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.
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