Skip James (1902–1969) was perhaps the most creative and idiosyncratic of all blues musicians. Drawing on hundreds of hours of conversations with James himself, Stephen Calt here paints a dark and unforgettable portrait of a man untroubled by his own murderous inclinations, a man who achieved one moment of transcendent greatness in a life haunted by failure. And in doing so, Calt offers new insights into the nature of the blues, the world in which it thrived, and its fate when that world vanished.
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I'd Rather Be the Devil
Skip James + the Blues
By Stephen Calt
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 1994 Stephen Calt
All rights reserved.
The Blues Singer
In the winter of 1931, a blues singer boarded a segregated Illinois Central passenger train in Jackson, Mississippi. He was a small, dark, figure with a laborer's brawny build and a face that was memorable chiefly for its blue eyes. He carried no luggage, except for a sixty-five dollar guitar that had recently been given to him by a local record store owner. In his pockets were thirteen dollars, expense money the same man had given him.
He had no idea how much he would be paid for the records he was scheduled to make, or how many songs he would be allowed to record. Almost nothing concerning the session had been explained to him by his sponsor, who had given him his train ticket.
The man had been north of Memphis only once, two years before, and he was surprised to see a well-dressed, light-complexioned black woman board the train at Springfield, Illinois with a white man, evidently her lover. He had never seen a mixed couple. In his native Mississippi, a black man could not glance at a white woman without risking the wrath of Southern whites; if a white man consorted with a black woman, he did so surreptitiously.
Noticing his guitar, the man asked him if he could play Am I Blue?, a popular tune Ethel Waters had introduced a year and a half earlier in a movie musical.
"I think so," Skippy James replied. After singing a verse, he completed the song with kazoo accompaniment Enraptured by his performance, the couple engaged him in conversation. When James explained that he was headed north to record for the Paramount label, the woman asked what songs he intended to record. She wrote down his address, and promised to buy his records.
A few moments after they concluded their conversation, the woman tapped him on the shoulder and handed him fifty cents. Silently, he snickered. Her lover was a wealthy Jew, he thought; he could have afforded a dollar tip.
At six o'clock the next morning the train pulled into Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In the station, James was startled to find himself hailed by a white stranger dressed in a business suit. As the man introduced himself as Art Laibly, the recording manager of Paramount, James wondered how Laibly had been able to recognize him. Together they rode an electric train to Grafton, a small town twenty miles north of Milwaukee. Laibly escorted him to a local hotel, where he was to rest before the session began that afternoon. Before leaving James, Laibly asked him how many records he could make. "As many as you want," James replied.
Soon James fell asleep. At eleven a bellhop woke him and took him to a cafe, where Laibly bought his lunch. As James ate, the 37-year old recording director explained the financial details of the recording session, offering him a choice between a deferred sales royalty and a flat fee for making records over the next two years. Believing that his records would sell abundantly, James decided to accept the deferred payment arrangement.
At one o'clock, he was taken to a nearby recording studio located on the second floor of a deserted factory. The room was empty except for an engineer and a tall, attractive black woman who evidently worked as Laibly's assistant.
A glance at the company's equipment satisfied him that it was "number one stuff."
Laibly asked him if he preferred to begin recording on guitar or piano. James replied laconically that it made no difference to him. Laibly suggested that he begin his session on a company guitar, which could accomodate twelve strings. As James tuned the instrument he marveled that it could hold a tone "just like a piano." In his mind, it was worth $350, far more than the five or ten-dollar instruments he was accustomed to owning.
After explaining recording procedures, Laibly gave him two mint tablets and a glass of whiskey, expedients the singer used to "scrape out" his throat At Laibly's request, he began playing the first song of his session, Devil Got My Woman. After he finished a couple of verses he was beckoned to the control booth by an engineer who asked if he had ever heard his voice on record. The song fragment, which had been recorded to test volume levels, was played back to him for his reaction.
