Today! Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt

Crawdaddy Features Skip James

This article originally appeared in Issue 7 of Crawdaddy in December, 1966.

Blues fell, mama child, tore me all upside down

—Robert Johnson,
“Preaching Blues”

The blues captured me initially by its directness of impact. I have never known a more searing expression of emotion. “The blues is a lowdown shaking chill.” It meant a great deal to me personally and seemed to suggest multitudes of meaning. Yet when I discovered the blues, through a friend and through Samuel Charters’ book The Country Blues, Robert Johnson was for me just quoted lyrics and a name. There was no Skip James or Mississippi John Hurt. Sleepy John Estes, Charley Patton, Bukka White, Blind Willie McTell, Peg Leg Howell—these were merely bizarre names from a distant past. The blues was an archivist’s study. So far as we were told there was no blues today. Muddy Waters was decadent; Howling Wolf was not “sincere” like the great country bluesmen. The blues was a period piece, a study of finite proportions no longer evolutionary in nature.

Obviously all this has changed. When l first started hearing blues, Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry were considered authentic purveyors of a tradition from which Josh White had only slightly lapsed. Lightnin’ Hopkins had one or two LPs out; Big Bill Broonzy was a giant; Leadbelly was unquestioned king. When the Robert Johnson LP came out in 1961, the reviewer of The New Yorker compared Johnson unfavorably to Big Bill, whose professionalism was so much more evident, who possessed a greater sureness of pitch and smoothness of delivery. Clearly there were many collectors and individuals better informed as to the nature and history of the blues. But for the public at large there were a couple of Blind Lemon Jefferson records, a side of Blind Willie Johnson, Charters’ collection The Country Blues—and then the folksingers.

Since 1960, Estes, Bukka White, Son House, and Skip James have all been rediscovered and have appeared extensively. Race music has been reversed, and old, frequently infirm Negroes—who would once have never ventured outside their black world, dependent on their music for a place within it—now perform for young, white, middle-class audiences exclusively. Reissues of their original recordings have multiplied beyond all expectation. Whatever the drawbacks of this situation, we at last have a substantial body of work, and, what has been much more exciting, the opportunity to see men whom we have made our heroes.

Vanguard has done a great service by issuing its two rediscovery albums, Skip
James Today! and Mississippi John Hurt Today! James and Hurt represent the best of the revival as it has been. In both cases a great part, if not all, of their early talent has been retained. Each has made a successful transition in responding to the circumstances of today. Each has made use of his new audience to shape what seems to me a still-living career.

The Hurt album is well recorded, its choice of songs a fair one, the effect pleasant if unexciting. It’s difficult to know how to characterize the music of Mississippi John Hurt. He is not, as has been frequently pointed out, strictly a blues singer. Yet neither is he strictly a songster, a member like Mance Lipscomb of a pre-blues generation. While Hurt sings a variety of songs (popular songs like “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” religious ballads, and traditional pieces) there is a uniformity of tone and accompaniment throughout. He does not seem to display the versatility or variety which characterizes the music of Mance Lipscomb or John Jackson, whose songs are infrequently their own, whose repertoire extends from hillbilly to jigs, reels, and blues, whose music ranges a whole gamut of moods, rhythms, and stylistic accompaniments. Nor are the songs of John Hurt invested with the flavor of the medicine shows which one finds in the recordings of many of the older singers like Blind Blake, Jim Jackson, Frank Stokes, Furry Lewis. What gives Hurt his uniqueness is the particular gentle and understated tone of his music, the peculiar blend of intricate guitar picking and quiet but insistent singing. “Spike Driver’s Blues,” for example, is a brilliant and original reworking of the legend of John Henry. “This is the hammer that killed John Henry, but it won’t kill me.” Without raising his voice John Hurt manages to convey an uncompromising message.

