Monday, June 23, 2008

The Devil, Skip James, and the Blues

I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues
By Stephen Calt
Chicago Review Press

Some bluesmen were born legends, never playing a false note throughout their uncompromising careers, if you believe the hagiography written about them. The truth is always more nuanced. In the recently republished I’d Rather Be the Devil, Stephen Calt gives an unvarnished depiction of the so-called “folk-blues movement,” the sycophantic blues fans who created it, the plantation system that gave rise to many “country” bluesmen, and even his subject, Skip James, which pretty much covers all the bases of a blues biography.

Calt developed a complicated friendship with James, recording hours of interviews with the musician. Evidently, James often made demands on Calt, coming to rely on his assistance, but probably opened up to the younger man more than he realized. It seems safe to say Calt was left with mixed feelings about the experience, writing of their fateful meeting: “Had I known how our lives would intersect over the next four years, I would not have initiated that initial conversation.” (p. 265)

The Skip James Calt describes was a man conflicted between the sacred and profane—a great bluesman (at least in his early years) and reasonably successful bootlegger, but an underachiever as a minister. Calt often suggests elements of hypocrisy in James’ “nihilistic Christianity,” described as a “vigorous, vainglorious exercise in self-deceit.” (p. 180)

Biographer and subject first met at the Newport Folk Festival. However, the term “folk-blues” is essentially a meaningless marketing term to Calt, describing the sort of dead-end coffeehouse gigs that booked “re-discovered” blues artists like James. Calt argues:

“By 1950, when Leadbelly died, it was clear what a folk singer was, as opposed to what was written about him. He was someone unemployable as a singer in any other context.” (p. 255)

The author is downright withering when examining the frequently patronizing and often avaricious behavior of 1960’s blues geeks. Calt does make a notable exception for James McKune, the eccentric record collector who largely shaped the aesthetic tastes that would be codified under the “country blues” rubric. However, his assessment of cult-musician John Fahey, who was responsible for re-launching James’s blues career, is particularly pointed:

“James was treated as a trophy of the tiny Takoma label, which had only one record on the market (by Booker White) and had been created with a view towards providing a forum for its founder John Fahey. It is doubtful that anyone in James’ retinue was even aware of the fact that the singer was capable of self-interest, or entitled to exercise it.” (p. 272)

The one aspect of the Skip James story for which Calt displays an unequivocal enthusiasm are his early recordings for the storied but short-lived Paramount label. Calt identifies James as unique in the blues field for his equal mastery of both guitar and piano (as opposed to a mere workmanlike doubling). Calt also suggests:

“James was able to add a loftier ingredient that gave his songs an ethereal quality: a sense of drama, all but absent elsewhere in the blues genre.” (p. 144)

One might speculate that writing Devil was somewhat cathartic for Calt. From online interviews it seems he does not consider the book to be as critical or ambiguous as it might read to others. Regardless, it makes for compelling reading and an interesting corrective to the many fawning blues volumes also on the market.