Then the session began. At the onset of a flashing green light James would begin playing a song of his own choosing. He was to continue until he saw a red light, which meant that he was to complete the song after finishing the verse he was singing. When a song was finished, Laibly would ask him for its title. In some instances, he would be asked to repeat a song.
One of James' songs, a dirge-like, minor key lament, appeared to impress Laibly:
Hard times here an' everywhere you go
Times is harder than ever been before.
An' the people are driftin' from door to door
Can't find no heaven, I don't care where they go.
Laibly expressed surprise that James had observed the effects of the Depression.
By the late afternoon James had recorded over a dozen tunes, most of them blues. On the following morning, he returned to the studio and recorded a succession of piano songs. For these tunes, Laibly placed a board beneath his feet to enhance the sound of his foot-stomping. When Laibly asked if he could compose or rearrange a song about a gun, James thought for a few minutes and reeled off an impromptu tune:
If I send for my baby, and she don't come
All the doctors in Wisconsin, sure won't help her none.
And if she gets unruly, and gets so she won't "do"
I'll take my 22-20, I'll cut her half in two.
As he repeated the second verse, he pummeled the board beneath him with his shoe, as if to demonstrate the violence he intended to wreak upon the imaginary girlfriend.
After he had completed four piano songs, Laibly informed him that he had recorded more tunes than any previous Paramount artist. He spoke of holding another session later that year.
James left Grafton that afternoon with eight dollars in expense money given by Laibly, and a promise of receiving payment by mail when his records were issued.
He anticipated attaining immense fame from his records. In the meantime, however, he would resume the footloose life style one of his songs had commemorated:
You wake up, set out on a long ol' lonesome road
"I got to leave from here, catch the first freight train that blow."
"I never was in anything too long or deep: that's why I reckon they called me 'Skip,'" he once remarked.
His immediate plans were no more exalted than an appearance at a weekend house party in Jackson. As the weekend was a few days away, he decided to get off when his train stopped in Memphis. He made his way to a barrelhouse on North Nichols Street, in the city's black red-light district. As always, he counted on ready money by introducing himself to the owner as a musician and playing an audition tune.
In the middle of his performance a brawl erupted. At the sound of gunfire, he stopped playing, and walked out.CHAPTER 2
Jazz collectors who first encountered the records of Skip James in the mid-1940s regarded him as a primitive jazz pianist. It was not until the mid-1950s that they became recognized as blues classics by a small circle of record collectors who began to specialize in such music, which had been retailed in the South for black consumers and had received no contemporary publicity.
His records, issued in minute quantities by a company that was on the verge of going out of business, were rarities. Six or seven of them had turned up in the thirty years that followed his session. Beyond the fact that all of James' records had been produced at one extended session, specialists knew nothing of the circumstances that surrounded them. Because the defunct company that had recorded him had discarded its recording ledgers during the Depression, it was not known how many songs Skip James had actually recorded, or how many of his records the company had actually issued. Only a few copies of each surviving Skip James record existed; two of them existed in the form of a single scratchy copy. Their rarity and obscurity added to their appeal: a collector who owned a Skip James record could bask in a feeling of exclusivity.
His records were all the more treasured by early collectors because his sound was completely esoteric. Like the blues of other Southern guitarists of the era, they had no seeming connection with either popular music or the band blues of celebrated singers like Bessie Smith. Most collectors regarded popular music with contempt: to them, it was bland and formula-ridden. The blues of a musician like Skip James, on the other hand, spoke of solitary passion. Its meanings could only be surmised by modern-day listeners. There were no studies of such music; it had arisen, existed, and died unrecognized.
Except as a name on a record label, Skip James had no identity. Collectors were puzzled by his proficiency on two instruments: other recorded blues artists either played one instrument, or dabbled amateurishly on a second one. His voice, too, was a curiosity: sometimes he sang in an understated tenor, and sometimes in a lush falsetto. His guitar-playing had an almost eerie sound. As they listened to his records, collectors often wondered what kind of person he had been. One collector supposed that he had been deranged, so unworldly was his music.
