It's an incredible American tragedy that the good friend of Son House and Bukka White, Skip James, did not play blues concerts or make recordings from 1931 to 1964. But there's not much point in once again ripping early-century racism or the music industry for derailing James' career after Paramount put out 18 of his eerie, wonderfully sung and subtly played country-blues songs. James, a major talent, grew frustrated with music and became a gospel singer, touring with his father's revival show throughout the south and eventually becoming a minister.
The often ill tempered James, who did not suffer fools, had been in a Tunica, Miss. hospital in 1964 when John Fahey and two other blues historians tracked him down and persuaded him back into the blues. That was when James' career, 30 years too late, began to take off-his high-pitched, effortlessly lonesome vocals and haunting, textured acoustic guitar playing established him as one of the most reliable festival performers throughout the 1960s.
Eric Clapton, among many others, took notice and stuck a bombastic version of "I'm So Glad" on one of Cream's million-selling classic rock albums, giving James serious royalty payments just before he died (Oct. 3, 1969 in Philadelphia).
James was responsible for some of this century's best popular songs-"Drunken Spree," "Devil Got My Woman," "Worried Blues," "Catfish" and, of course, "I'm So Glad." More important, like the more posthumously heralded Robert Johnson, James contributed a key haunting, moaning soul to American music. We're lucky James, unlike Johnson, hung around long enough so he could receive at least a fraction of his deserved popularity.
This CD, which was recorded Dec. 16, 1964 in Falls Church, Va. was James' first studio sessions after his legendary 1964 Newport Folk Festival appearance.
Tommy Johnson, Charley Patton, Charlie Parker, Charles Brown and Son House would all be proud of this incredible 12-track piece of American music history left for us by James.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Matt Alcott, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.