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I love blues but I'm not going to let it ruin my life - Steve James, Blueprint interview

Author Topic: I'd Rather Be The Devil  (Read 7877 times)

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Offline Stuart

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #15 on: January 26, 2008, 03:11:25 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!

I'm no fan of the general nastiness that pervades both books. Critical evaluation is one thing, but...(you know the rest). However, given the limited number of copies that are available in public libraries and the going price in the used book market, availability at a fair price is the point I was speaking to.

I'm sure there are those who would argue that scarcity is preferable to availability, but I'm in favor of letting the reader judge the merits of each book for him or herself.

Offline Rivers

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #16 on: January 26, 2008, 03:55:59 PM »
The Skip book is probably the one blues 'bio' that should have been allowed to fade into obscurity IMO. I will probably sell truckloads because of the controversy it created, here and elsewhere. I agree with Frank's comment above, I was left wishing someone would write a book about Skip James, not about Skip's interface with the blues revival.

I hope they republish the Patton book though. That one is a much less flawed classic and I loaned mine out in a fit of 'you must read this' and never got it back. Probably it's so good because Charley had the good luck to die many years before anyone thought about writing a book about him. That would have eliminated a number of distracting and irrelevant details.

Offline doctorpep

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #17 on: February 18, 2008, 09:04:57 PM »
So, I just got done reading Stephen Calt's biography on the man. It is available in paperback form on Amazon.com, for those who are interested. Overall, it's a book that's bitter towards James and white blues enthusiasts. I am scared and disgusted by what I read about James. Are Calt's research and conclusions legitimate? I am shocked by reading about how he was a paranoid, schizophrenic, woman-hating, homicidal, suicidal, delusional maniac. I wonder if Calt has a personal axe to grind and if James was just a bit eccentric, and not a murderer. I'm sure many of you have read this book, so I'm very curious about your opinions. If you haven't read the book, I'll tell you just a few examples of Skip's supposed insanity: Calt says James constantly carried a gun, killed men on levee camps and sawmill camps, fired randomly into a crowd that was dancing at his short-lived club and killed an unknown number of people, only got into Blues music to be a pimp, slept with and used hundreds of women, considered himself a religious Christian but believed heavily in witchcraft (perhaps this is common of black southerners during the time), was heavily paranoid and thought that everyone was always plotting his downfall, was an egotistical prick who thought that he was "one of the best men to ever walk the earth", mistreated his wives, never mentioned having any children though it's likely he had many, talked about how children should be beaten, advocated police brutality, did a tremendous job, in a totally calculated charade, of deceiving the Blues revival audience by pretending to be interested in his young white fans, inventing his own secret script, having almost no friends throughout his entire life, seeing scorpions in his stool as he lie on his deathbed, and, finally, as Calt theorizes, committing a federal offense (murder) in Louisiana and hiding it from Calt. I was shocked after reading this book. I'd love to hear everyone's take!
"There ain't no Heaven, ain't no burning Hell. Where I go when I die, can't nobody tell."

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Offline banjochris

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #18 on: February 19, 2008, 02:09:19 AM »
First, I'm sure many of the things you listed here were perfectly true of James, particularly having old-fashioned opinions about the role of women and child discipline and the Christian/witchcraft thing. Given that the milieu James was playing music in as a youth was extremely violent, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he had killed someone; look at the number of blues singers of the same era who did the same thing: Booker White, Leadbelly, Son House (although I don't think his was murder), etc. Also, considering that the "respectable" vocational options available to James would have been pretty much limited sharecropper/levee worker or preacher, pimp might not seem such a bad alternative. Jelly Roll Morton also was reported to have taken up this profession, and Son House and Charlie Patton both came pretty close to it, according to the Calt/Wardlow Patton bio.

Calt theorizes that James' criminal secret wasn't murder, but robbery, perhaps bank robbery. (Murder isn't a federal offense, but bank robbery is.) He also theorizes that James' florid vocabulary came from reading the dictionary while in prison, which I think is a bit of a stretch. At one time James obviously cared about his own education, and if the white banjoist Dock Boggs (who by his own admission once beat one of his own brothers-in-law "nearly to death" and nearly murdered at least one man) could by a book of etiquette to study I don't think it's far-fetched that James, in a similar environment, could have learned a lot of non-vernacular words.

I think James may have exaggerated some of his statements too; I believe he even cautions Calt at one point about taking things at face value. Calt was an impressionable young man (12-17 in the time he knew James, if I remember right) who clearly looked up to James; it would be understandable if James wanted to tell him exciting stories. I do like that Calt goes out of his way to deromanticize the world of blues, but I think the James book (and parts of the Patton bio as well) reveals a lot more about Calt than it does Skip James.

