Skip JAMES – The Complete Early Recordings (1930) 1994

Skip JAMES – The Complete Early Recordings (1930) 1994

Blues

This collection contains all the Skip James tracks released by Paramount records in 1931 in chronological order.

THE COMPLETE EARLY RECORDINGS by Skip James is one of the most essential blues albums in existence. With a voice that sounds like wind carving away rock (he sings in a high, quavering falsetto ringed with knowledge and pain), James laid down some of the most chilling acoustic blues ever set to wax.

“Devil Got My Woman,” which opens this collection, is a case in point: a snaking siren song that leads down to the root of loss and mortal dread (if that description sounds like an exaggeration, listen to the track). James’s deft, fingerpicking is everywhere in evidence, especially on the uncharacteristically ebullient “I’m So Glad.” The surface noise of these old 78s is a distraction, but even that can’t dilute the unbelievable power of these performances.
**
The eighteen songs presented on this CD may, if allowed, cause the listener to re-define their standards of what personal expression in music might be. Skip James’ music has been called strange and idiosyncratic. If these terms are adequate to describe sound that resists all attempts to pigeonhole and categorize, than perhaps they apply. These surviving sides, recorded in Grafton, Wisconsin, in 1931 (not 1930 as the title of this disc would indicate, the only flaw in this otherwise perfect presentation) show James as someone who chafed against existing musical idioms. Rather than subscribe to a pat or pre-figured means of communication, Skip James created his own unique means of expression through sound, depicting a unique world-view in an equally unique series of sonic vignettes, each one full of beauty and terror.
We have come to regard James as a blues musician, although very little of this music fits into the conventional blues idiom. This music embodies the sense of pain and the desire to transcend that pain that most blues music supposedly (but seldom actually) expresses. The songs address living with an unabashed intensity. They speak of surviving economic hardship, lost love, reckless living, and travel. They sometimes aspire to salvation, although this salvation always seems distant or chimerical. The world they articulate is one suffused with pain, joy and the threat of violence. In this, James’ music is a very distant cousin to Guns n’ Roses Appetite For Destruction, another group of songs founded upon a desire to live life in spite of extreme self-loathing.

To critique the audible surface noise present on the 78 source records is a bit like dismissing a Vermeer painting because the paint has crazed slightly in the centuries since it was painted. In some cases, Yazoo has used the only surviving copy of an original 78 as source material. Given these parameters, this disc sounds wonderful, especially when compared with other versions of these same recordings that have been previously available .

Skip has sometimes been compared with Robert Johnson – but their similarities are superficial, and comparisons between them most often stem from their common apocalyptic imagery and use of the Devil as an overt lyrical presence. Robert Johnson was a dance musician. His arrangements prefigured the band-driven sound of postwar electric blues. Skip James’ music is not for dancing – his rhythms are frequently changing within songs and even within measures. It is impossible to imagine him recording with other musicians – the very private and exclusive essence of his expression precludes collaboration. His entire being, as evidenced in his sometimes ethereal, sometimes in-your-face guitar and piano playing, was devoted to finding a personal course of survival in a world plagued on all sides by hardships.

If you open yourself to this sound, you may find the most personal and private of rewards. If the music is not enough, I recommend reading Stephen Calt’s provocative and engrossing biography of Skip James, “I’d Rather Be The Devil: Skip James and the Blues”
By Francis Flannery.
**
With an unmistakable falsetto delivery, Skip James created some of history’s eeriest blues records. His blues sounds dark and mysterious, using odd tunings, structures, and rhythms, and exploring gloomy lyrical themes. Unlike other bluesmen of the day, James’s music was personal and bleak, played for his own emotional release and not for purposes of entertainment. “Devil Got My Woman,” “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues,” “Hard Luck Child,” and “Special Rider Blues” convey sorrow and misery like few others can. Uptempo numbers such as the classic “I’m So Glad” and “Drunken Spree,” which resembles the hillbilly traditional “Late Last Night,” showcase his forceful guitar picking while rags “Little Cow and Calf” and the jumpy “How Long ‘Buck'” feature his unique piano work. By Marc Greilsamer.
**
An influence to Robert Johnson Skip James recorded 17 selections for Paramount in 1931 ( not 1930 as the title of the disc would indicate). His surviving works of this time demonstrate a masterful and unique style on both guitar and piano. Skip’s haunting delivery was created by his falsetto singing over a rhythmic and erratic instrumental accompaniment. The Depression suppressed his record sales and left him in obscurity until rediscovered in 1964. Illness curtailed Skip James’ performing career in 1968 and he died of cancer on October 3, 1969. As excellent as Robert Johnson is, his music is easy listening music compared to this!
**
01. Devil Got My Woman 3:02
02. Cypress Grove Blues 3:13
03. Little Cow And Calf Is Gonna Die Blues 2:55
04. Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues 2:52
06. Cherry Ball Blues 2:51
07. Jesus Is A Mighty Good Leader 3:02
08. Illinois Blues 3:05
09. How Long Buck 2:54
10. 4 O’Clock Blues 2:52
11. 22-20 Blues 2:52
12. Hard Luck Child 3:05
13. If You Haven’t Any Hay Get On Down The Road 2:55
14. Be Ready When He Comes 2:55
15. Yola My Blues Away 3:13
16. I’m So Glad 2:51
17. What Am I Gonna Do Blues 3:03
18. Special Rider Blues 3:03
**

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