The following article and interview with Skip James biographer Stephen Calt was submitted by WFMU listener Brian Berger, and is exclusive to Beware of the Blog. Thanks Brian!
“They’re slick, but they can stand another greasing.” Thus Skip James on the two men who had recently discovered the 62-year-old Mississsipian and were now waiting for... what, precisely? James wasn’t even a forgotten figure, he was almost entirely unknown outside a tiny, fervent group of blues record collectors. He hadn’t been a professional musician for decades, yet his young white admirers were anxious to hear him perform and, hopefully, record again. James was rightly wary. He knew nothing of folk music or blues revivals. As for records, he’d made them before and not been well rewarded.
Nehemia “Skippy” James was 28-years-old when he arrived at the Paramount Records facility in Grafton, Wisconsin. James had come north by train, his ticket bought by a 36-year-old white man H.C. Spier, a talent scout and music store owner in back in Jackson. Spier sold a lot of records, almost all of them to blacks, so who had any better idea what new sounds might sell? James had impressed Spier at an audition and so off James went. In Grafton, James was under the aegis of another white man, 37-year-old Art Laibly. He was the director of Paramount, the once flourishing “race” label of New York Recording Laboratories; in fact, a confusingly-named part of a Wisconsin furniture manufacturer, the Port Washington Chair Company. Under Laibly’s supervision, James performed at least 18 songs— thirteen on haunting guitar, five on madcap piano; two were gospel, the rest secular— over the course of a few days. Foregoing flat payment in lieu of future royalties, James returned to Mississippi to await his greater fortune.
It was not forthcoming. Paramount was dying, crippled by the Depression and, although the label would release nine Skip James records—his nickname mistakenly truncated for posterity—before its 1932 demise, none sold well, not in H.C. Spier’s Farnish Street store for $0.75 each (more than $10 today) and not anywhere, for any price. By the time his music was again thought of value, James was gone, the Paramounts nearly unfindable. In the late-1940s, S.D. Records, a small Chicago jazz label, reissued James’ thrilling “Little Cow And Calf Is Going To Die Blues” as one side of a 78, backed with energetic St. Louis pianist Jabbo Williams’ “Fat Mama Blues”; hardly anyone noticed. Folkways released the three volumes of the Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952; no Skip James records were included— or, quite likely, even known— by compiler Harry Smith. Whatever the cultural echoes of the Anthology, an audience for Skip James’ music was not among them.
I t would be another decade before Skip James began to edge his way back into history. “Devil Got My Woman”— a guitar song— was included on Origin Jazz Library’s 1962 Really! The Country Blues lp. The title was somewhat misleading but at least it put James in some context that could be later refined. Two more of James’ Paramounts— one piano, one guitar— were included on a followup album, The Mississippi Blues: 1927-1940. Although 71-year-old John Hurt— startlingly rediscovered by a young white blues fan, Tom Hoskins, in early 1963— was already wowing all who heard him, James was pure cipher: “From somewhere in Miss. Dimly recalled by Johnny Temple, late 1930s bluesman” the liner notes speculated. The possible fate of Bukka White was more ominous: “Disappeared in early ‘40s. Rumoured stabbed to death in jail; also rumoured still alive in Chicago.” Neither scenario was true.
As blues enthusiasts Ed Denson and John Fahey would discover later in 1963, Bukka White— B.B. King’s first cousin, as it turned out— was alive and well in a Memphis boardinghouse. White was a garrulous a personality, and happy to have been found. In June of 1964, Fahey, now travelling in Mississippi with fellow guitarists Bill Barth and Henry Vestine, followed a series of leads to Tunica County Hospital. There he was: Skip James, convalescing after an operation to remove a tumorous growth on his penis. Oddly, James seemed neither surprised by nor grateful for the visitors and, after some small talk, the old blues singer observed "You must be pretty stupid. Took you a long time to get here." The following month, despite some reticence, James appeared at the Newport Folk Festival, thrust before an audience as uncomprehending of his life as he was unimpressed by theirs.
The final years of James’ life were ones of illness and hardship. The tumor removed in Mississippi was cancerous; first James’ penis was amputed, then his balls. There was, in fact, no great clamoring over the return of Skip James, although his recent recordings were generally well received by critics. Indeed, the greatest triumph of James’ return— both financially and in terms in of popular success—wasn’t entirely his, when an English rock group covered “I’m So Glad” on their 1966 debut album, Fresh Cream. Although James’ 1931 recording of the tune is a remarkable performance— his frantic guitar playing especially— its provenance was a sentimental dance song called “So Tired,” written by a couple of white guys in New York, George A. Little (words) and Art Sizemore (music). When Joe Greene and His Novelty Orchestra recorded it for Edison in 1927, the label called it a fox trot; so much for the “real” country blues. James died of cancer in Philadelphia on October 3, 1969.
