It is really unfortunate that this particularly profound blues record is gradually becoming more and more forgotten. This is a crime, due to the fact that the legendary bluesman Lonnie Johnson gives one of the most venerable, emotionally performances ever put to tape, both in terms of his vocal performance and his nuanced electric guitar work. Not only that, but this album was recorded in the legendary New Jersey studio of jazz recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, who was an endlessly tasteful and hard-worker. Although Lonnie was mainly a blues player, he had deep roots in jazz guitar, and it was obvious in his playing here, as he utilizes a lot of elegantly strummed jazz chords in addition to the never-ending love of improvisation that is eternally ingrained in any true jazz and blues musician. Keep in mind that this album was one of the first comeback albums for Lonnie Johnson’s musical career after he had been working as a janitor for the past couple of decades since the Great Depression hit. In the 1920s’ and 30s’ Lonnie had been one of the most innovative and prolific jazz and blues guitarists, even being part of Duke Ellington’s band at a point, but unfortunately wasn’t able to afford being a musician once he was affected by the Depression. Blues and Ballads is nowhere near the gritty, greasy urban blues that is just as representative of the blues genre, for Blues and Ballads approaches a strictly pastoral, intimate, and ethereal stance on the blues.
Only three players were present for the sessions at Van Gelder’s studio: Lonnie on electric guitar and vocals, Elmer Snowden on acoustic guitar, and Wendell Marshall on upright bass. It starts off with “Haunted House”, a Lonnie original that truly showcases his vulnerable delivery on both vocals and guitar. The lyrics seem to point towards the intense grief experienced after the loss of a loved one, and how that same grief can impair the sufferer’s life, trapping him inside his own house, constantly “haunted” and unable to leave. The liner notes described Lonnie immediately breaking down in tears after the recording session for this tune, and apparently most of the other songs on this album were intensely personal statements from Lonnie that had him in an extremely emotional state.
This is made all the more apparent considering that the second track on the album is entitled “Memories of You”, and features Lonnie in an even more explicitly mournful mood than on “Haunted House”. Elmer Snowden and Wendell Marshall compliment Lonnie with a near telepathic grace, Elmer playing very elegantly rhythmic acoustic chords, shimmering alongside Lonnie’s gentle electric guitar playing, while Marshall provides discrete walking bass lines throughout the entire duration of the album. There are three instrumentals on the album which do showcases the improvising talents of all three musicians, and really brings out the jazz background of Lonnie. He prominently displays his signature singe-string soloing, every second of which is beautiful and never gets overplayed. There is only one cover song on the album, the standard “St. Louis Blues”, which proves to be the only semi-upbeat song on the album along with the extremely suggestive “Jelly Roll Baker”. Lonnie Johnson is truly one of the real bluesmen, because every note he sang and played convinced the listener that he really lived and breathed the blues.