In the final analysis, though, there's the music. I don't think it's possible for a person to be, essentially, a sociopath, and produce music of genuine emotion and integrity. Even Calt, who is extremely (and unwarrantedly) dismissive of James' music of the 1960s, recognizes much of his pre-war work as genius; Calt also admits that James himself recognized the worth of his music. If James was an emotionally empty, hateful shell of a man, or had become that way over the years, then why get back into music at all? It would have become clear to him quite quickly that the money wasn't going to be great. Something made him create music, and later in life persist in music, and I don't think that that something jibes fully with Calt's portrait.

Chris

P.S. Mentioning Dock Boggs reminded me of this lengthy essay that accompanied the Folkways re-issue of Boggs' 78 rpm records. A lot of Boggs' and James' music seems to me to come from a similar emotional place, and there's a lot in this particular essay about a "rediscovered" musical career and artists' motivations that might be germane here. Here's the link:

http://www.folkways.si.edu/resources/pdf/SFW40108_notes.pdf

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #19 on: February 19, 2008, 08:16:55 AM »
Quote
I don't think it's possible for a person to be, essentially, a sociopath, and produce music of genuine emotion and integrity.


Take a look at those two proto nazis Wagner and his father in law Liszt. While some of the very best people who ever lived were also great artists, like Van Gogh, most were of average ethical standing and some were monsters, Caravaggio for example. Emile Nolde wanted to be the OFFICIAL artist of the nazi party. They labeled him a decadent and forbade him to paint anymore. I wish there was a direct correlative between great art and great souls but I haven't found it yet. On the other hand all things being equal at least artists enrich the world by their efforts, sometimes.
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977)

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Offline Johnm

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #20 on: February 19, 2008, 08:45:17 AM »
Hi all,
Since there was already a thread devoted to discussion of Skip James and Stephen Calt's book on him, I merged Dr. Pep's new thread into the old one.
all best,
Johnm

Offline doctorpep

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #21 on: February 19, 2008, 02:47:01 PM »
Thank you, Johnm. In regards to Skip's playing during the 1960s, although I'm not a musician, I think that Skip James' 1960's recordings are perfectly fine. Though he had lost a lot of his guitar playing prowess (mainly in the speed facet, right?), his songs were extended, his vocals sounded better, and he was able to cram more great lyrics/verses into his songs, as a result of their aforementioned extension in length. I don't understand why Calt says in his book that "Lorenzo Blues" was a piece of crap that was heavily edited by the record company. The song sounds great and compelling to me. The only evidence I can find of James' musical ability being greatly decreased is on one of Document's Skip James concert cd's (I'm not sure which city), on which Skip attempts "Special Rider Blues" for about a minute and is totally unable to play it, and sort of laughs it off. He talks to the audience in a warm and not condescending manner. Son House's guitar playing abilities were also greatly reduced during the 1960s, but his voice and ability to rattle off awesome lyrics were just as great as ever. So, I think Calt greatly exaggerates Skip's musical flaws during the 1960s. I am also not fond of his calling the Dallas String Band's "So Tired" a banal piece of music; I think it's a beautiful recording. After reading the Willie McTell biography, this book totally shook up my view of the men who created this music. The McTell book presented its main character as a warm, kind, bright man who knew how to work within a racist environment and never expressed hatred towards anyone. If I could name any Blues-related book that's the exact opposite of that one, it'd be Calt's work on James.
"There ain't no Heaven, ain't no burning Hell. Where I go when I die, can't nobody tell."

http://www.hardluckchild.blogspot.com/

Offline banjochris

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #22 on: February 19, 2008, 02:53:56 PM »
Quote
I don't think it's possible for a person to be, essentially, a sociopath, and produce music of genuine emotion and integrity.


Take a look at those two proto nazis Wagner and his father in law Liszt. While some of the very best people who ever lived were also great artists, like Van Gogh, most were of average ethical standing and some were monsters, Caravaggio for example. Emile Nolde wanted to be the OFFICIAL artist of the nazi party. They labeled him a decadent and forbade him to paint anymore. I wish there was a direct correlative between great art and great souls but I haven't found it yet. On the other hand all things being equal at least artists enrich the world by their efforts, sometimes.