From the time of his appearance at Newport until his death, Stephen Calt was a Skip James devotee, friend and— as much as this complex, difficult man was candid with anyone—confidante. I’d Rather Be The Devil (Chicago Review Press), first published by Da Capo Books in 1994 and unavailable for over a decade, is the unflinching, at times uncomfortable, story of a truculent blues legend, the young white blues scholar from New York City, and the exceedingly different worlds each knew before meeting. It’s a remarkable story that blows up all manner of musical myths like dynamite placed in a mineshaft, and James’ spoken manner is nearly as arresting as his music. Calt, for his part, received huge amounts of grief, including a libel suit (he won, and the disputed words, about James’ former manager, Dick Waterman, remain), but I take the author’s aggressive style as aptly reflecting James’ own authority and crankiness. Whether or not one agrees with all of Calt’s opinions, IRBTD is a lot of fun, and the essential conduit through which any understanding of the artistry of Skip James— musician, sport, pimp, preacher, laborer, sharecropper, evasive vagabond and brilliant enigma— must pass. Took a long time to get here, again.
Brian Berger interviewed Stephen Calt via e-mail in May and July of 2008.
Brian Berger: It’s been almost 15 years since the first publication of I’d Rather Be The Devil. Have their been any advances in blues research since then that you’ve found meritorious?
Stephen: I am not aware of any, but then again I haven’t kept up with the blues field for a number of years. The real age of fruitful blues research was the early-1960s-early 1970s, and it was a dearth of research back then that beckoned me to the field, and to Skip James. At that time I was acutely aware that time was rapidly running out on blues research.
Brian: To the extent most writing about blues and other American vernacular musics is still mired in aesthetic myth, not serious cultural history, are there any writers who, in your view, really don’t get it? Also, is there perhaps an “intellectual” corollary between this and the white paternalism you describe as being part of the blues/folk revival, i.e. some people prefer their own Authority to more complex historical realities?
Stephen: I think most writers on blues have been incapable of taking a detached or analytical approach to their subject, but have substituted appreciation for insight. There is also a lot of pretentiousness on the part of some such authors. I have in mind Greil Marcus, who recently (in an NPR interview) extolled Robert Johnson’s songs for having more “emotional impact” than Moby Dick. That is applying an absurd aesthetic standard— one applicable to soap operas— to literature. No work of art has the emotional impact of, say, a wrenching news item about a baby being pulled out of a trash bin.
Whatever one makes of their emotional impact (which never struck me as anything to rave about), blues songs lack appreciable intellectual content. To compare such formula-ridden, repetitive works or any other manner of song to literary classics—even the vastly overrated Moby Dick—is outrageous. It is simply part of the progressive dumbing-down of our culture, which now habitually construes commercial entertainment as serious or cerebral art.
Brian: The compact disc reissue of the Harry Smith assembled Anthology of American Folk Music in 1997 caused a mini-revival of interest in so-called “country blues” and other old-timey musics. Keeping in mind the limitations of Smith’s record collection, do you have any thoughts on the Anthology and how Skip James might have fit in there?
Stephen: I don’t think Smith’s anthology did anything to popularize blues to its 1960s consumers, who included myself. Judging from what has been written of it, it had more sway among folkie musicians. It certainly didn’t showcase many blues of note, though it did contain some gems from other genres, such as Dock Boggs’ “Country Blues,” and “C’est Si Triste Sans Lui,” a stirring example of Cajun music. Given the general anarchy of Smith’s compilation, which made categories of “Songs,” “Social songs,” and the like, Skip James (or any other rustic musician) would have fit readily within it.
Brian: One crucial point of your work seems to instigate a dialogue on art and commerce—especially with regard to how musicians themselves viewed the two. First, is it correct to say Skip James was unusual in his conception of self as an artist? Second, are there any “blues” or other musicians from the ‘20s and ‘30s you think similarly individual?
Stephen: To my knowledge, James was the only blues performer around in the 1960s who attached any artistic value to his own work. Certainly Booker (“Bukka”) White and Son House never did so. The fact that James did not have the disposition of an entertainer partly accounts for his assigning artistic importance to himself, and one can readily imagine Robert Johnson doing likewise, for the same reason. I think of James as an iconoclastic rather than individualistic blues musician— most blues singer-guitarists of note attained a similar individuality of sound.
Brian: There have been spirited disagreements over the merits of Skip James 1960s recordings. Are there any you find exceptional or do they all suffer comparison to the Paramounts? I know some listeners who say well, yes, James’ technique suffered but his art was still substantial.
