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Author Topic: I'd Rather Be The Devil  (Read 7789 times)

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Offline Deacon

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I'd Rather Be The Devil
« on: January 20, 2004, 09:47:22 AM »
Folks,

Hope you all are enjoying an exciting and promising new year.?

I've seen several posts about Steven Calt's book on Skip James - most of them negative.? I'm just starting to read this book (been in my bookcase for a few years) and I'm curious what is it about this book elicits such strong responses.

I really enjoyed his (and Gayle Dean Wardlow's) book on Charley Patton (I admit I read this over 10 years ago and should read it again).

I know I don't have to say this, but, what's the story?

Cheers,

Deacon
« Last Edit: April 18, 2005, 02:49:45 PM by Johnm »

Offline uncle bud

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #1 on: January 27, 2004, 06:50:33 PM »
Deacon,

I enjoyed the Charley Patton book Calt did with Wardlow. The Skip James book seemed over the top. The tone of the thing is bitter and almost vengeful. I got the impression that if Skip James was as bad as Calt makes him out to be -- with questionable research and what seems at times to be flights of fancy -- that the two deserved each other. There seems to be an ambivalence in the book between expose of a murderous bastard (can't figure out how to do an accent on this friggin' Mac but that's expos-ay) and biographical memoir of a blues friend who at times thought of Calt as a son (!). Well, with friends like these, etc. etc.

Dunno, felt myself cringing reading the thing. I suspect Calt just needed a better editor to tone things down and that he didn't mean to be as vindictive as he comes across in the book.

Offline frankie

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #2 on: February 09, 2004, 06:33:10 PM »
Hi Deacon,

Having referred to it hyperbolically as 'excrement', I should probably explain:? Calt is an intelligent guy who wrote a book purporting to be about Skip James.? That would probably have been an interesting book.? Instead we are given a book that relates in some detail Calt's gripes with the blues scene of the 60's and the important personalities that shaped it.? That Calt himself does not emerge unscathed is, I guess, supposed to be an indication of the honesty and trustworthiness of the author.

The book left me wishing that someone would write a book about Skip James.

You should read it if you have it - I'll probably re-read it now that I'm thinking about it and see if I don't come away with a different impression.? It's a downer of a book on a number of levels, though.
« Last Edit: April 18, 2005, 02:50:44 PM by Johnm »

Offline Rivers

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #3 on: February 09, 2004, 10:32:31 PM »
It's an appalling read, I couldn't put it down. Sort of like a country blues version of Celebrities Uncensored but nastier. If you take it with a large dose of salt there's enough info and anecdotes to make it worthwhile. But it is pointlessly cruel and opinionated, yes indeed.

smokey

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #4 on: February 11, 2004, 06:11:16 PM »
I didn't know someone wrote a book on my cousin. Well, Skip is my cousin by marriage. He married Mississippi John Hurt's niece. John Hurt is my grandfather's brother. What's all of this about negative comments? I wish that I knew where I could buy some of these books. When I spent the week in Skip's house, I had the honor of using his bedroom and going over his songbook. Skip wrote his songs in a notebook in pencil.
















Offline Rivers

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #5 on: February 11, 2004, 09:21:29 PM »
Hey Smokey,

You can get it from Amazon, go in via the link on this page and weenie gets commission.

http://www.weeniecampbell.com/yabbse/amazon/amazon.htm

I'd Rather Be The Devil is at the bottom of the page.

Tail Dragger

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #6 on: February 20, 2005, 05:51:47 PM »
It's also easy to pick a subject who's not around to defend themselves.  I, too, picked up the Charley Patton book about 15 years ago.  I loved it, but noticed that Son House didn't have too many nice things to say about Patton.  It's a good thing he didn't write (dictate?) a book on Patton's life.

Tail Dragger

Offline dj

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #7 on: February 21, 2005, 03:45:35 AM »
I think there are two main complaints against Calt's books. 

First, Calt is writing biographies of men who are known to the world because of and primarily through their recordings, but in neither the Patton nor the James book does he include a sessionography or discography.  Actually, the Patton book does include a discography, but it's of reissues of Patton's music.  There's no place in the book where you can easily find a list of what songs Patton recorded, when and where they were recorded, and what 78s they were originally issued on.

Second and more important, in both books, Calt tends to magnify his subject's importnce by belittling those surrounding him.  Part of this is, I think, because Calt takes what people say at face value and doesn't do a lot of digging for deeper meaning.  So when Son House says that Willie Brown was a better guitar player than Charlie Patton, he's written off as being jealous of Patton's ability (while I think the real meaning of that statement is that Patton, with his tendency to cut or lengthen lines as the spirit moved him, was hard to play with, while Brown was much easier to accompany or to be accompanied by).  This tendency is especially a problem in I'd Rather Be The Devil because Skip James was rather acerbic by nature and his comments on people on the scene magnify Calt's own tendency towards seeing others in a caustic light.  Al Wilson gets off lightly at being called "a nerd" and a "chubby, slovenly guitarist".  The controversy at the time the book was published centered on Calt's treatment of Dick Waterman, who was James's manager after his rediscovery.  James apparently distrusted Waterman as much as he distrusted everyone else in the world, and Calt at times takes Skip's distrust of Waterman to the point of insinuating financial impropriety.               

