Sunday, February 20, 2011

I Would Rather Be the Devil - Skip James

There is something profoundly true but not immediately obvious in Kurt Cobain's lyric "I miss the comfort in being sad" (Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle). The sense of being victimized, of being the wronged party is very validating because it is self-vindicating. But the sadness of commercial pop-music stems from the narcissistic self-pity of a people who are used to getting what they want, an expression of loss from the privileged. I don't mean to discredit anyone's feelings here, but for more profound and immediate content, I find that there is no better place to look than the Blues, especially from the Pre-War period (after all, it is called the Great Depression) before the genre became commercially viable.

I'll save you the long history of Skip James because I'm not a music historian and I would just be repeating a lot of what you can find at the Skip Wiki, but here is an abridged version to pique your interest. Even non-fans of the Blues have frequently heard of Robert Johnson whom, while amazing to hear and incredibly influential, was predated by Skip. Johnson even got some of his licks from his predecessor, adapting some of the latter's songs for his own use.

These early recordings are entirely unique. Skip plays both guitar and piano and sings in a voice almost unnatural, unlike anything you've ever heard. Easily my top Pre-War Blues album of all time.

The Complete Early Recordings

Like many of the early bluesmen, Skip recorded a few songs when he was young and then disappeared for several decades until he was "re-discovered" in the 1960's by a bunch of white kids who were making some racket called rock "music". Although he generally disdained attention and publicity, he was in financial need, and recorded a number of albums in the late 60's just before his death. While cleaner production-wise for obvious reasons, they feature the same trademark Skip sound as before, only with a little more God thrown in.

Devil Got My Woman 

Studio Sessions

Between 1962 and 1966 as Skip was dying of cancer he toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival to play shows with other now legendary Blues and Jazz performers. A number of the performances in Germany have been compiled onto a DVD set which features some amazing performances both on and "off" stage by Skip and other greats. Above Skip performs for Howlin' Wolf (far right foreground) and Son House among others. Below is an onstage performance of Crow Jane.

You're welcome.


Deep Space Jah said...

I thought you were exaggerating when you said I've never heard anything like his voice before. Welp, I stand corrected.

The Goodkind said...

Yeah, it's practically spooky, I sometimes still catch my breath when I hear Skip. Glad ya liked it.