Saturday, December 26, 2015
Gently influencing all of the liquid on our planet, the first Christmas full moon since 1977 is also cutting a grand figure in the evening sky, shedding some of its reflected light on a corner of my music collection that has been ignored for quite some time.
Skip James' Blues from the Delta came back into listening rotation after a long hiatus, much like the musical path taken by the man himself.
He cut some remarkable material in a single session early in 1931 for Paramount records and was paid the miserly sum of forty dollars for 26 songs. Eighteen tunes from this recording spree saw release on cheap, 78rpm discs, though they did not sell. Nehemiah James then turned to the church, was ordained as a baptist minister in 1932 and concentrated on gospel music, forming the Dallas Texas Jubilee Singers and backing his father, who was a preacher. Some years after that, he stopped playing altogether and drifted back to Mississippi, where he worked driving a tractor and cutting timber.
Now here's one to ponder. Imagine if Robert Johnson hadn't died so young and was living in relative obscurity, only to be located by young blues enthusiasts and encouraged to return to live performance as he approached retirement age.
That's exactly what happened to Skip James in 1964.
Fortunately, he was also able to re-record his phenomenal music with far more sophisticated technology than what he had originally been afforded. His work was rescued from barely audible, scratchy discs and allowed to breathe. Cream also did a vastly different version of his tune "I'm So Glad" on Fresh Cream that put some long overdue money in his pocket. History came to life as one of the best Delta bluesmen had his music resurrected, with scores of very lucky people able to see him play live. His pure falsetto voice was unique as was his use of modal guitar tunings. That effortlessly light vocal approach is what separates him from so many others who mined this genre, most choosing to wring each phrase from their "troubled and worried minds" in a far lower register.
Poor health plagued him during this brief renaissance though and he passed away in the fall of 1969.
Listening again now to these cuts is quite stirring, with each note containing vast amounts of what draws people back to timeless art:
Skip will still be astonishing in late December of 2034.