Such fantasies were all the more rampant among early blues collectors because none of them had set sight on an actual representative of the early blues era. As human beings, blues singers were ciphers. The culture that produced them was similarly opaque. The records were like artifacts of a lost, uncharted civilization.
In the absence of tangible knowledge about their favorite musicians, collectors coined a catch-all label for self-accompanied blues guitarists like Skip James. The music was called "country blues," and the musicians, "country bluesmen." In the minds of collectors, these phrases became musical superlatives. They signified that the musician forged his own songs, without the assistance of songwriters, and devised his own accompaniments. The essence of country blues, collectors thought, was a staunch musical individualism.
Having invented a genre, collectors sought to introduce it to the public by reissuing their most prized 78 rarities in album form. Between 1959 (when the term "country blues" took hold among collectors) and 1962, anthologies called "The Country Blues," "Really! The Country Blues," and "The Mississippi Blues" introduced records by James and other obscure Southern blues artists.
One of those who embraced the small but rabid cult of "country blues" was a recent high school graduate from Meridian, Mississippi, Gayle Wardlow. Wardlow had originally been a country and western enthusiast. Partly because old blues records were readily found in his home state, he became interested in collecting them. By the time Wardlow immersed himself in blues, however, the music was defunct. His only memory of a living blues guitarist stemmed from his childhood, when he had seen one perform at a depot in Louisiana. Sometimes he wondered if this figure had been one of the men who made the records he collected.
Periodically, Wardlow "canvassed" for blues 78s in tumbledown shacks occupied by elderly blacks. The blacks who still owned records from the 1920s no longer owned phonographs and no longer listened to blues. Most of the records he unearthed were in unplayable condition. Occasionally Wardlow would ask older blacks if they remembered certain musicians. For the most part, the blacks he spoke to were uncommunicative. Often he could not tell whether they were evasive, or simply uninterested in blues. His perfunctory encounters with them were always strained and tense. In Mississippi, segregation was still the order of the day, and a white person was not thought to have any proper business visiting a black household. Whenever he pulled his car abreast a row of houses in a black neighborhood, Wardlow was afraid that some local redneck would notice him and take him for a civil rights worker out to register blacks.
Like a detective searching for suspects, Wardlow kept a list of likely Mississippi bluesmen: Kid Bailey, William Harris, Skip James ... All of them were biographical blanks. The most curious blank was Skip James, whom collectors esteemed as one of the two or three greatest blues artists of all time. For months Wardlow made inquiries concerning him in assorted Mississippi towns. For all of his efforts, he had nothing to add to the stark notation that appeared on the back of a reissue album:
Skip James ... No details. Said to have been from Louisiana. Was proficient on both guitar and piano. Present whereabouts unknown.
The notion that James had been from Louisiana had arisen from one of his own songs:
I'm goin' I'm goin'
Comin' here no more
If I go to Louisiana mama Lord they'll,
They'll hang me sure.
(If You Haven't Any Hay, Get On Down The Road)
Yet Wardlow believed that James and most of the country blues greats of the 1920s hailed from his native state. This conviction had been fostered by northern record collectors, who took it as an article of faith that because blues arose from the oppressed condition of blacks, the repressive state of Mississippi necessarily produced the most intense blues singers. Their reasoning was supported by the fact that some blues greats were actually from Mississippi: Bukka White, Charlie Patton, and Robert Johnson.
Although Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson had been dead for three decades, it appeared that some Mississippi blues singers who had recorded in the 1920s might still be alive, and able to resurrect their old music. In March of 1963, Wardlow was startled to learn that a northern blues enthusiast had just rediscovered a 1920s guitarist named Mississippi John Hurt in a tiny Delta town. The discovery had been not entailed any clever detective work or even persistence. In 1928 Hurt had recorded a tune called Avalon Blues that began:
Avalon's my home town, always on my mind
The enthusiast had merely looked up Avalon on a Mississippi map, and driven there from Washington, D.C. It turned out that Hurt had spent all of his seventy years in Avalon, working at assorted manual jobs. He had never been a professional musician and did not consider himself a blues singer. Because his brother was a local bootlegger, he first took the white visitor for a revenue man.