If the album does not have the excitement of the Skip James, say, or the Robert Johnson on Columbia, it is primarily due to this lack of intensity, to the pleasantness of John Hurt’s music. I am not sure, however, that Hurt is best served by the selection of material. One could not quarrel with the classic “Candy Man,” “Louis Collins,” or “Spike Driver Blues.” And I am glad to see the inclusion of Hurt’s gentle echo of Charley Patton’s and Wolf’s “Spoonful” in “Coffee Blues.” But for me there was somehow a greater excitement to the first Hurt album on Piedmont, badly recorded as it was, unsure as Hurt’s voice is on occasion. “My Creole BelIe,” “Avalon Blues,” “Richland Women,” “Joe Turner,” seem superior, more interesting and fluid than the performances on the Vanguard album. Hurt’s “Talking Casey,” included here as well as on the Newport 1964 recordings, features a rather rudimentary and unadventurous bottleneck accompaniment to lyrics which are fair, but certainly pale beside Furry Lewis’s great imaginative “Casey Jones.” (“Mrs. Casey said she dreamt a dream / the night she bought her sewing machine / The needle broke she could not sew / She loved Mr. Casey ‘cause she told me so.”) The spiritual “Beulah Land” is repetitive and uninteresting, “Make Me a PalIet” and “Corinna” are set pieces. “Hot Time” doesn’t gain much by Hurt’s attentions. Only “If You Don’t Want Me” retains that acidulousness which it seems to me is at the heart of the blues. We are reminded again of Furry Lewis as Hurt sings, “Don’t want me, baby, got to have me anyhow.” It is the irony of the blues, the tension of paradox in any love poetry.

Despite reservations, I feel that this Vanguard album is a good one and an essential one. Although there is a certain lack of fluidity, the mark of Mississippi John Hurt’s music is not spontaneity but the warmth and polish of its performance. What we have here is John Hurt, caught in time, snapped in a photo as we saw him at the end, singing to a new audience, coaxing and pleasing it, quite different from the man I saw at Boston’s Cafe Yana in 1964, unsure and nervous, fragile, barely speaking above a whisper, uncertain of himself and the audience.

But if Hurt is a little peripheral to the blues, Skip James is at its very core. “I’d rather be the devil than be that woman’s man.” For those of us who were at Newport in 1964 it was an unforgettable and thrilling moment when Skip James sang these first words of his great song, “Devil Got My Woman.” Charters recalls the excitement in his notes to the Newport album; Bruce Jackson begins the notes to this album with the recollection. I don’t know if any notes can convey the awful tension. We wanted Skip James to recapture the beauty and the eeriness of his early recordings. Yet it seemed almost wrong that we should be able to hear this strange taunting sound, which had existed only as a dub from a scratched 78, repossessed on a summer’s day at Newport. As the voice soared over us, the piercing falsetto set against the harsh cross-tuning of the guitar, there was an audible sigh of relief from the audience and, I think, a sense of triumph.

This new Vanguard release is a great album. Of all the singers who have been rediscovered—indeed I would say of all the country blues singers—Skip James along with Robert Johnson initially possessed the greatest talent. And of all the rediscoveries, except perhaps for Furry Lewis, Skip James retains the most of the talent that he did have. Son House flails away at his guitar, and Bukka White grossly recalls the brilliant recordings he once made. Peg Leg Howell embarrasses us. But Skip James makes his music live now. While it has metamorphosed, while it is different from what it was, mellower, less harsh and more lyrical, the changes come together not to drain the music of its meaning but to make it live now, today! as the album boasts. We are more suspicious of today’s music because it does not stand still for us; but I think only an archaist would be able to find greater value in Skip James’s 1931 recordings than in his present ones.

One reason to say this is that Skip James more than almost any other blues singer is a conscious and brilliant artist. He is a sensitive, thoughtful man who attempts uniquely to bridge the gap between himself and audience. “As I first said, it’s a privilege and an honor and a courtesy at this time and at this age to be able to confront you with something that may go down in your hearings and may be in history after I’m gone. I hope to try to deliver and to promulgate some things and teachings for the students and those that are really eager and conscientious to try to learn some music, and my style especially. And I try to play it in a way some time so they can get ideas.” Or he may introduce a song: “It was during Depression times that I recorded this number. Times was hard all over, and that’s the title of this song, ‘Hard Time Killing Floor Blues).’”

