Monday, July 16, 2012

Devil Got My Woman

In the mid-sixties I was beginning to discover, initially through the auspices of Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, some of the bluesmen from the twenties and thirties who had themselves been being discovered or rediscovered by young white aficionados just a few years prior, singers and players such as Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, and Skip James, spurred on by the so-called “folk revival,” Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, the beginnings of suburban awareness of the civil rights movement, etc. Those singers, as well as performers who had not been recorded commercially in their younger years, such as Mance Lipscomb and Fred McDowell; blues singers who had recorded in the years following WWII, such as Lightning Hopkins, Big Mama Thornton, and Lil Son Jackson, but who had, with the advent of Rhythm & Blues and Rock’n’Roll been relegated to the sidelines. These bluesmen and women now were reaching a wider audience, probably wider than their initial commercial or local successes had allowed in the culturally segregated years prior to the white folk revival.

Skip James was one of the early greats who somehow attached his art to my heart, soul, and ears through his appearance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival and subsequent unveiling via vinyl LP on the annual set of LPs documenting that festival by Vanguard Records. I can clearly remember bringing home the LP The Blues at Newport/1964/
Part 2, putting it on my record player, and after three fine songs by Mississippi John Hurt, who I was already familiar with, being absolutely mesmerized by one Nehemiah “Skip” James to the point that when his four songs were finished I picked up the tone arm and played those four over again and again and again. I’m sure the grooves of those four songs on side one of that LP showed more wear than any of the other tracks by John Hurt, Rev. Robert Wilkins, and Elizabeth Cotton, no easy feat.

For a firsthand account I quote here Dick Waterman, in the book Baby Let Me Follow
You Down
:

“One of the great recollections I have of those workshops is when Skip James came in. He was wearing a hat and a heavy jacket. . . . No one had heard him play except for the people who had discovered him. They brought him in, and he was sort of a presence on the grounds for the first day or so. . . . He was very quiet, almost mysterious. Finally it came his time on this workshop. . . .

“Skip sat down, and put his guitar on his leg. He set himself, doing a little finger manipulation with his left hand, then he set his fingers by the sound hole, sighed, and hit the first note of [“Devil Got My Woman”]. He took that first note up in falsetto all the way, and the hairs on the back of my neck went up, and all up and down my arms, the hairs just went right up. Even now I get a reaction to that note when I listen to the recording of it on [Blues at Newport]. . . .

“There was an audible gasp from the audience. That to me is what it’s all about.”


Devil Got My Woman – Skip James – 1964

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