Skip James was a liar. He was also a thief, a drunkard, a pimp, a womanizer, a misanthrope, and a murderer. Oh, and one thing more: a brilliant blues artist.
That pretty much sums up Stephen Calt's I'd Rather Be the Devil A Skip James and the Blues, an insightful biography of one of the most trenchant musicians to ever put voice to wax. What made James so remarkable, in addition to his eerie falsetto and his mastery of both guitar and piano (he recorded solo on both instruments), was his singular and unhappy vision of the world he lived in.
Despite regional popularity in the 1930s, James remained all but hidden for the better part of three decades. In fact, the trio of young men who were to track him down in the early Sixties had a devil of a time ascertaining his whereabouts, partly because of the local mistrust of white outsiders, but as much because no one seemed to really know.
Calt became as close a friend as one could become with the enigmatic and suspicious James upon the bluesman's rediscovery, and the bulk of the author's information comes from hundreds of hours of taped conversations and personal recollections. Even with this personal bond, Calt's book is unflinching, flaying James's soul bare and hauling him out to the woodshed when his version of the truth doesn't measure up. (And he liked James.) Calt is equally unforgiving of those he judges to be mere opportunists or pretenders, from unscrupulous blues figures trying to make a buck off young white enthusiasts to beatniks, folkniks, and even blues-revival godfather Alan Lomax.
Many white blues fans might see themselves spanked hard by Calt's plank: "One of the reasons James's playing eroded was because the fawning attitudes of white blues fans made it unnecessary for him to put any real care or effort into his musicianship. He could readily count on receiving the same plaudits whether he played capably, or atrociously, performed in earnest, or merely went through the motions." However, the author saves his strongest vituperation for businessmen such as Dick Spottswood who Calt accuses of bilking James out of royalties on Cream's hit remake of his "I'm So Glad" (James collected only between $6000-$10,000).
The biographical information is riveting if spotty in James's early plantation years, following his travels through the Mississippi Delta, his 1931 recording sessions, his obscurity, and his subsequent rediscovery. James's tales of the crude and violent logging camps where he worked as a young man explain much, particularly one episode where he cold-bloodedly shot a man (six times) to death.
Calt attempts to plumb the depths of the bluesman's psyche, putting James's occasionally hateful behavior into context: "Had James been more fond of himself," Calt writes, "no doubt, he would not have had such reflexive severity with others. He was an egotist without an ego." Life was brutal for James, a proud and sensitive man living under the unbearable conditions of Jim Crow. His bitter outlook, Calt points out, was symptomatic of his situation, and a defense mechanism he used to cope with his lot. James looked down on those around him, particularly other blacks; he saw himself as a white man trapped inside black skin. Other musicians were simply competition, and James would admit to few influences or name players he admired: "That there was such a thing as another voice worth hearing -- in any musical genre A or an instrumentalist worth hearing -- did not occur to him." Calt of course knows better, and attempts to piece together the various sources of James's musical education.
Calt also accomplishes broader statements about the social context of the blues, with well-researched chapters about blues and religion A a dichotomy that was to haunt James up to his unpleasant demise in 1969 A and the dangerous nature of singing the blues for a living. (Blues singers were a notch below pimps on the social strata, Calt asserts, and their often violent deaths at the hands of jealous boyfriends of flirtatious women usually passed with little or no protest.) Further, the author explodes several myths about the origins of the music, its role in the black community, and the attitudes of those who played it: Most were not professional musicians as we've come to know them, but rather farmers or field workers who played for their own amusement or at "house frolics" for a few bucks or free liquor. That anyone A particularly whites A would be interested in their music 30 years after they had recorded it was a stunning revelation to older blues players, many of whom hadn't touched a guitar in decades (James hadn't played significantly for twenty years before the 1964 Newport Folk Fest appearance that was to bring him his greatest recognition).
Unfortunately, Devil bogs under the weight of technical and musical minutiae, of interest to musicologists and what Calt would term "blues nerds" only (and of course to avid James fans; these are the only areas of the biography that require close and careful listening to his records for full appreciation). However, you can safely skim these parts without missing anything crucial. The book really takes wing during James's reminiscences and Calt's first-person accounts of his original meeting with the bluesman and the Sixties scene (which is saved for the last quarter of the book); it is here that the writer-blues enthusiast displays the most passion, and one wonders how much better Devil would have been if he had put this information up front, and then unspooled the historical scenes.
Like any writer, Calt imposes his own critical standards. He denigrates James's Sixties output to the extent that one would think it unlistenable. It was much further from banal than Calt would have readers believe A James's late-period songs have the spooky resonance of one who knows the end is near. Perhaps without the mystery of the scratchy old 78s from the Thirties he so eloquently writes about, Calt could find little to recommend the bluesman who had so stirred his imagination.
One other gripe: There are so many egregious spelling and typographical errors that you needn't be a copy editor to spot some of them. Did the folks at Da Capo Press employ a copy editor? A proofreader? Don't they have a spell-check on their computers? Da Capo should reprint Devil, and give it the attention it deserves. As is, it's an embarrassment to all concerned.
That major complaint aside, this often spellbinding history of Skip James and the world that shaped him is necessary reading for anyone with an interest in the blues and its origins.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.