Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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I'D RATHER BE THE DEVIL
Skip James and the Blues
By Stephen Calt
Da Capo

At the fabled Newport Folk Festival of 1964, teenaged blues fan Stephen Calt struck up a friendship with 62-year-old Skip James, and remained close to the "rediscovered" Mississippian until 1969, when he died in Philadelphia. Based on years of observation and many hours of taped interviews, this belated biography is a direct outgrowth of that relationship--which Calt reports he later regretted initiating. At times, in fact, he seems to regret his intimacy with blues in general--he's as unkind to the form as he says James was, and Calt's James was an exceedingly unkind man all around. A murderer, a pimp, a gambler, a bootlegger, perhaps an ex-con, James seems "sordid" and "squalid" to his chronicler, his life mitigated but not redeemed by the few minutes of musical brilliance preserved in the 1931 recording session that turned him into a minor legend.

Calt believes that James hated women, people, and deep down himself, and although his evidence is convincing, it must be noted that Calt is hardly hate-free himself. In fact, he seems a little crazy--and, like James, more than a little brilliant. His analyses of blues history and James's music are penetrating and idiosyncratic, and the harsh skepticism with which he views blues-collector culture and the music it lionizes is something like a pleasure after decades of adulatory "air pudding." The phrase, typically enough, is James's. The man may have been a sonuvabitch, but within the limits of his experience he was a conscious artist and no fool, and for all his resistance to hagiology, Calt makes these things amply clear. A remarkable, if remarkably cranky, book.

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