Changes have been made. On the original recordings he sang, “If I ever get off of this shitass floor.” Today he looks to his audience and excuses vulgarities. He sings, “If I ever get off of this killing floor.” When he was first rediscovered, he sang the hauntingly beautiful “Black Gal.” Today it has become “My Gal.” We have had such accommodations before. With other singers, though, it has taken the form of apocryphal stories told with an eye to self-aggrandizement; it has come from men who abandon their dignity to a need to please. Skip James abandons nothing. He makes what he feels will be a more appropriate bond himself and audience.

The Vanguard record is superior in every way to the earlier Melodeon release. The Melodeon was a bungled recording, done at a time when Skip was sick, retaining mistakes, singing which wavers out of tune, hardly representing him at his best. Here, on the other hand, the voice is sure, the guitar more biting, and the creative presence of Skip James dominates throughout.

The selection of the songs, as well as their presentation, is excellent. They range in time from “Look Down the Road,” the first song Skip ever learned, to the beautiful “Drunken Spree” (which he picked up from the man who taught him guitar, Rich Griffith), to his great recently composed “Washington D.C. Hospital Center Blues.” They represent a period of over fifty years and a variety of emotions, from the doleful “Hard Time Killing Floor” which opens the album to the happy “little tiny song” “I’m So Glad,” which closes it. There are two lovely piano accompaniments, lyricism (in “Cherryball”), a sardonic glimpse at “the contrariest woman I ever did know” (“Crow Jane, Crow Jane, don’t you hold your head so high / Someday, baby, you know, you got to die / You got to lay down, you got to die”). Whatever Skip James does, he owns. If he does Leroy Carr’s “How Long,” he makes it his own, just as he makes “Crow Jane” his own, by shaping lyrics and accompaniment exclusively to his ends. Thus the poetry becomes his; and if the lyrics of Robert Johnson are more electric, Bukka White’s more electrically charged, Sleepy John Estes’s or Furry Lewis’s more verbally dexterous, none are more direct or honest than Skip James’s. We find expressions of his thoughtful, almost detached yet bitter irony throughout the record. “You know, the people are drifting from door to door / But they can’t find no heaven / I don’t care where they go” (“Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”). “I’m going away, honey don’t you want to go / I’m scared to go back down South / Them people gonna kill me sure” (“Cypress Grove Blues”). But even more characteristic, perhaps, is the wistfulness and regret which would generally characterize the love poetry of the blues, and which in Skip James we find taking on a social dimension. In both his earliest and latest songs we find this sense. “Looked down the road far as my eye could see / Couldn’t see nothing looked like mine to me.” (“Look Down the Road.” He says: “Roads were dusty then,” and maybe that does explain it.) On “Hospital Center Blues,” he is even more explicit: “I didn’t go hungry, I had plenty to eat / I had good treatment and a place to sleep / Because I was a good man /They knew I was a poor man /They could understand. I met a little damsel, she promised me / That she would love me, and always be sweet / She found out I was a poor man / Even though l was a good man / She couldn’t understand. Now when she left me she got in the door / She waved me goodbye, I haven’t seed her no more / She found out I was a poor man / She knew I was a good man / She couldn’t understand…I taking my doctor / And shaking his hand / I’m going to play these hospital blues till you’re a wealthy man /You took me as a good man / You knowed I was a poor man / You could understand.”

