By Ken Ficara
Skip James' blues sounded like no one else's. Sung in a keening falsetto, accompanied by a guitar in an open minor tuning or by staccato piano runs, James' blues was simultaneously mournful and angry. Stephen Calt's biography is a merciless look at the frustrated and disappointed man that made that music.
It's as intimate a portrait as possible, based mainly on the time Calt and James spent together after James' "rediscovery" in the sixties. Calt doesn't seem to have liked James very much, but then, would music like this have come from a likable person? A bitter old man who'd achieved none of the things he'd hoped for, James in the 60s was ailing, angry and cynical. The strange relationship between him and the young white fan who worshipped records that James barely remembered recording is the real subject of the book.
Calt plays up James' violent tendencies (including a speculation at the end of the book that would be libelous were James still alive) and dishonesty to the point that you wonder why he spent so much time with this reprobate. Perhaps the answer lies in a remark Calt makes about his first meeting with James: "Had I known how our lives would intersect over the next four years, I would not have initiated that first conversation."
James' life seems to have been one long effort to cover up his hurt and disappointment with anger and hostility. "James was too emotionally guarded to make his songs a direct medium of self-expression," Calt says. "He became a man of immense inner anger who was given to vent it in a quiet voice."
Calt, too, seems to be venting a raging fury under cover of a studious biography. He makes ugly remarks about everything from the blues revival and the folk scene to musicians Big Bill Broonzy and John Cephas. And, like Skip James, Calt seems to be harboring more than a little anger at himself. "Like virtually all of the white people who associated with blues singers (including the author)," Calt describes one hanger-on, "he acted as an inverse Uncle Tom." Calt is clearly not comfortable with his younger self, but -- like his subject -- he resorts to anger rather than introspection.
An almost unbalanced obsession with research and documentation made Calt's last book, a co-authored biography of Charley Patton, almost unreadable. I'd Rather Be the Devil is based as much on Calt's relationship with James as on research, making it a much better book.
But Calt still has his moments. At one point, he reveals to us that the blues originated from one anonymous white man teaching a spiritual called "Roll Jordan" to an anonymous black slave in the early 1800s. He provides no evidence of this encounter at all; his sole basis for this is that "Roll Jordan" uses the structure of a 10-beat vocal phrase followed by a six-beat instrumental phrase, which is also used in the blues. On that basis, he says that this alleged encounter "would achieve an improbable result: it would lay the basis for [blues]," he says. Improbable, indeed!
The "proof" is pretty typical, though, since Calt is absolutely obsessed with counting beats, dissecting chords, and delving into other technical issues that I'm sure people like Skip James didn't worry too much about: "What gave the song its blues-like character was not its phrasing pattern (which resulted in off-beat stanzas of 9, 9 3/4, 12 1/2, and 16 measures), but the keynote ending of each vocal phrase..."
Regardless, every blues fan should read this book, if for no other reason than its unromantic view of the "blues revival." Calt is merciless, and for once, his anger seems thoroughly justified. Depending more on facts than on snide remarks or technical discussions, the section is the most effective in the book.
"It was really a plantation mentality," Calt quotes one record collector. "Everyone wanted to own a nigger."
His description of the way music publishers treated James, complete with reproductions of their less-than-fair contracts, might make you think twice about some of the record labels whose 60s blues releases you cherish.
By the time you finish this book, you'll have the impression that James' 1960s work is fumbling and pathetic and entirely not worth listening to. However much technical evidence Calt can muster, the version of "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" that opens up Skip James Today is a haunting and immediately arresting song. That's much more important to me than the fact that, in the 60s, James "had changed the way he sounded a B7th; instead of implying it and omitting the fifth, he created a cretinous-sounding full chord..." I understand what Calt is saying here, but do we listen to music the way computer scientists analyze the efficiency of algorithms, or do we listen to it for the impact it has on us?
Read this book. Read it with a grain of salt, but read it. It'll make you think about the strangeness inherent in an old black man sitting in front of a roomful of rapt white city kids playing music that, in his youth, he played to a house full of dancing people of his own age and background. You almost certainly won't agree with everything Calt says, and some of it will piss you off, but this book is on a completely different level from the usual worshipful and unquestioning blues "journalism."