1931, 1994, 2009

The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James (1994, 2009)

This is one of the numerous discs to collect all nine of Skip James 1931 78 records that he recorded before he abandoned his music career – or whatever happened – until being “rediscovered” in the ’60s. This music is essential listening for fan of the blues or people interested in music history. James among the best guitarists of his era – he might be the best pre-electric blues guitar player ever. And he was an incredible and distinctive singer.
Unfortunately, the sound is often awful and I don’t know whether that’s because of degradation to the original recordings or because of a bad (cheap) transfer.

“Devil Got my Woman” / “Cypress Grove Blues”

James has a wild voice, which is really shown off on this 78. Both songs have him wailing over his pretty impressive acoustic guitar playing. The B-Side is a little more what we would expect from the blues of this era. Great stuff.

“How Long ‘Buck'” / “Little Cow and Calf is Gonna Die Blues”

One of the most interesting things about James is that he was also a piano player. The A-Side is a pretty iconic blues lyric paired with his kind of bonkers piano playing which sounds like he’s playing the guitar. The B-Side shows off his pretty capable piano playing, which has the same kind of bending/breaking of traditional musical rhythms that early blues playing caused.

“Cherry Ball Blues” / “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues”

The A-Side shows off his considerable guitar playing ability as well as showing how free with traditional ideas of metre the early blues musicians were. The B-side is another one of these wailing/moaning songs of his. It’s not identifiable as the source of the standard “Killing Floor” necessarily, but his humming at the end of each verse reminds me of some blues song I can’t remember.

“Drunken Spree” / “What Am I To Do? [aka What Am I Gonna Do Blues]”

The A-Side begins with extremely uncharacteristic full chords. But his finger-picking takes over and it’s proof of why he was so revered as a guitarist. The B-Side is a piano blues, the only time I know of that he combined guitar and piano for one of these 1931 78s. The sound is just awful on his voice, but the piano sounds decent (relatively speaking).

“Jesus is a Mighty Good Leader” / “Be Ready When He Comes”

James’ most spiritual side from this era feels like the template for so much spiritual blues and gospel songs going forward. Both the A-Side and B-Side feel like fundamental documents for gospel and every single blues song about Jesus (there are a lot of them).

“Illinois Blues” / “Yola My Blues Away”

The A-Side is one of the lesser tracks of James that I’ve heard until the break when he shows off his guitar playing. His voice is compelling as always, but the song feels more like a cliche than his other sides. The B-Side’s title is appropriate as James doesn’t single any actual lyrics until maybe 45 seconds into the song. Instead he does his moaning thing. The guitar playing is impressive.

“Four O’clock Blues” / “Hard Luck Child”

Unfortunately the A-Side is one of the hardest to hear on this collection. The song is pretty standard (and great) James though: wailing vocals with impressive finger picked guitar playing. The B-Side sounds better: the guitar is clearer so whatever we might think of the lyrics is much less important. This is one of James’ more impressive guitar performances from this period.

“22-20 Blues” / “If You Haven’t Got Any Hay Get on Down the Road”

Another classic piano blues on the A-Side, the lyrics help to establish the classic misogyny in the blues, hooray! His foot percussion is neat. There’s a similarly compelling performance on the B-Side, though the tenor of this one is significantly different. It’s a lot more jaunty for a lack of a better word.

“I’m So Glad” / “Special Rider Blues”

The A-Side, James’ most enduring song, is an incredible performance, with a clearer-than-normal voice – and lyrics where he refers to how he’s tired of moaning, referencing his own style – and it also makes me appreciate the Cream cover, which is slightly more radical than I would have thought. An absolute classic song. The B-Side pales in comparison (and the vocal sounds bad on this transfer) but it’s still more proof that James was one of the great blues guitarists.

This is essential stuff. But I can’t give the recording full marks because of the sound. There’s gotta be a better version out there, right?

9/10

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