The use of the formal archaism “damsel” is characteristic of Skip James. There is an elaborate ornateness in his speech, and occasionally in his singing, which in another man we might find pretentious. Yet one feels that Skip James is expressing as fully as he can within the confines of a form, who he is, what his life has been (“My father, he was a minister, and he was one of those we call DD’s. I think that stands for Doctor Divinity, something like that…Well, anyway, he pastored one of the largest churches in the city of Birmingham at one time, and he was president of Selma College there for twelve or fifteen years in Selma, Alabama”) The white blues singer, on the other hand, must always hold back. Can we imagine Paul Butterfield, who must certainly know the words, singing of a “damsel” or talking about “promulgating” ideas? Could the white blues singer mention that his father was president of a college? “You can find people,” Willie Dixon says, “who can play rings around those blues artists with their guitars and other instruments, and can sing clearer and have better voices, but they can’t duplicate that real inherited soul…The ability to deliver these blues with this depth of feeling can’t be learned from books or schools.”

“A lot of folks call it folk songs,” Howling Wolf shouts from the stage. “That ain’t no folk music, that’s soul stuff, that’s the blues.” Once blues was considered an adjunct to folksinging. When Bukka White first came to Boston in April 1964, he attracted a crowd of approximately thirty. Here was a man, a genius, who had made money in his heyday as an entertainer and recording artist. Blues had come in on this wave of folksinging, but it was too blunt for the folksingers to support it, and even then, when folk music was still popular, Bukka White sat dressed up and alone in Bates Auditorium. Prestige Bluesville had recorded in those days approximately eighty-five albums, but they were all presented as folk albums, as country “folk” blues. This was a terrible misappreciation of the form. Modern blues was decadent, so when the contemporary singer was allowed to record he was permitted only acoustical accompaniment. Singers like Shakey Jake and Doug Quattlebaum were stifled; country singers who had long used electric guitars and drums like Lightnin’ (even Brownie McGee recorded r&b when blues sold in a race market) were told to play it like it had been, not like it was. When the guitar was plugged in, as on the Henry Townsend and the later Lightnin’ albums, the fact was glossed over. It was because we prejudged the blues then. We treated the blues as a static music. The enthusiasts tried to trap it and keep it for themselves.

Things have changed a little now. Everything’s electric. John Hammond, who introduced Chuck Berry into the pure blues circuit by way of unamplified guitar, changed over, and Butterfield arrived on the scene. There has been a great flurry of reissues of Chicago blues both here and in England. Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, all have traveled and recorded extensively since being discovered by a white audience. Vanguard issued its great series of recordings of the Chicago blues today. All this is wonderful to any lover of the blues. Blues has at last come into its own.

Yet this revival, too, seems somehow wide of the mark. With all the interest and excitement which blues has generated, when Robert Pete Williams came to Boston this past fall Club 47 was virtually empty. He had a $49.50 amplified guitar. When I talked to him he spoke wistfully of some of the guitars he had been looking at, but they were all too expensive for him. As he played, the guitar buzzed and reverberated with a cheap bass-heavy sound. But the music he played was beautiful, the same brilliant blues that he played in prison, songs that like Bukka’s “sky songs” he caught “out of the air. I can be talking to you, you know, riding in a car and a song will come to me out of the air, and I can write it down real quick and catch it. But if I don’t, it I go on talking to you, it’s gone.” He sang melancholy bitter emotionally charged blues, but there was no one there to listen. About a week later, when Junior Wells came, the club was jammed, and while the audience heard some blues it was a burlesque mostly of gesture and intonation. Robert Pete Williams is alive today. What he is creating lives now, and will continue to live. But what this blues audience had chosen was the illusion of contemporaneity, a singer who only is young today and has the lace of their generation. Robert Pete Williams sat in the crowd. He had an electric guitar. What new bag would he have to find to attract this audience?

Big Toe Turner said: “It’s all trends. They come and go. It seems like every twenty years the world jumps off and gets happy. You just be there when it jumps.” Robert Johnson lives today in the blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Junior Lockwood, Homesick James, J. B. Hutto, most of all in the music of Johnny Shines. Yet Johnny Shines (on the Vanguard LP and a forthcoming Testament release) with his electric guitar, harp, drums, bass is no more contemporary than Robert Johnson. He is Robert Johnson to all intents and purposes. He is what Robert Johnson would be. And in Skip James we have the strange anachronism, the anomaly of the great blues singer as he was, as he would be today.

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