Skip James, for the love of God

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No thread on Skip James, the spookiest and most original of the *Delta bluesmen? Just about to read Calt's biography of the man, which I hear is controversial and somewhat bitchy (author hated Fahey, apparently), but it's the only full length work on the subject, so here I go. Anybody read it? What's your favorite of the bad man from Bentonia's recorded work?

(*A misnomer, I think - iirc James was actually born in the Delta)

If Assholes Could Fly This Place Would Be An Airport, Wednesday, 8 June 2011 02:57 (seven years ago) Permalink

Fahey's brief bit on James in "Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life" is fairly scathing--suggesting that James was a narcissist and a crank. But who's to say for sure. I'd like to hear what you think of the Calt book; I haven't read it, but I'd buy it if I saw a copy used on some table somewhere. Favorite? Cherry Ball Blues maybe.

one dis leads to another (ian), Wednesday, 8 June 2011 06:11 (seven years ago) Permalink

Narcissist and crank can be good things for musician to be. "Devil Got My Woman" probly my favourite. Dude had the most amazing voice.

aka best bum of the o_O's (Noodle Vague), Wednesday, 8 June 2011 07:13 (seven years ago) Permalink

Dude had the most amazing voice.

stunning. at this remove, it's hard to care much about what kind of person he might have been. the music speaks for itself. 2nd "devil got my woman", but this too:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytVww5r4Nk0

And the piano, it sounds like a carnivore (contenderizer), Wednesday, 8 June 2011 07:33 (seven years ago) Permalink

i dug that woman's grave, eight feet in the ground
and i didn't feel sorry till they laid her down...

And the piano, it sounds like a carnivore (contenderizer), Wednesday, 8 June 2011 07:35 (seven years ago) Permalink

two weeks pass...

Just finished the Calt book. I may read it again. It's extremely cynical - not quite a hatchet job, but you come away with the impression of Skippy as little more than a misanthrope and a hustler. Calt also repeatedly refers to Son House as a little more than a drunken delinquent, and is FAR too unkind in his estimation of the great Jack Owens (who he calls a 'derivative amateur' - ouch). He also skewers others I don't care much about (like Johnny Temple, Alan Lomax, John Fahey, Al Wilson, the entire 'folk' movement and, err, Peter Paul and Mary) who, unlike Owens and House, all seem pretty worthy of the scorn for their myriad crimes. He refers more than once to James as 'too much of a plantation darkey' to trouble himself with civil rights issues. Ouch again. The tone is sarcastic and bitchy throughout, but the book is extremely well written and very informative (even going into great detail about things like the so-called "Bentonia tuning" and meticulously breaking down the structure of "22-20 Blues"). Pretty indispensable to anyone with even a passing interest in this stuff, I'd say.

If Assholes Could Fly This Place Would Be An Airport, Sunday, 26 June 2011 03:42 (seven years ago) Permalink

Calt also repeatedly refers to Son House as a little more than a drunken delinquent

I don't think that's an uncommon characterization. Have you seen that Howlin' Wolf documentary where Wolf just clearly has no patience for Son House being all slobbery drunk?

something of an astrological coup (tipsy mothra), Sunday, 26 June 2011 04:01 (seven years ago) Permalink

what kind of freak writes a detailed book on a subject he despises

people are posting on the internet moonship (Edward III), Sunday, 26 June 2011 04:04 (seven years ago) Permalink

I don't think that's an uncommon characterization. Have you seen that Howlin' Wolf documentary where Wolf just clearly has no patience for Son House being all slobbery drunk?

I have - but, in his prime, the man was every bit the innovator and musician Wolf was

what kind of freak writes a detailed book on a subject he despises

lol. Calt clearly has a deep love and appreciation for the music, even now, but yeah, it gets a little smear-y.

