Stephen Calt, Skip James, and the Blues

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In the 1950s or 60s some whites became mystical about the musical form blues, finding it an unusual sort of sound, considering it a voice of all African-Americans, and so on. Stephen Calt was one of those people, and later collaborated on a biography of Charlie Patton, and wrote one himself about Skip James, whom he’d personally known. But by the time he came to write these books he had become disillusioned with the whole blues phenomenon. Why was this?

One reason that the whites listening to blues weren’t really listening, and were getting excited about music that wasn’t really that good. This may have been especially true of the white collectors who branched out from jazz, beginning in the 1940s to begin collecting blues records, and became more interested in the most obscure recordings rather than the most plentiful, never considering that the most obscure blues musicians might have been obscure because they weren’t very good.

At the same time, the two people Calt considered to be among the best, especially among early blues musicians, Patton and James, were obscure to most people. If they heard their music, they didn’t notice it was of higher quality than most.

Calt suggests that blues began from one particular song: Roll Jordan, by Charles Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, because of its rhythm pattern. Most recorded blues musicians used this pattern by rote, and few were able or willing to innovate. Patton and James were among those few. Patton with guitar playing of higher standard than the usual, and James unusually playing both piano and guitar well.

Calt punctures the idea of blues as mystical or the voice of a whole people. In the black community blues was considered devil’s music, and blues musicians really spoke only for themselves in their lyrics: they were generally mean and self-centered, very interested in sex, but not in romance. Most of those who got recorded weren’t some representative of a particular community, but professional musicians, using their recordings to advertise themselves and make more money performing. Skip James characterized blues musicians as a bucket full of crabs: if any one got close to climbing out of the bucket, others would pull him (or her) down. James epitomized this himself. He’d observe other musicians, trying to learn anything he thought he could use, but rarely tried to teach anyone anything.

Why were blues musicians this way? A majority came from broken homes and were alcoholics. Generally dysfunctional people. Patton was a successful musician for 25 years or so, and had a lot of women, as musicians often do, but treated them badly. James was from the following generation, and became a blues musician, Calt suggests, because that was practically a prerequisite for becoming a pimp. He made most of his money from pimping and bootlegging (though he also did his share of physical labor), so music was a professional sideline for him. But he never would have gotten as good as he did if it hadn’t meant something personal to him.

Calt questions why he waited so long to record. It had been suggested to him in 1927, a time when a lot of solo guitarists were being recorded because of the success of Blind Lemon Jefferson, but he wasn’t interested at that time. He said he’d been in the hospital, but he didn’t much like hospitals in later life. Whatever the reason, when he finally did record, in 1931, he was really ready and delivered some masterpieces.

Must Have Been the Devil, 22-20 Blues and I’m So Glad were three of them. Robert Johnson plagirized 22-20 Blues in his own 32-20 Blues, used the motif of Must Have Been the Devil for his own Hellhound on My Trail, and Cream much later covered I’m So Glad. In Calt’s opinion James couldn’t have developed further as a musician without going outside of blues. That’s not what happened, though.

First, James had picked a bad time to record. The country was in the depths of the Great Depression, so his records didn’t sell, and it may be just coincidence that any of them survived for collectors to discover. He made very little money from them, so there wasn’t much incentive to record again, even if anyone had wanted him to.

Second, he ran into his father, who had left his family when he was very young, and had become a successful minister, with a theological school in Texas. James tried to impress his father by playing blues (his father had once been a blues musician), but didn’t. He decided to go to Texas and attend his father’s school.

This was an odd decision, as James was most drawn to criminal enterprises, having little good to say about any other line of work. He considered gamblers to be “progressive”; few others would describe them that way. And he habitually carried a gun, and said everyone knew he was willing to use it.

So going to his father’s school might have been a way to comfortably ride out the depression, but it didn’t fit well with the rest of his life, and he doesn’t seem to have made  a U-turn at the time. He still played blues fairly often to pick up some money, but he also seems to have been impressed with Christian doctrine (though he never behaved in a particularly Christian way, even during that time), and he was intimidated by his father, though he made a point of being intimidated by almost no one else. In Calt’s opinion, this part of his life turned him away from blues because he became convinced being a blues musician would send him to hell, though he also characterized himself as “…one of the best men who ever walked.”

