Skip James,
I'm So Glad: The Complete
1931 Paramount Recordings

(Document, 2002)

When Document does it, they do it right. This small but mighty label has taken upon itself the herculean task of issuing every pre-war blues recording ever pressed, in chronological order by artist, and as such they have become the Holy Grail of blues collectors. This CD release has been digitally remastered from earlier Document issues, and for the most part it's a real gem. These early recordings of Skip James, one of the most important delta bluesmen, are a cornerstone of blues history, and it's good to have them back in such fine shape. It's a little like cleaning the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Skip James wasn't a jolly, rollicking bluesman. He entered some of the same dark places that Robert Johnson would several years later, and he dragged his listeners along, showing them little mercy. It wasn't as if James sang the blues to make himself feel better, but did so to make you feel just as miserable as he did. James' blues are deep and scary, and there's none scarier than his first recorded blues, "Devil Got My Woman," a creepy song that can raise the hair on your neck. These 18 tracks are filled with such darkness, lit from time to time by the red flame of James' burning guitar work, like the octave solo that illuminates "Hard-Luck Child." There are a few moments of grace when the clouds lift, as in "Jesus Is a Mighty Good Leader," and "Be Ready When He Comes," two rocking spirituals, and "I'm So Glad" has a powerful drive beneath it, thanks to a constantly recurring descending bass line.

If there's a sameness to many of these blues, it's because James played most of his work in an open E minor tuning, relieved by "Drunken Spree" in A, and "Special Rider Blues" in open G. But let's not forget that these recordings weren't made to be listened to all at once, but were intended to be heard as a two-sided single, in which the repetition of keys would be no big deal.

The last five tracks show James' distinctive style on piano. Chris Smith's program notes mention how James turned Leroy Carr's "How Long How Long" into "How Long Buck," an actual buckdance, and the appellation is fitting, with James' take on the blues being given a jerky, stop-and-go rhythm. "What Am I To Do Blues" is taken from a badly damaged source, but is still worth listening to for the extraordinary piano work.

Overall, the sound is excellent for recordings made in 1931 under less than ideal conditions. Even if these tracks were only listenable, they would still be indispensable for anyone with even the most casual interest in delta blues. Highly recommended as the landmark recordings they are.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 26 October 2002

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