If Assholes Could Fly This Place Would Be An Airport, Sunday, 26 June 2011 08:35 (seven years ago) Permalink

I guess I kinda assume old blues dudes were nasty drunks

the beta banned (upper mississippi sh@kedown), Sunday, 26 June 2011 14:24 (seven years ago) Permalink

been meaning to pick up this book for some time and finally did cuz of this thread, thanks for bringing him up.

i've been trying to learn to play some of skip's stuff recently. just piecing it together clumsily from various recordings. its tricky cuz a lot of it seems to be neither major nor minor key, or maybe i should say, exhibits shadings/biases toward both simultaneously and...just really cool and fun stuff to figure out. i'm really interest to see how the book goes into that.

really love the stuff already mentioned in the thread. as well as washington d.c. hospital center blues, hard time killing floor blues, all night long, all of it really! there wasn't another one like him.

arby's, Sunday, 26 June 2011 15:01 (seven years ago) Permalink

he's amazing. haven't really heard too much of his "comeback" era stuff, but the yazoo disc of his 30s recordings is up there with any great 20th century american music. what's interesting to me about skip is that he considered himself a musical genius, no modesty about it. would be kinda interested in reading a bio, but this one sounds like a downer.
arby's, are you using alt tunings for skip's stuff? isn't most of it in bizarro tunings of his own invention?

tylerw, Sunday, 26 June 2011 18:54 (seven years ago) Permalink

apparently comeback stuff was stitched together from multiple takes as it was hard for him to get through a whole song without some mistakes. did i read this in calt's book or elsewhere?

by another name (amateurist), Sunday, 26 June 2011 19:03 (seven years ago) Permalink

some of the tunings for s. james's songs appear to be common in the bentonia area, see e.g. jack owens who was contemporary of james and played certain songs in a very similar way.

by another name (amateurist), Sunday, 26 June 2011 19:03 (seven years ago) Permalink

that isn't to discount james's artistry or anything, it's just an interesting wrinkle. for all we know james pioneered the "bentonia style" but there's some evidence he was picking up on some local traditions that had been around..

by another name (amateurist), Sunday, 26 June 2011 19:04 (seven years ago) Permalink

yeah, i guess i assume that james wasn't quite as original as he claimed -- he had to come from somewhere.
love his piano playing too.

tylerw, Sunday, 26 June 2011 19:07 (seven years ago) Permalink

is there a compilation of bentonia-style blues out there? haven't heard too many of the other people in that scene.

tylerw, Sunday, 26 June 2011 19:12 (seven years ago) Permalink

arby's, are you using alt tunings for skip's stuff? isn't most of it in bizarro tunings of his own invention?

― tylerw, Sunday, June 26, 2011 1:54 PM (3 hours ago) Bookmark

i've mostly been stuck on hard times killing floor which i'm playing in an open D minor (which i then pitch the record player to match exactly cuz the version i use most seems to be a few microtones higher or something. maybe it's a half-step idk i can't find my capo). it's taking some time cuz 1) he seems to do things just a little differently in different versions of the song (or even shuffling it a bit between verses) and i'm sort of stringing it together all ADD-like between them all. then 2) i've mostly just played with a flat-picking style until now so a lot of it is just exorcizing those dead digits until they're useful and responsive and getting the correct notes is only coming gradually with every bit of progress there.

arby's, Sunday, 26 June 2011 22:38 (seven years ago) Permalink

sold my copy of king of the delta blues singers. why?

people are posting on the internet moonship (Edward III), Sunday, 26 June 2011 23:16 (seven years ago) Permalink

there are radio sessions of skip james from the 60s, not distinguished stuff but I don't recall it being especially shambolic either. all the accounts make him sound odious even by the standards of some of his murderous contemporaries, but you can tell that just by listening to him

ogmor, Sunday, 26 June 2011 23:23 (seven years ago) Permalink

tyler, this is the one you want:

http://www.amazon.com/Must-Have-Been-Devil/dp/B000003OR0/

by another name (amateurist), Monday, 27 June 2011 03:01 (seven years ago) Permalink

The book discusses how the so-called 'Bentonia sound' - like the term 'country blues' - was an invention of white blues collector types. No one who actually played that stuff described their music this way.

