This anthology digs deeper than most roots-music compilations, stretching beyond the obvious. Not only does it uncover fresh helpings of overlooked Mississippi Delta antiquities, but it also burrows into other genres to find important musical DNA from jazz, minstrel, gospel, and hillbilly. Culled from the vaults of the defunct Bluebird and Victor labels, the massive boxed set -- one hundred songs strong -- captures a time when the lines separating musical categories were less defined; those raw styles of yesterday mesh with a natural beauty that would be unthinkable now. Consider the incredible "Blue Yodel #9," in which C&W pioneer Jimmie Rodgers pairs off with jazz legend Louis Armstrong, the former's hickory-smoked vocals blending perfectly into the latter's raucous horn work. A modern undertaking of the same proportion -- say, Wynton Marsalis meets Garth Brooks -- would result in, at best, an overproduced clash of egos.
But this collection is more than a trip to the musical boneyard. These songs brim with an earthy immediacy. Red Allen's "Get the Mop" is a rowdy feast. Rev. JM Gates's creepy sermon "Somebody's Been Stealin'" would seem at home in either a church or a saloon. Lizzie Miles, meanwhile, sounds dangerously sincere when she croons to Jelly Roll Morton, "I Hate a Man Like You." And when Tommy Johnson sings, "I asked her for water and she gave me gasoline" in "Cool Drink of Water Blues," it marks one of the cruelest moments in music. This is one of the most welcome.