Agony Shorthand

Thursday, July 08, 2004

I can’t decide whether SKIP JAMES or CHARLEY PATTON is the single all-time great pre-WWII bluesman, but I do know that when someone wanting to get better acquainted with genius raw delta music asks me for my top CD pick, this is the one I always reach for. “1930: The Complete Early Recordings” is a bit of a misnomer – it’s Skip James’ complete pre-1960s recordings, period, which happened to all be laid down in Wisconsin during 1931, not 1930. With subsequent interpretations of the blues creeping off into a hundred different A-A-B-based directions, including the drunken white man’s beach party blues so common up & down the California coast, it’s easy to forget that there was once something that you could honestly call “the real thing” (as loaded as an expression such as that implies). Skip James’ eerie, dark and complex tunings and netherworldly falsetto have never been equaled nor adequately copied in 74 years. Now that’s saying something.

If you read up on James’ back story (such as in Steven Calt’s exhaustive and at times exhausting “I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues”), it quickly becomes pretty clear that the guy was a ne’er-do-well of the highest order. Killed a guy, hated everyone, you know. Luckily, he was also a virtuoso on guitar, and created the most mysterious, deep and heartfelt grim blues of all time. Two of the greatest sides ever are “Devil Got My Woman” and “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”, both of which should be mandatory study in music programs around the world. It’s the guitar numbers that fascinate the most – there is just no comparing the intricate and yet simple textures James was able to pull off with anything else. The songs of early blues heroes like Patton, Robert Johnson and Robert Wilkins sound like dancefloor rave-ups when stacked against these and other killers like “Cherry Ball Blues” and “Hard Luck Child”. On the piano, James was not delicate nor mysterious at all – his playing was stuttered and fast, something rushing forth in staccato bursts that suggest supreme agitation or even anger. It’s probably safe to say there’s a little anger in the piano-led “22-20 Blues”, in which he fantasizes about shooting dead a philandering paramour. James often fancied himself an avenging angel, and spent many a day cursing those who’d wronged him, as well as other musicians who he felt might be in any sort of competition with him. He happened to be one of the first original delta bluesmen discovered by the rock hoards in the early 60s, and his “I’m So Glad” was covered with much fanfare by Cream. I can’t even listen to that 60s comeback stuff, his live records and whatnot – James sounds like a shell of the man who made these 18 recordings in 1931, and it’s almost a complete tarnish of his genius to even compare the three-plus decades’ interim material to what came first. Better to stick with this complete package and give praise that someone kept the machines rolling in Grafton in 1931.