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I'd Rather Be The Devil

PostPosted: Thu Mar 12, 2015 4:13 am
by Garth Cartwright
I've just read Stephen Calt's biography of Skip James. It is an extremely depressing read. James was one of the most gifted - and obscure - of the original blues men and his rediscovery in the early-1960s must have seemed very exciting to blues fans. Calt, then a first year college student, was one of them and he got to know James well and interviewed him extensively. Some 3 decades later he wrote this thorough - and thoroughly depressing book. He mentions early on that if he had known what meeting James would involve he would never have struck up a conversation. Yet he doesn't detail why he dislikes James so much. OK, Skip was not in any sense a nice man but Calt seems to loath him. And why the biography is detailed Calt spends too little time on the one real reason we are reading - this wonderful records James made in 1931. Instead he dwells on James unsavoury life before and after - some interesting info' on life on a levy camp and such - and how ill he was (and often nasty) once rediscovered. Calt doesn't have a good word for anyone - he ridicules Al Wilson, John Fahey and Dick Waterman (I get the feeling the country blues fanatics are a bit like extreme leftist parties, always splitting into warring factions) and he speculates at the end that James may have avoided Louisiana as he might have been wanted for murder there. But he never investigates such. Or considers that James' abrasive personality might have been shaped by the Jim Crow South. While James must have been a very unpleasant man I get the sense that Calt is also to be avoided.

Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil

PostPosted: Thu Mar 12, 2015 6:58 am
by Alan Balfour
It was universally "panned" when first published. Here's just one example, be warned it's lengthy! Calt's 1988 bio of Charlie Patton found little favour too.

I'd Rather Be The Devil: Skip James And The Blues
Stephen Calt
Da Capo Press, 386 pp., US$14.95

Review By Ken Ficara (09/07/1994)

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 coauthored 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 oneanonymous white man teaching a spiritual called "Roll Jordan" to an anonymous black slave in theearly 1800s. He provides no evidence of this encounter at all; his sole basis for this is that "RollJordan" 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 animprobable 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'tworry 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 ofeach vocal phrase..."

Regardless, every blues fan should read this book, if for no other reason than its unromantic view ofthe "blues revival." Calt is merciless, and for once, his anger seems thoroughly justified. Dependingmore on facts than on snide remarks or technical discussions, the section is the most effective in thebook.

"It was really a plantation mentality," Calt quotes one record collector. "Everyone wanted to own anigger."

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 bluesreleases you cherish.

By the time you finish this book, you'll have the impression that James' 1960s work is fumbling andpathetic and entirely not worth listening to. However much technical evidence Calt can muster, theversion of "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" that opens up Skip James Today is a haunting andimmediately 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 acretinous-sounding full chord..." I understand what Calt is saying here, but do we listen to music theway computer scientists analyze the efficiency of algorithms, or do we listen to it for the impact ithas on us?

Read this book. Read it with a grain of salt, but read it. It'll make you think about the strangenessinherent 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 almostcertainly won't agree with everything Calt says, and some of it will piss you off, but this book is on acompletely different level from the usual worshipful and unquestioning blues "journalism."

Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil

PostPosted: Thu Mar 12, 2015 2:03 pm
by NormanD
I'm in full agreement with your assessment, Garth. It did also leave me feeling somewhat depressed, but hard to give it up nevertheless. Didn't the earlier version not get a reprint for several decades because of the libels / allegations it contained? I think you've written here about it, Alan.

Some music can be bewitching, giving a glimpse of something you don't really want to know too much about. "I'd Rather Be The Devil" is one of those rare tunes. Maybe it's sometimes better just to listen to the music and not get drawn into the performer's own life.

Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil

PostPosted: Thu Mar 12, 2015 2:32 pm
by Adam Blake
Worth pointing out, perhaps, that the royalties from Cream's version of "I'm So Glad" (which the author despised) paid his medical bills and funeral expenses, and presumably continue to provide an income for his extended family.

(I happen to really like Cream's version. It is full of the joy the title implies.)

Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil

PostPosted: Thu Mar 12, 2015 3:24 pm
by Alan Balfour
An obituary which I thought I'd posted here not that long after my joining but a search fails to uncover it, or I'm doing something stupid....so

October 3, 1969
Dear Max, Skip James died this morning after a very long and painful illness. One of his finest memories was going to Europe in 1967 and he made many friends there who continued to write to him.
Mrs James and I would like to thank all the people who were so kind to Skip during his life time. We’d especially like to thank the members of The Cream for recording one of his songs (“ I’m So Glad “) and making it possible for him to have an income for the final year of his life.
Sincerely Dick Waterman


THE ABOVE letter from Richard Waterman, who had latterly been managing James arrived just after we went to press last week.

In itself, the news was not surprising. Skip was recovering from a stomach operation when a group of American blues lovers located him in ‘64 and got him recorded for the first time since 1930. After his visit to this country with the Blues Festival he became a good deal worse.

When I wrote (in the MM of April 12 this year) about the reissue of James’s album “The Greatest Of The Delta Blues Singers” (Storyville), I referred to him as being seriously ill. And Blues Unlimited mag has been running an appeal for the James’s which was acknowledged in the October issue.

“We want them to know . . that their help has truly made life easier in the James household. We never knew that we had so many wonderful fans. Some day, God be willing, we hope to repay each of them.” This is part of the letter over the signature of Skip and Lorenzo James.

Little was known of him or his records until the mid Sixties, and he was seldom mentioned in print. He stayed in the South and recorded only the one batch of Paramount records, quitting music soon afterwards. The records didn’t sell well, apparently, and became extremely rare.

The imaginative use of material is the thing in his performances, so it didn’t matter if his old songs were repeated or his new ones sounded melodically familiar. In selecting “The Greatest” as Blues LP Of The Month, I wrote:

“In his ability to establish atmosphere — the sombre mood of “Killin’ Floor” or the despair conveyed by an almost ethereal falsetto on “Devil Got” Skip sounds even more remarkable than he did.”

The high weird voice, the poetic feeling the sensitivity…these and the excellent vocal-instrumental balance he achieved are qualities most often praised by writers who responded favourably to his stylish and thoughtful artistry.

How fortunate that he knew international recognition even on his last lap. Thanks are due to the organisers of the annual Folk Blues Festival, among others, and to Eric Clapton and the Cream and all the anonymous collectors who helped to sustain his last months. MAX JONES (Melody Maker week ending October 17th, 1969)

Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil

PostPosted: Thu Jun 11, 2015 3:25 pm
by Alan Balfour
The Gary Davis bio is receiving plaudits left right and centre.

Anybody here subscribe to/regularly purchase fRoots? If so has a review appeared in it yet? I've asked Ian Anderson who just told me to enquire via the magazine reviews editor. Hmm.

Thanks. Let normal service resume.

Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil

PostPosted: Thu Jun 11, 2015 4:27 pm
by AndyM
Alan Balfour wrote:The Gary Davis bio is receiving plaudits left right and centre.

Anybody here subscribe to/regularly purchase fRoots? If so has a review appeared in it yet? I've asked Ian Anderson who just told me to enquire via the magazine reviews editor. Hmm.

Thanks. Let normal service resume.


No review in fRoots yet; the new issue is out next week, will look in that when it arrives.

Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil

PostPosted: Thu Jun 11, 2015 4:33 pm
by Alan Balfour
You're a star. Thanks.

Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil

PostPosted: Sun Jun 14, 2015 10:42 am
by NormanD
Sorry, no review of the Gary Davis biog in the latest fRoots.

Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil

PostPosted: Sun Jun 14, 2015 12:16 pm
by AndyM
I was just going to say that!

Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil

PostPosted: Sun Jun 14, 2015 1:21 pm
by Alan Balfour
Thanks guys I'll pass it on. Ian Zack says a copy was sent to them. Probably can't be bothered.....

Re: I'd Rather Be The Devil

PostPosted: Sun Jun 14, 2015 10:46 pm
by NormanD
AndyM wrote:I was just going to say that!
I must have read it two hours before you. Content is a bit slim this month, no?

There is a book review about Gibson Kalamazoo guitars by blues player Dave Peabody, so maybe it's lined up for the next issue. It is the kind of book and subject that will be of great interest to 60s -generation folkies.