With that said, there's a lot of good information in both of Calt's books.  Especially worthwhile is his treatment of Patton's music as dance music, with discussion of what dances one would do to various Patton songs.  We tend to look at country blues as performance or listening pieces and forget that when this music was originally played, people were out on the dance floor One Stepping, Two Stepping, Slow Dragging, or Shimmy-She-Wobbling (or dozens ot other dances) to it.  You just have to be aware of Calt's biases and shortcomings as you read.

bluedogshuffle

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #8 on: February 22, 2005, 06:16:09 AM »
I'll be honest,never read the book.I dont know to much about Skip James,just that I injoy his music greatly.Whether he was in trouble with the law,pippin,drugs,or what ever,remember one thing,he is one of THE GREATS country bluesmen! Most of what happened,seems after his recordings in 1930.Please correct me if I'm wrong. But if you where ripped off what would you do? Remember, as a black man in 1930's America.

Sliver

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #9 on: February 24, 2005, 06:12:34 PM »
i've been meaning to re-read it for awhile now...  (i won't say where i got my copy.  grin.)  but i remember enjoying it the first time around.  of course, i've never read any other blues biography, and i'm extremely partial to skip james in general, and, having a bad attidute, i also enjoy reading about one.  so...  grain of salt...

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #10 on: October 18, 2007, 03:18:28 AM »
Searching through Blues & Rhythm of the 1990s I chanced upon what follows from the news page in issue 98 (April 1995). I've attempted to spot if there was any follow-up/conclusion to this but have drawn a blank. Anyone know?

LIBEL ACTION: The following message was posted on the Blues-L Internet message board and passed onto us by our good friend Eric LeBlanc: Dick Waterman has filed a $3,020,000 libel action against author Stephen Calt and Da Capo Press regarding statements printed in "I'd Rather Be the Devil, Skip James and the Blues". The suit seeks $1,500,000 in compensatory damages, $1,500,000 in punitive damages, and $20,000 for illegal use of a photographic image. I have retained James Stephen King of the Bogatin law firm in Memphis, Tennessee. After they had been served with the notice of legal action, Da Capo Press responded that the suit has no merit, but they offered to consider a financial settlement. I refused their offer and DaCapo has retained the Memphis firm of Waring Cox to represent them in the state of Tennessee. That is the status of the matter as of 13 February, 1995.1 have been involved with blues music for over 30 years, and I have no choice but to vigorously fight for my integrity and reputation. l can only ask that people not form judgements about me based on this book. l invite your active interest in this legal matter because I intend to defend my good name all the way into the courtroom. There will be no financial settlement. Stephen Calt will be held accountable for what he wrote about me. Please feel free to give out my address and phone/Fax on the Internet. l would welcome every chance to communicate directly with anyone who wants to know more about blues music over the past three decades. Please note: B&R has no interest in this dispute other than to publicise Dick Waterman's request to communicate directly with people interested in the dispute.

[Now what was it I was looking for in the first place? ;D]

Offline banjochris

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #11 on: October 18, 2007, 08:34:46 AM »
I did a Google search for libel and the parties involved and found this posted on a writer's website who had reviewed the Skip James book at one time. He had a link to what he calls Waterman's description of the outcome of the suit. In Waterman's book "Between Midnight and Day" he mentions the libel suit without mentioning who he sued or any of the specifics, including the outcome, IIRC. But here's what was on the writer's site:

Posted Dec. 18, 1997, to the blues-l mailing list.

There has been periodical mention of my libel suit against author Stephen Calt and publisher Da Capo Books on Blues-L over the past several years.

I just wanted to tell you that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has refused to overturn the lower court's decision finding in favor of Calt and Da Capo.

In Calt's book, "I'd Rather Be The Devil: Skip James and the Blues," my name and reputation are trashed including the phrase, "He was roundly accused of being a thief."

I sued for libel, claiming that such a statement could never be proved to be accurate.

In depositions, the Da Capo reprersentative said they could bring forth no witnesses to substantiate their words. Calt said that he only heard the accusation on a second hand basis and when he heard it, he personally "did not believe it to be true."

The defense was successful in having me legally defined as "a limited purpose or vortex public figure" with the libel standards significantly different.

I attempted to prove to the Appeal Court that Calt's admission that he did not believe the statement to be true constituted "reckless disregard for the truth" but the court did not agree.

It has taken me over three years and a significant amount of money to allow this legal process to run its course. I have some bitterness that the result was not in my favor because I feel that people who do not know me will believe what has been written, even though both the author and publisher admit that they do not believe their own words to be true.

This message is intended to inform the members of Blues-L as to the resolution of the legal matter. It is not intended to launch any thread and I hope that you would not show any knee jerk reaction to come to my defense.

I am sorry that we were not able to bring the matter into a court room, given the significant number of older black men and women who were eager to testify on my behalf.

Dick Waterman

Offline poymando

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #12 on: October 20, 2007, 12:55:23 PM »
I re read this book recently and found it interesting. I'd also suggest John Fahey's piece about searching for (and finding) Skip  in his book of essays "How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life". There are some interesting reminicences in there about Bukka White and Ishmon Bracey as well.

Offline Stuart

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #13 on: January 26, 2008, 12:27:08 PM »
It looks like another press is bringing it out. Perhaps they'll reprint  the Patton book and other OP titles as well.

Doesn't Calt have a Robert Johnson book supposedly in the works?

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #14 on: January 26, 2008, 01:08:57 PM »
Perhaps they'll reprint  the Patton book...
Hmm. Will need to re-read to see how it's stood the test of time but it was published 20 years ago so probably could do with some updating. The sneering chapter which attacked all research not performed by the Dynamic Duo of Calt and Wardlow, wouldn't be missed by me!

 


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