Skip James (1983)

Greil Marcus - Skip James

James (1902-1969) was one of the greatest guitarists, pianists and singers to work within the frame of Mississippi delta blues, but because he was also one of the more id­iosyncratic, his formal influence has been much less than that of Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Son House or even Tommy Johnson. His impact has been as an inspira­tion–on hearing him play, either on his original recordings or, after his rediscovery in 1964, in live performance, any number of musicians were moved to deepen the passion and commitment of their own music.

Early Blues collects a number of James’ original recordings for Paramount, including his magnificent “Devil Got My Woman” and “If You Haven’t Any Hay,” which features James’ wild, almost absurdist piano work. It is one of the central documents of delta blues. Greatest was cut in 1964, and while it demonstrated that James had lost none of his powers over the years, the best was yet to come.Greil Marcus - Skip James

These two modern recordings are among the most important blues albums ever made. The sound is full of presence, and the performance full of life–charged with bitterness, love, desire and a sense of fun (most evident on Today! with “I’m So Glad,” first recorded by James in the Thirties and later made famous by Cream). James’ high, ghostly voice pierces the night air–it always seems like night when these albums are playing–and his guitar shadows the moon.

If one must choose, the edge here goes to Devil, if only for the staggering version of the title song, which delves as deeply into the heart of American mystery as any tune ever has–and seals James’ status as one of the finest, most aware folk artists of all time. Perhaps the reason so few of his songs have been recorded by others is that most musicians understand that the original performances simply can’t be topped.


The New Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh and John Swenson, 1983


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