Stephen: Since I was initially exposed to his Paramounts, I found James’ 1960s’ works wanting—even tepid--by comparison. Someone who first heard James on 1960s’ recordings would likely be less critical of them. The fact that James disavowed his 1960s’ musicianship by telling me he only played with his “thinkin’ faculties” rather than feelings makes me inclined to discount them, as he himself did.
Brian: Numerous self-styled “patrons” of the blues revival are taken to task in I’d Rather Be The Devil, including guitarist John Fahey, who’d later become an acclaimed artist himself, and, of course, be on the other side of the type of contract he— as a co-owner of Takoma Records— once offered James. In retrospect, how might have James’ business been better taken care of and do you think his treatment was worse than that suffered by musicians of both fringe and popular musics over the years?
Stephen: I did not portray James as ever having been swindled or short-changed by his commercial sponsors— I rather railed against some of them for acting as grubby opportunists in the process of posing as patrons of blues singers. That is a long way from implying that any such figures were malevolent. My main complaint was that they sought to enshrine him on their own obscure, insignificant labels, when he would have been readily accepted by Vanguard on the basis of his appearance at Newport in 1964. For an impoverished figure like Skip, who could hardly pay his rent, this was a terrible oversight. .
I was actually chary of taking John Fahey to task on any grounds, because I had a personal falling-out with him after becoming a Takoma artist and his road manager/confidante in 1973. I did not want to use my book as a forum for espousing some personal grudge. Fahey certainly had no complaint regarding the remarks made about him in the James book, which he went out of his way to recommend in his own memoir.
Finally, the blues revivalists who recorded James knew little or nothing about standard operating practices of the record industry, and did not themselves make a living within it. That industry has traditionally been run by brigands— [the important black jazz, blues and gospel record producer] Mayo Williams told me that a catchphrase of the 1920’s recording industry was: “Screw the artist before the artist screws you.” That attitude survived into the 1960s, if not beyond.. In the course of a family get-together back then, an executive from Atlantic Records who was a relative of a good friend of mine was asked how the company made its money. He replied matter-of-factly: “By cheating the artists.”
Brian: At a certain point, how important is it for a music writer or historian to have at least some facility in an instrument relevant to their field of study?
Stephen: That’s a most interesting question. There’s no magical formula that will give a person insight into music, and playing an instrument isn’t a recipe for making one musical, or perceptive about music. Blues literature abounds in quack musical claims, some of which have been forth by people who themselves had some standing as blues guitarists. David Hinckley of the New York Daily News has been an invaluable chronicler of neglected R&B singers, and I don’t believe he plays an instrument.)
Brian: You have another book coming, Barrelhouse Words: The Blues Dialect Dictionary: can you tell us about it?
Stephen: I actually began compiling a dictionary of idioms occurring in blues songs a full twenty years before turning my attention to Skip James— a less significant and, I think, less interesting, subject. Unfortunately, there was no publishing interest in such a project, at least as I presented it, and it fell by the wayside for some three decades. Its revival, owing to the encouragement of Ted Gioia (the author of a forthcoming blues book), has been a great consolation to me. With any luck, it will be published next year by the University of Illinois Press, which is currently copy-editing it. With even more luck, I’ll manage to find a publisher for another work that has engrossed me—a ground-breaking study of the Kennedy assassination that will be my claim to fame, should I wind up having one.
Kennedy assassination books are typically riddled with unsupported, far-fetched allegations. I have uncovered neglected evidence from the government’s own archives that actually incriminates other persons besides Oswald— something that has never been done. None of these figures is familiar in assassination lore.
Brian: Any favorite music of the moment, whether old or new, that you enjoy listening to?
Stephen: I have long had a fetish for arresting guitar music, which once drew me to blues. My favorite guitarist is Baden Powell, and I have an abiding love for Fernando Sor’s compositions. Advancing age has re-aligned (or perhaps atrophied) my nervous system to the point of making me receptive to classical music, particularly Chopin. When I can abide his insufferable pomposity, incorrigible name-dropping, tiresome allusions to the minor Tin Pan Alley talent that was his father, and his bizarre fixation on Frank Sinatra, I enjoy Jonathan Schwartz’s radio retinue of pop standards.
I listen to little or no blues these days. I do enjoy Henry Thomas, who displays unusual diversity as a dance musician in the blues field— there is something oddly affecting about him. Furthermore, he has more emotional impact than Greil Marcus’ tomes.
Brian Berger is a cultural historian, street photographer and the co-editor of New York Calling: From Blackout To Bloomberg (Reaktion Books, 2007). As a teenager he read LCD, even if he couldn’t always get a good signal out of East Orange. Check out his blog, Who Walk In Brooklyn.
Some Skip on MP3:
"Be Ready When He Comes" (MP3)
"I'm So Glad" (MP3)