Music News

Skip James

Casual listeners, most of whom don't normally delve deeply into the Delta blues, are almost always convinced, like so many blues "scholars," that Robert Johnson was the be-all and end-all when it came to that mysterious Mississippi sound that crept up during the first half of the 20th century. But Johnson was only one practitioner of the music, and like most of the vagabonds who roamed the South 70 years ago, he snatched most of his ideas from colleagues, peers and rivals who, unfortunately, have since been relegated into the corners of Johnson's shadow.

Perhaps none of those artists has been as shortchanged by Johnson's puffed-up legacy as Skip James.

James' story doesn't carry the punch of the whole "sold-his-soul-to-the-devil" Johnson myth, but it still is gripping. James roamed the U.S. throughout the 1920s working as a farmhand, guitar-picker, preacher and pianist in a whorehouse. In 1931, he ended up in a rural Wisconsin recording studio where he laid down a couple dozen tracks, among them the nightmarish "Devil Got My Woman" (a song that inspired several Johnson tunes).

Soon after, James turned his back on the devil's music and took to preaching full-time, but his unsettling recordings became the stuff of legend. When the 1960s folk revival came along, aficionados tracked him down and hustled him into Vanguard studios. Those latter-day sessions produced two stunning mid-'60s records that brought him belated fame and a little pocket money before his death in 1969.

On Rare and Unreleased, Vanguard culls its vaults and uncovers another 19 tunes from those 1960s sessions. The new release complements James' previous work. Here, he sings a few blues standards and deconstructs a couple of Tin Pan Alley tunes. He also pays tribute to Jesus numerous times, while at other points on the playful "Omaha Blues," for instance he sounds like he's back pounding keys in the brothel. Meanwhile, on the eerie opener "Backwater Blues," it sounds as if James is still standing at some forgotten Mississippi crossroads waiting for Satan.

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Jeff Hinkle