronic music and computer recording techniques. At one point, testing his compositional skills, he created the first ever Rock Music Mass under the aegis of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Ushering in the use of modern rock music in a liturgical setting, it received national press and was performed throughout California.
In 2008, following a long and honored career as a graphics designer and media producer, Byfield reconnected with his blues and Americana roots, created the musical persona Blind Lemon Pledge, and began performing and recording under that name. The first BLP album, Livin’ My Life With The Blues, a mixture of original songs and blues classics, was self-recorded. Byfield soon found a market through the power of the internet, allowing him to gain international radio play and a warm critical reception in the blues community. Through a series of well-received recordings and performances, Byfield grew into the name Blind Lemon Pledge, trademarking it in 2015.
While fronting an eponymously named acoustic blues quintet, Byfield continues to maintain a two front musical career with public performance and solo records that often feature guest musicians. His albums have received international airplay and many critical raves. His original songs have won several awards and nominations in the blues, folk, jazz and gospel categories. He is critically praised for his ability to compose and record in a broad range of roots-based musical styles from folk to blues to jazz and other forms.
BLP’s latest release, A Satchel Full Of Blues, follows up the rootsy Goin’ Home with a collection of eclectic songs that highlight the lyrical and musical influences that have created James Byfield’s uniquely American songwriting style. From hard driving to soft and lyrical, the songs are a musical journey through the heart of American Roots Music.