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Richard "Hacksaw" Harney
Sweet Man,  Genes/Adelphi CD 9909, 1997

 Ragtime and blues history embodied

I wasn’t expecting much from this disc, a reissue of a 1972 recording session featuring blues guitarist Richard "Hacksaw" Harney. Hacksaw wasn’t just obscure, he was an unknown, and I’d never heard of the Genes record label. Two strikes. And surely the musical talent scouts sweeping the south during the early ’60s had picked the blues cupboard clean?

Born in 1902, Hacksaw left no recorded legacy to speak of. He and his brother worked as backup musicians on a handful of sides during the 1920’s, but before they could achieve wider recognition Hacksaw’s brother was knifed to death in a juke joint. Hack spent his life working as a piano tuner in Memphis and around the Mississippi Delta, yet somehow this shy fellow had achieved legendary status among Delta musicians. Robert Lockwood Jr. claimed that Hack was well acquainted with Robert Johnson and was "the only somebody that could compete with Robert." Big Joe Williams also spoke of Hack as a musical giant, yet for several years the folklorists weren’t able to track him down.

He finally turned up in Memphis in 1969, eventually recording these 10 tracks in a Maryland studio in 1972. Hack plays Piedmont fingerstyle blues, merging ragtime with blues stylings a la Blind Blake. Most of the numbers are up-tempo instrumentals, all in a swinging style intended for dancing. Hack’s repertoire reveals that bluesmen of the day didn’t just play the blues, but also mixed in tin pan alley pop tunes and well-known ballads. On several of the tracks he gets a distinctive mandolin effect using tremoloed single note runs or chords.

Though the studio setting was obviously very casual (you can hear studio banter before and after tracks, and in a one instance during a tune), the recording quality is good enough for guitar aficionados to try and dissect Hack’s fretwork. Hacksaw passed away one year after this, his only recording, but fortunately he was able to leave his mark.– Scott Boggan

Copyright © 1999 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.