So it was quite ironic that he became one of the rediscovered blues musicians in the early 1960’s, along with Mississippi John Hurt, Son House and others. This time became another source of Calt’s dis-illusionment: he saw the people who had discovered these musicians using them to make money, with little concern for the musicians’ welfare. Several of them recorded albums, few of which sold very well, and performed concerts. James got booked into coffeehouses, where he couldn’t make much money, and where few were interested in his music. The one time he played a college concert he did much better, but there were no further attempts to book his concerts in colleges.

But the other source of Calt’s disillusion was James himself. At the time Calt was most interested in learning to play guitar as well as James and finding out more about his music and about other musicians he was interested in whom James might have met. But James didn’t want to give guitar lessons, and he wasn’t interested in other musicians. He was interested in himself and his philosophy of life. That, he liked talking about, and though Calt might not have payed a lot of attention at the time, those conversations gave him plenty to think about later.

He found that James had been a violent man, always carrying a gun or knife, and ready to use them. He’d had sex with a lot of women, but had cared little for most of them, considering them willing to betray him, as he was willing to betray them. He rarely put anything personal into his lyrics, but in one song he said that if he went to Louisiana he’d get hanged for sure. This might have been just a random line, but he’d frequently told Calt he’d never visited Louisiana (though he’d traveled through most of the rest of the south) because of the racism there. On the other hand, he’d mentioned some landmark in Louisiana, indicating he HAD been there after all. Why was he at such pains to deny it?

Calt thought later that James was rarely willing to tell much about himself because he had things to hide. In one incident he’d begun telling Calt a story that he’d told before, and Calt reminded him of it. He said it was the only time he’d seen James seem at a loss, or even afraid, and suspected James was wondering what else he might have said that he’d forgotten.

James could rationalize his violence against people as self-defense, but Calt thought he’d committed crimes that he considered crimes: maybe armed robbery, for instance, and that enemies he frequently talked about might have really existed, since James had not been a nice person.

It’s curious just why Calt became so disillusioned, though. He had heard something in blues, something that interested him enough to lead him to analyze the music and research the musicians and their lives. Was whatever he’d heard in the music been imaginary?

We all want our heroes to be heroic, but many have feet of clay. Charlie Patton and Skip James were great musicians, but not great people. That tends to be true in any line of endeavor. Greatness in one area doesn’t often lead to overall greatness.

And musical sophistication isn’t the only measure of musical worth. Keith Richards described the musicians he listened to as the Rolling Stones were getting started, like Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reeed, as producing songs of only one or two chords, that might at first seem boring, but when they were over you wished they weren’t. That’s something different from musical sophistication in any ordinary sense. The musicians Calt turned away from inspired a lot of young English musicians in the 196os, and a number of them were musicians of a pretty high order. You or I might not be able to hear blues with their ears, but perhaps they could hear things most of us couldn’t–maybe even Stephen Calt.

It’s as if Calt’s later distaste for blues was really a distaste for the whole human condition. Blues musicians often lived a sordid lifestyle, but they also got hold of something in blues that was powerful. That they were tempted to misuse this power isn’t particularly surprising. It’s not like they were the only ones. Black ministers were notorious for having sex with women in their churches, and it’s not as if whites were particularly more virtuous, especially in that time and place.

Calt says James spoke out to him about the Jim Crow system, but he never left the south, as several of the other rediscovered musicians did. He didn’t object to the system when he had an in with the boss, as he often did in his moonshining career. He was a violent man, but discreet enough to direct his violence at blacks instead of whites. Otherwise he might well not have survived, since whites weren’t exactly shy about being violent against blacks. Not in Mississippi.

James liked to think himself a good man, but when he was dying he had little to be proud of. He’d never raised a family, he had few if any friends. He believed in Christian doctrine, but didn’t behave the way Christians are supposed to. The only thing he seemed to have to be proud of at death was his excellence as a musician, and that his version of I’m So Glad was better than Cream’s.

He told Calt that he had more to tell him, but he wasn’t sure if Calt could take it. Calt was at a loss, since James had already confessed a number of shocking things. He thought about the persona James projected, and what he’d learned about what was beneath the surface, and thought about some of the curious aspects of James’s history.

It came to him that James hadn’t wanted to record in 1927 because he didn’t want to advertise where he was, probably because he was doing things he knew to be criminal in the eyes of the law, and in his own eyes too. He was able to rationalize shooting at people (and probably killing at least some of them) as self-defense; these other offenses he couldn’t rationalize, so he may well have had the enemies he often talked about. So, Calt says, he wondered just who Skip James was, and how much he had refused to reveal. The last sentence of the book is, “I’m still wondering.”

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