Stephen Calt and Skip James


As of some twenty years ago, Stephen Calt could still appreciate some of the great recorded performances of blues from the 1920s and 30s. He had been a blues fanatic as a teenager and young man, but had become disillusioned with the genre, the older blues musicians he’d met, and the young white blues enthusiasts who took advantage of them.
The blues he traces back to a hymn by Charles Wesley (founder of the Methodist church), Roll Jordan. “The building block of the blues is the four-bar phrase divided into two unbalanced parts: a ten-beat vocal phrase, followed by a six-beat instrumental phrase. It is this unvarying phrase, repeated three times, that makes for a twelve-bar blues, and is the unique insignia of the form, removing it from the realm of spirituals or any other song form.”
Calt goes on to say that, although it’s surprising that one song should inspire a whole genre, neither white nor black had much tradition to draw on in the early 19th century. The Star-Spangled Banner, he says, was based on a German drinking song.
There was another difference between spirituals and blues. Spirituals took an obligatory happy attitude. Blues did not, probably partly to differentiate them from spirituals, partly because the singers were nomadic, and frequently in need of help. Calt suggests that the attraction of the blues was that they depicted life as it was, which spirituals did not. Lyrics by the traveling singers would often be about how miserable they were to attract handouts. Blues lyrics in general were usually not very original; they existed as a sort of pattern from which could be borrowed any line that would fit a particular song. Musicians borrowed from each other constantly, instrumentally and lyrically.
Many of these musicians, as shown by surviving recordings, were barely competent, but there were a few musicians who transcended their genre, at least occasionally. Charlie Patton and Skip James, both of who Calt has written about, were two of these.
Calt met James at the Newport Folk Festival of 1964. Calt was a young white blues fanatic. James had recently been discovered in Mississippi, and was to perform in the festival, along with two other recent rediscoveries. James took a liking to Calt, and Calt’s book, besides piecing together James’ life, tells about their friendship.
James liked to monopolize his conversations with Calt, talking about anything that passed through his mind, mostly his attitude towards life. He didn’t care for discussions, and said little about what interested Calt: how he made his music, and what other musicians he had met. Calt does record that he and Muddy Waters seemed to recognize each other at Newport, and that Waters didn’t seem pleased.
James had little interest in, or respect for, other musicians, even when they influenced him, like Little Brother Montgomery, perhaps the best blues pianist of the time. James was unusual in playing both piano and guitar at a high level.
He had recorded a number of songs in 1931, which had sold very little, as it was during the Depression. Among these are some of the greatest recorded performances of the era: Devil Got My Woman, 22-20, I’m So Glad, and Special Rider. Ironically, he quit trying to musically improve not long after that.
His father had left him and his mother when he was very young, and had become a minister. His father had some musical talent, writing and singing songs, and James happened to meet him shortly after his recording sessions. He played some songs for his father, perhaps hoping to impress him. His father’s response was to suggest he give up blues and come to Dallas, Texas to become a minister. After some thought, James decided to do so, not so much because he had been converted as because he thought it would be a comfortable place to sit out the Depression. He did eventually become ordained, but never had a career as a minister. He also never played music on the level he had again, perhaps because his father intimidated him as virtually no one else had. He may also have been deterred by the black fundamentalist belief that the blues was devil music, and that he’d be punished after death for having played it.
This view by the black community was probably because blues musicians in general were bad role models; usually alcoholics and misogynists, if not outright criminals. James fit this category comfortably.
Part of the blues lifestyle was pimping. Musicians generally had women who would give them food, money, and clothes, often managing this by becoming prostitutes, though sometimes by working on a plantation. James never depended exclusively on music for his income, but supplemented manual labor with pimping sometimes and bootlegging others, usually protected by a plantation owner.
Danger was another part of the blues lifestyle: playing at plantation “frolics” or jukehouses musicians often attracted women, whose boyfriends or husbands could get displeased. Few would care if a blues musicians turned up dead because of that. James early began carrying a gun, and was virtually never without one. He often told Calt how ready he was to use one, and how often he had in the past. He was shy on details, but left a strong impression that some of his encounters had left people dead or severely injured. Calt also quotes a lyric from one song, in which James sings that if he goes to Louisiana, he’ll be hanged for sure.
After James died, in 1969, Calt began putting things together from their lengthy conversations. James hadn’t recorded in the late 1920s, when he’d had a chance to, and when he might have sold a lot more records. James had said he hadn’t been ready to record, and that he’d been in the hospital. Calt began to wonder if he hadn’t been wanted for a serious crime, and reluctant to advertise his whereabouts. He also wondered how James had become so skillful on piano (he had never owned one), and wondered if he might have had access to one in prison.
James had traveled all over the Deep South, but denied ever visiting Louisiana, supposedly because it was too racist. But Calt remembered him mentioning having been in a Louisiana town. Had he done something in Louisiana for which the statute of limitations had not run out?
James generally approved of pimps and other types of criminals. Although he talked the fundamentalist rhetoric, he didn’t behave in a “Christian” way. He had little concern for anyone but himself. He couldn’t relate to the civil rights movement, seeing no use in voting. Though he was an angry man, he thoroughly accepted segregation in the South, merely looking for powerful white men to protect his bootlegging operations. He once remarked to Calt, “I don’t expect you to treat me like a white man.” After signing a contract with a well-established record company in the 1960s he decided that his wife wasn’t good enough, and took up with another woman whom he considered higher class. Ironically, he was less comfortable with her than his previous wife. His life in many ways was one in which he’d made himself miserable through poor choices.
James was in poor health and unable to make much of a living after being rediscovered. Part of the reason was because he was booked exclusively on the coffee house circuit, and didn’t know what to make of the white audience he played for. Calt thought he would have been better served to have performed for college audiences, where he could have had larger audiences and made more money.
But another reason he didn’t do well was, Calt speculates, because he was making a deal with God. He accepted the idea that blues was devil music, and didn’t want to be punished for playing it, though he did want to earn a living. So he didn’t REALLY play the blues which could be so compelling, which his audience might have appreciated even if they didn’t understand what they were hearing.
One of the greatest ironies of his life was that his music, which he’d essentially given up trying to improve on after his recording sessions seemed to be the only thing he had to be proud of. He may have made one or more women pregnant, but had never had a family, though he had married later in life. One of the few things that helped him financially was when the rock group Cream covered his song, I’m So Glad, which he had reworked from something very different. Cream’s version was very unlike his (though distinguished in its way), but James said, justly, that no one could play it like him. He had evidently spent much time working on it, and had been able to play it unbelievably fast when he recorded it. It was impressive, but a small thing to fasten one’s pride to.
Calt says he hadn’t understood blues when he first heard it and fell in love with it, only to discover later on that his love had been immature romanticism. He hadn’t understood that blues musicians were professionals, and lived squalid lives. His experience with James showed him just how insular the man who had approached genius in his music was. Further investigation showed him that few others of that time were much different.
The dominant impression one gets from the book is Calt’s disappointment. The music had seemed to promise him a great deal, and he expected more of his musical hero too. As of twenty or so years ago he could still be enthusiastic in analyzing what made James’s music so wonderful. But he was disappointed that so much of blues was crude and musically incompetent, and that Skip James was an anti-hero. I wonder if he ever found anything else in life to make him joyful as blues once had.