by Michael Goldberg
Monday October 22, 2001
The Spooky Blues Of Skip James
Mystical, otherworldly sounds from the '30s.
The voice is high, not like other blues singers. To hear it, you have to listen past the static, past the surface noise. This recording, made in 1931, was copied from a 78. Some "audio restoration" was attempted before it was put on the CD I bought some years ago the restoration was not successful. Or perhaps it was what you hear is the sound of a 78 that wasn't well cared for. From beyond the grave, Skip James sings "Special Rider Blues," sings about the woman who left him. "I got no special rider here. I got no special rider here."
In 1931, at age 29, Nehemiah "Skip" James made some of the most amazing blues recordings you will ever hear. One of those recordings, "Devil Got My Woman," appears on the "Ghost World" soundtrack, belatedly released on Shanachie. If you've seen the movie, then you know. And if you don't, well....
This music, this old music, this distinctly American music, keeps calling me. It has been calling me since I was barely a teenager. As I listened to "Devil Got My Woman," I realized for the first time that this song, retitled "Devil Got My Man," was one of the songs by the mid-'60s San Francisco old-timey rock band The Charlatans that I once heard on the radio when I was 13 or 14 years old, a song I had really loved. Last year, I bought a CD collection of songs The Charlatans recorded and, again, dug that song. Yet until the other day I'd never looked at the songwriting credit. (Skip James wrote another song that I dug as a kid: "I'm So Glad." I grew up on Cream's rock version; James' own version is, as you should expect, a revelation.)
Listening to the guitar-playing on "Devil Got My Woman," I feel I'm hearing the purest form of the blues. The playing is so natural, James' touch so right. Every note feels right. It's likely that every chord change, every riff, has been copied again and again by those who came after him. His playing is so sad, so mournful you can hear the pain of being left behind. And then there's that voice. It's like hearing the wind sing the blues.
Complete Early Recordings
Moved by "Devil Got My Woman," I pulled out my copy of Skip James' Complete Early Recordings on Yazoo. I wanted to hear that spooky original version of "Special Rider Blues." Later I listened to Today!, the album James recorded in 1965 after being rediscovered as part of the '60s blues revival. There's a great version of "Special Rider Blues" on that one too.
People tend to dismiss the recordings James made in the '60s. "Avoid the inferior recordings he made after being re-discovered by blues enthusiasts in the 60's," writes "Ghost World" director Terry Zwigoff in his liner notes to the "Ghost World" soundtrack. But then Zwigoff, in those same liner notes, dismisses Björk like this: "This modern pop music is almost impossible to parody it's a parody of itself. (C'mon, how're you gonna parody Björk?!)"
Zwigoff has good taste when it comes to blues and jazz; the recordings he included on the soundtrack are quite amazing. But I think he and the others who've dismissed those mid-to-late-'60s recordings James made are mistaken. (As he is regarding Björk.) They're damn good. They're also quite different from the mystical work James did in the early '30s as a young man who influenced Robert Johnson!
An Influence On Bob Dylan
When I bought the "Ghost World" soundtrack the week before last, I also bought a wonderful box set titled "The Definitive Charley Patton" on England's Catfish label. It consists of three CDs 58 recordings for about $20. You know, sometimes when I buy a collection like this I feel like I'm getting access to the secrets of the universe for less than the price of one decent dinner out.
I had started thinking about Charley Patton after reading a piece in the New York Times about Bob Dylan's Love and Theft, which includes a song titled "High Water (For Charley Patton)." As you may know, in 1929, two years before Skip James would record the songs that would secure his place in history, Patton began recording at age 42. Two of the songs he recorded that year were "High Water Everywhere Part One" and "High Water Everywhere Part Two." He died five years later. Seventy-two years later, Bob Dylan recorded and released a song inspired by him.
The access we have to priceless work of these and other blues legends amazes me. For, perhaps, $200, one can acquire some of the best work of Patton, Johnson, James, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin' Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb.... This music is like a special water that you can only get from one well. But if you go to that well, you will find that water, as rich and clear as it ever was. And if you drink it, perhaps use some to wash your face and hands, your life will be enriched in wondrous ways.
I don't seem to find that much written about the blues these days, particularly in music publications that cover popular music. There are many reasons for this. Most of the great bluesmen are gone. Most of the great recordings were released long ago. Occasionally, when a box set is released, an editor can rationalize a review. But with new albums to cover by hot artists that audiences really care about, such as Slipknot and Nickelback, you can understand why editors consider it indulgent to devote space to dead artists such as Skip James or Charley Patton. Right?
Me, I'll just cue up a track on James' Today! and listen as he sings, in "Cherryball," "When she left me, she left tears in my eyes."