Thursday, May 24, 2012

I'd Rather Be the Devil - Skip James and the Blues - Stephen Calt

Skip James is, of course, best known for writing "I'm So Glad", made famous by Cream. James never sold many records in his own time and his eerie, original blues were so different and - even for the blues - depressing that it was difficult for him to ever make a living with his music. Of course, the 60's blues revival and Cream's rendition of his tune brought him to prominence, but he stubbornly remained true to his own vision and never gained the noteriety of many of the other Delta bluesmen.

Because of his lack of popularity during the time the he original recorded in the early 20th century, little was known about Skip. Many of the details in this book were provided by James himself in interviews with the author, who got to know him and talked with him at length about his youth. But, since James is known for exaggeration and tall tales, it is hard to determine for sure how much of this is true. 

James grew up on a plantation, but with his mother working as a maid in the house of a bossman, he didn't have the extreme hardships that many other blacks did at the time. He actually was able to receive some schooling, but due to his sense of superiority provided by his mother's position and his own natural egotism and intelligence, he believed himself to be better than most of his peers. One way he attempted to prove this was by learning words that his schoolmates didn't know and using them in conversation, even though he never learned to use them correctly - something that he continued to do throughout his life. So, direct quotes from him can be quite abstract and convoluted without the author's "translations".

His egotism extended towards his music and his way with women - he claims that men were constantly jealous of him due to his prowess in both ever since his was a teen. Again, many of these stories sound like they have been stretched a bit, but there is no way to know for sure. He does claim to have killed several men who attempted to do him harm due to his way with women - often married women. But again, due to lax record keeping and white folks contempt for black at the time (especially on plantations and other work communities where a mule was worth more than a black man), there is no way to ever confirm these tales.

Calt's writing is deeply personal and opinionated, which means that he makes some statements as if fact that are simply his notion of what happened or what was someone's motivations. He has a major issue with the 60's folk movement that revitalized many bluesmen's careers, to the point of quoting materials from nearly a half a century before as problems with the movement. Not to say that he is necessarily completely wrong in some of these thoughts, but his extreme over-simplification and over-generalizations can be a bit much at times and are certainly far from objective.

Even on his death bed James told Calt that he hadn't revealed much that was true about his life and this book is thin on details (it is filled out with a basic history of the blues and the 60's revival) but seeing as there is practically nothing else that tells of Skip's life, this is a cool & interesting tale.