I didn't mean that one couldn't be evil and create genuine art, I meant that one couldn't be a sociopath, completely devoid of real human emotion, which at least to me is how Calt paints the latter-day James. And to doctorpep, I agree completely with your post above (plus I think that James breaks a string during that particular "Special Rider," which is why he ends abruptly and laughs).
Chris

Offline CF

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #23 on: February 19, 2008, 03:57:39 PM »
For some reason Skip's sixties output often receives lukewarm reviews. The Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings rates several of his sixties albums low. I only own 'Devil Got My Woman' but think it a pretty outstanding record.
Stand By If You Wanna Hear It Again . . .

Offline banjochris

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #24 on: February 19, 2008, 04:48:21 PM »
For some reason Skip's sixties output often receives lukewarm reviews. The Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings rates several of his sixties albums low. I only own 'Devil Got My Woman' but think it a pretty outstanding record.


I remember reading the Rolling Stone Record Guide years ago and it gave "Skip James Today" and "Devil" 5 stars. I think they're both great albums.

Offline Rivers

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #25 on: February 19, 2008, 05:54:48 PM »
I think you're just reacting to the book in the way that everybody else does. A lot of what Calt said in there has been shot down here and elsewhere. [edit:Almost...] ...nobody in a position to know what was going on at the time has a good word to say for the book. It's like it was written while in a prolonged bad mood after experiencing some life-invalidating slight or other, you know how these blues researchers are (right Bunker?  ;) ). The consistent attribute throughout is lack of human compassion for anybody whomsoever. As a result I for one don't believe a word of any of the commentary, outside of the known record.
« Last Edit: February 19, 2008, 08:52:08 PM by Rivers »

Offline uncle bud

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #26 on: February 19, 2008, 07:17:15 PM »
Re. Cheapfeet's comments about the Penguin Guide. I concur. As much as I respect the work that these 5 or 6 (!) guys did in reviewing all these CDs, some of which I frankly wouldn't wish on my enemies, I think they get it very wrong with regards to Skip's postwar output. As I have posted elsewhere on this forum, it was indeed views like these, not limited to the Penguin Guide or Calt's book, that kept me away from Skip's postwar recordings for years, and I am of the opinion that these folks are just plain wrong and doing potential listeners a disservice. I say this despite having great admiration for the accomplishments of the authors of the Penguin Guide, which covers an astonishing amount of ground, with lots of information and a significant amount of great humour and wisdom.

While some aspects of Skip's guitar playing may be viewed as "diminished", for the most part I find his postwar recordings to be hugely valuable and very much comparable to his prewar recordings. The sound is wonderful, his singing is wonderful, his playing is frequently wonderful, the extended versions of songs wonderful, the different versions of songs wonderful - and who gives a shit if he can't play I'm So Glad as fast as he used to. I defy anyone to listen to All Night Long, as played on guitar (he also did it elsewhere on piano), from the Biograph CD and not come away thinking that's a masterful performance. There are a lot of postwar recordings to choose from, so there are inevitably going to be some dogs - he's out of tune, he flubs a tune, he breaks a string, he's not as committed in this performance, blah blah. Compared to Son House's 1960s recordings, Skip James is a freakin' Segovia (apologies to the Son House cult, but really). We should be so lucky to have actual prewar country blues artists like Skip James recording so much material at such an accomplished level after 30+ years of negligence.

I really resent such opinions of Skip's postwar music, since they kept me away from some truly wonderful versions of his songs for years.
« Last Edit: February 19, 2008, 07:29:39 PM by andrew »

Offline banjochris

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #27 on: February 19, 2008, 07:31:21 PM »
I'd even argue that Skip's singing on many of his postwar recordings far outstrips the singing on the 78s.

Offline Stuart

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #28 on: February 19, 2008, 07:37:22 PM »
I completely agree with Andrew. I purchased the Vanguard LPs in the late 60's, and even long after the earlier sides were finally released in their entirety, the Vanguard LPs have stood the test of time for me--some of my favorite music.

Re: Calt's book, John Fahey, who was acquainted with Skip James as many of you are aware, wrote that it was an accurate portrayal of him. That was Fahey's opinion. So I guess Rivers should revise his post to read, "...almost nobody...," but only in the interest of accuracy.  ;)

I also agree with Chris' post. Some of the cuts are clearly superior, IMHO.
« Last Edit: February 19, 2008, 07:40:38 PM by Stuart »

Offline Rivers

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Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil
« Reply #29 on: February 19, 2008, 08:49:22 PM »
Noted Stuart, and amended accordingly. Fahey was in on the rediscovery with Barth. Wasn't there some kind of switcheroo that occurred thereafter WRT management? Please don't make me read it again...   >:(

Agree with you Andrew, the postwar stuff is excellent, those guys were talking through their collective hats.
« Last Edit: February 19, 2008, 08:53:47 PM by Rivers »

 


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