As with many comprehensive pre-1940s blues sets, especially those devoted to artists who recorded on the old Paramount label, the five-CD All the Published Sides
set is both a godsend and a study in frustration. Paramount wasn't known for its high-quality pressings when it was in business, and its bankruptcy in the early '30s and the destruction of its masters completed the picture, as far as sound quality. That said, this set is a modest improvement over Document Records' various Blind Blake CD issues of the late '80s, as well as being significantly cheaper; there's still plenty of noise on some of the tracks, and even the third version of "West Coast Blues" -- the best-sounding side on disc one -- contains some minor noise and slight distortion. This pattern is repeated throughout the 110 sides, very clean-sounding 78s juxtaposed with what must be the most abominable condition sources imaginable. Nowhere is this more frustrating than what ought to be a highlight of the entire set, "Papa Charlie and Blind Blake Talk About It, Pt. 1" and "Papa Charlie and Blind Blake Talk About It, Pt. 2," pairing the almost primordial bluesman Papa Charlie Jackson
with Blake -- yet neither side is in good enough shape to yield more than the most minimally audible playing and vocals; it's just possible to make use of that material, and it is followed by two wonderfully clean-sounding sides featuring Blake and "Chocolate Brown" Irene Scruggs
, on which every nuance of his playing can be heard, and then two more that are in wretched shape. Those wildly variable tracks, however, pale next to the dazzling displays of music dexterity that pour out of Blake's fingers and off of his guitar -- he may well have been one of the great virtuoso talents of the 20th century, as you're reminded constantly on these CDs -- and his nearly as impressive vocal skills. The annotation is reasonably thorough if a bit repetitive; there's just not that much known about Blake's life or career -- the producers do appreciate the significance of such matters as his momentary move toward gospel music on "Beulah Land," and provide plenty about his occasional sidemen and collaborators, but basically this set is a lot like his whole legacy, brimming over with talent supported by precious little information.