Sunday, February 24, 2008

There are no other records like this


Skip James is one of those artists that both typify and transcend their chosen medium, so that even familiarity with the latter does not quite prepare you for them. As the blurb on the front of this CD puts it, he is “the strangest, most complex and bizarre of all Mississippi blues artists.”
He is also a world in miniature, a microcosm of his place and age, so that his work seems not merely a matter of recorded sound – somehow the sights and smells and tastes of his world have found their way into those 78rpm grooves as well.
James is one of the ultimate examples of the artist who recorded and performed because he had no option. Certainly he is not an entertainer. He himself is clearly not having a good time and he cares little if you are either. He is giving vent to something, but in a manner so plaintive, so honest and with so measured a conbination of artistry and simplicity that he becomes the supreme case in popular music of universality of meaning being conjured from the purely personal through sheer skill and the unfeigned communication of emotion.
It is not background listening, and nobody would go to this CD for simple pleasure, as such. But at a time when recorded music was generally seen as an accompaniment to good times, and when black artists in particular were obliged to ingratiate for their dollar, James’s uncompromising style and inability to disguise the fact of his performing first and foremost for himself seems as brave as it is compelling.
Nothing you read about James violates this sense of him generated by the music. The liner notes on this CD include the following revelations:
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He was a solitary, secretive person who never had his own family, regarded women with suspicious contempt, and was seemingly wary of the entire human race, several members of which he had coolly eliminated in shoot-outs. He was mistrustful of merriment: once he passed a caravan of cars departing from a wedding. When he heard the honking, he said, with no attempt at humour: “Bet you won’t hear that when they get divorced.”
He has no concept of blues as entertainment, or crowd-pleasing music. It was his goal to startle with his musicianship, and to manipulate the emotions, or, as he put it, to “deaden the mind” of his listeners.
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The songs collected here have truly lost none of their power to startle and confuse. They will still utterly transfix some, utterly repel others. James’s voice – an oddly delicate, at times almost feminine wail – flutters like a breeze over guitar playing that somehow conveys with equal clarity the sadness and loneliness and world-weariness of its owner.
The first track, Devil Got My Woman, is of course the song that Thora Birch plays repeatedly as her character undergoes her first epiphany in Ghost World: “Do you have any other records like that?” she asks Seymour, the 78-collector from whom she bought it. “There are no other records like that,” he replies.