The book discusses where Skip stole a lot of his stuff, namely from an unrecorded dude called Henry Stuckey. He also stole from old ragtime and pop hits (like his "I'm So Glad," which is a pretty direct rip off, melodically and lyrically speaking, despite it being one of the most amazing songs ever recorded).

For modern Bentonia sound, though, Jimmy Duck Holmes (on Fat Possum) is said to be carrying the torch. There's also this white dude I like called Mississippi Gabe Carter, though some of you more purist types may not dig him much (there's as much Black Keys in his sound as there is Skippy James - but he's plenty spooky).

IMO the Skip James 'comeback' material is largely dispensable.

If Assholes Could Fly This Place Would Be An Airport, Wednesday, 29 June 2011 11:37 (seven years ago) Permalink

and second amateurist's recommendation - that album rules

If Assholes Could Fly This Place Would Be An Airport, Wednesday, 29 June 2011 11:38 (seven years ago) Permalink

The book discusses how the so-called 'Bentonia sound' - like the term 'country blues' - was an invention of white blues collector types. No one who actually played that stuff described their music this way.

well, yeah, but that doesn't mean that there wasn't a style peculiar to the area around bentonia--just that folks living there hadn't named it.

by another name (amateurist), Wednesday, 29 June 2011 12:59 (seven years ago) Permalink

True - I always thought the so-called 'Bentonia sound' was just open Em (or, the same tuned down a whole step, which would mean arby's is spot on with his tuning), making it more forlorn sounding than standard blues of the period.

Anyway, read the book, everybody! It's definitely worth it.

If Assholes Could Fly This Place Would Be An Airport, Wednesday, 29 June 2011 13:26 (seven years ago) Permalink

Anyone read this? Looking for something to follow up the Calt book...

http://www.amazon.com/Preachin-Blues-Life-Times-House/dp/0195395573/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1309364658&sr=1-1

If Assholes Could Fly This Place Would Be An Airport, Wednesday, 29 June 2011 16:26 (seven years ago) Permalink

six years pass...

skip James just digging into his now - guess you only really need the 1931 recordings they sure sound spooky

clouds (peanutbuttereverysingleday), Tuesday, 10 April 2018 08:02 (six months ago) Permalink

I knew Steve Calt and I interviewed Jack Owens for the James book. If there is a "Bentonia style," it's simply Skip James' style, which Owens copped--by the time I talked to Owens in the '90s, plenty of white people had gone down to that part of Mississippi and wanted the real info on the blues and so forth. The way Skip played on the 1931 records is entirely a function of how he tuned his guitar and his use of big open fifths, etc. Bentonia is not large enough to have a style associated with it. I've come to enjoy Skip's '60s stuff--as Steve said, Skip had lost some of his guitar facility and his originality (after all, Skip had been laid up in a hospital with cancer when the blues acolytes found him), but not as much as Calt claimed. I think Calt's book is cantankerous, of course, but he's right about the basics.

eddhurt, Wednesday, 11 April 2018 05:02 (six months ago) Permalink

some of skip's 60s stuff is pretty great — definitely not as dazzling as the 30s recordings, but some deep performances for sure.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=klGgTySgA4I

tylerw, Wednesday, 11 April 2018 15:41 (six months ago) Permalink

Yeah, I think Calt way overstates the decline in Skip's playing in the '60s. I think he still had it, and his singing was always incredible.

eddhurt, Wednesday, 11 April 2018 17:08 (six months ago) Permalink

The Insect Trust's version of "Special Rider Blues" on their '68 album is choice, one of my favorite covers of a blues tune ever.

eddhurt, Wednesday, 11 April 2018 17:11 (six months ago) Permalink

His Today album from is from '66 is pretty great imo, it has a really booming Hard Times Killing Floor Blues on there.

calzino, Wednesday, 11 April 2018 17:16 (six months ago) Permalink


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