Skip James - vocals, guitar;; Guests on track 10:; Mavis Staples - vocals; Pops Staples - vocals, guitar; Cleotha Staples - vocals; Pervis Staples - vocals; Unidentified - drums
Shortly before the annual Newport Festivals in 1968, festival director George Wein helped stage another landmark event billed as "The Roots of Jazz," as part of the first year's programming at the Hampton Jazz Festival at the Hampton Institute in Virginia. Brilliantly conceived on both a musical and an educational level, this remarkable program featured the ominous Delta blues of Skip James, the church influenced gospel leanings of the Staple Singers, the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, the electrified city blues of the Muddy Waters Blues Band, stride pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith, and was capped off with an appearance by the seminal jazz legend, Earl "Fatha" Hines. Recently discovered in the vast Newport Festival Network archive, the master recordings from that memorable evening not only capture these performances in remarkable quality, but also convey a musical evolution in a most enjoyable way. Presented here is the man who kicked off the night's proceeding, Skip James, the most enigmatic of all the seminal Delta blues figures.
Unlike his contemporaries, James' music was never intended for purposes of entertainment, and his artistic temperament was known to be volatile and unpredictable. His music was dark and mysterious, personal and bleak and intended primarily for his own emotional release. James was an exceptional guitarist, and his sound often revolved around his trademark E-minor "cross-note tuning" and an eerie falsetto vocal delivery that could send shivers up one's spine. Conveying misery and despair like few others, James initial 1931 recordings, issued as 78s for the Paramount label, earned him precious little reward. Dark and disturbing, and featuring unusual tunings, structures and rhythms, James' meditations on loneliness, death, and fleeting happiness were certainly not for the faint of heart. Legend has it that he was even occasionally paid not to play by listeners who found him too gloomy and depressing. Despite his originality, James was such an idiosyncratic guitarist that nobody dared accompany him, and to this day, few have attempted to carry on his unique style.
In the case of Skip James, who opened the "Roots of Jazz" program, this is an astounding performance that begins with potent versions of four songs originally cut at his first 1931 sessions, played back to back. The haunting opener, "Devil Got My Woman," in which James addresses the struggle between the flesh and the spirit, as well as good and evil, contains one of the most classic lyrics of any blues song ("Lord, I'd rather be the devil than be that woman's man"). Many blues men refer to the devil, but with James, one can clearly hear the anger, jealousy, and pain. Three more classics from those same 1931 sessions follow, in the form of "Cherry Ball Blues," "I'm So Glad" (covered by Cream on their debut album and the only real publishing money James ever saw in his lifetime), and the moodier "Illinois Blues." These are prime examples of Skip James' unusual approach and the digital dexterity required in his forceful three-finger picking style, which has confounded blues guitarists and listeners to the present day.
The set concludes with two numbers issued the same year as this performance, beginning with "Lorenzo Blues," another "deal with the devil" number which name checks James' wife. On James final number, titled "God Is Real," he not only veers into spiritual territory, but something else quite remarkable occurs—he is indeed accompanied! And by the Staple Singers no less! Serving as a segue into the Staple's set proper, here Skip James is joined on stage by the penetrating voice of Mavis Staples, and with Pops playing additional electric guitar and an unidentified drummer joining in as well, providing an utterly unique listening experience never heard before or since.
Following a bout with cancer, Skip James would pass away the following year, making this outstanding recording one of the last surviving documents of this most enigmatic of the Delta blues men.