Hurt had since moved to Washington and resumed his career in coffeehouses. Despite his advanced age, he was able to play all of his old songs exactly as he had recorded them thirty-five years before. He was an easy-going, self-effacing figure who found a ready niche in what was called the "folk revival." He had even appeared on the Johnny Carson Show.
It grated Wardlow that a northerner had accomplished Hurt's rediscovery, and that blues specialists were primarily Yankees and Europeans. In the fall of 1963, he located his own Mississippi blues singer, Ishmon Bracey, after the mention of Bracey's name to an elderly black in Jackson had prompted the response: "Bracey buried my brother." Bracey had become a minister.
Except for John Hurt, who didn't consider himself a blues singer, Bracey was the first Mississippi blues singer from the 1920s to be turned up in his original environment. But nothing about the crass creature whom Wardlow called "Preacher" evoked the kind of purity that Mississippi blues were taken to represent. He had nothing interesting or significant to say about music, his own or anyone else's. He was preoccupied with his place in the blues pecking order, as enshrined in episodic jousting affairs between himself and whatever entertainers he happened to cross in his travels. His proudest achievement was his ability to make a crowd applaud for himself, rather than a rival blues singer. Instead of priding himself on his own recordings, he prided himself on his ability to copy hits like Tight Like That and Sitting On Top Of The World, which sometimes gave him an edge in such jousting affairs.
Bracey's values were those of a pop musician, written on a small scale. He was a shameless name-dropper who did not know that when he spoke of accompanying Louis Armstrong, the name of the fabled jazz great excited his discoverer less than that of an obscure blues singer.
It did not occur to Wardlow that some of Bracey's reminiscences were fabricated, as when he claimed to have been a companion of Blind Lemon Jefferson. He had sometimes gone to Greenwood to meet Jefferson, he said; then the two would tour the Delta. It would have been extremely difficult for Bracey to make any arrangements to meet Jefferson in such a fashion, and even more difficult for him to a company the artist's slapdash phrases. Although Jefferson had no need of any accompanists, the professional blues singers of the period had an incorrigible need to impress people. So it was that two other blues musicians, Josh White and Leadbelly, had concocted similarly unlikely stories of their association with Jefferson, who had been the best-selling bluesman of the 1920s.
Excerpted from I'd Rather Be the Devil by Stephen Calt. Copyright © 1994 Stephen Calt. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1. The Blues Singer,
2. The Researcher,
3. The Quarry,
4. Looking Back,
6. The Birth Of The Blues,
7. The Buck Rabbit,
8. The Young Sport,
9. The Bootlegger,
10. The Musician,
11. The Performer,
12. The Devil Woman,
13. The Songwriter,
14. The Murderous Music Cat,
16. Greatness At Grafton,
18. The Convert,
19. Devil Got Religion,
20. The Prodigal Son,
24. The Delta,
25. The Prospectors,
26. The Folk Movement,
27. The Fan,
30. The Sick Man,
31. Air Puddings,
32. The Age of Aquarius,
33. The Impostor,
34. The Barrel Of Crabs,
36. The Funeral,
37. The Burying Ground,
38. The Man Nobody Knew,
Transcription: Devil Got My Woman,
What People are Saying About This
This is the real thing. I drink up every word. This and Calt's life of Charlie Patton are the best books ever written on the subject of old-time blues. (R. Crumb, author, R. Crumb's Heroes of Blues, Jazz and Country)
An extraordinary work devoted to blues, and more specifically, to one of the true enigmas of country blues. (Lawrence Cohn, editor, Nothing But the Blues)
Intimate, learned, trenchant, chilling, and true . . . This work surpasses its task with comprehensive research and insight suggestive of far, uncharted travels. (Alan Greenberg, author, Love in Vain)