Tag Archives: Skip James

365 Days of Album Recommendations – Aug 6

Legends of Country Blues

916icwb2bg9l-_sx450_

If you’ve been following along at all, you’ll have noted that I favor JSP remasters.

In case you don’t want to buy 5 CDs worth of any one artist, I’m recommending this lil’ package for ya. It’s as advertised, Legends of Country Blues. All done up in a JSP bow.

This is pretty much the textbook if you want to study the prewar recordings of some of the most important figures ever to be recorded. A vast amount of early Skip James, and all far better sonically than the Yazoo versions we used to have to rely on. (Don’t get me wrong, I am SO grateful to Yazoo for keeping me alive for so long! But, JSP has straight up outdone ’em here …).

Plus, pre-war Son House (which, in my opinion, isn’t actually as mesmerizing as his later recordings, but still, it’s fucking Son House!), pre-war Bukka White (ditto vis-à-vis mesmerizing, ditto vis-à-vis it’s fucking Bukka White!), the eerie, eerie, eerie magic of Tommy Johnson, and even a slew of Ishman Bracey.

In short, legends of country blues, indeed.


365 Days of Album Recommendations – May 31

Skip James – Greatest of the Delta Blues Singers

91x2k2rlfll-_sx425_

This is a KILLER 180g vinyl reissue of some of Skip James’ very first recordings after being “rediscovered” in the 60s.

The recordings were made in 1964 in the home of Richard Spottswood, and the album features a song that is a REALLY important one in the history of country blues music.

The song is generally titled Washington D.C Hospital Center Blues (tho variations exist on different compilations), and if ever you doubted that country blues musicians were great songwriters and composers, or if you ever thought that no new material was being written after the “rediscoveries,” then this is the song that will prove you wrong.

It was a new song, an original song, and it spoke directly to Skip’s life and experiences at the time. On top of that, it’s bloody brilliant, and beautiful.

In the hospital, now
In Washington D.C.
Ain’t got nobody
To see about me
But I’m a good man
But I’m a poor man
You understand

 


365 Days of Album Recommendations – Jan 2

Skip James – She Lyin’

600x600

Selecting among the myriad recordings available from Skip James is a tricky business—the country blues canon—limited as it admittedly is—has been extensively mined again and again by different labels, and for the sake of various compilations, reissues, etc.

I’m partial to this particular collection for two reasons: 1) it’s really good, and 2) the story behind it is really good. Re: #1, listen, and you’ll agree. If you don’t, there’s something really wrong with you. Re: #2, this is the very first set of recordings Skip James made following his “rediscovery,” making this as incredibly powerful portal into the life of an extremely gifted and complicated artist.

Skip James was in the hospital when a group of enthusiasts (including John Fahey) “found” him in 1964. The album is a combination of tracks recorded in a home studio in Maryland, and at a coffee house in D.C., shortly after he got out.

I find this album just brutally compelling and heartbreaking in so many ways. Partly it’s just the eerie mournful menace of the music itself. But maybe even more than that, it’s the idea that all this beauty was alone for so long, with so few knowing that such beauty had been made. It’s been said before, that the best thing in the world for an artist, is to be able to create beauty. The second best thing is for someone else to recognize the beauty that you’ve made.

Recommended track to start with: Hard Time Killing Floor Blues

This is genuinely one of the most incredible songs ever written and performed. Like the haiku tradition, country blues at its best captures something ineffable and transcendent in seemingly simple form. Also like haiku, it often relies on and leverages an accepted canon of “code words” and symbols to represent larger concepts, spaces, ideas. But there is a certain raw poetry that is, I think, unique to country blues as a lyric form. And when you couple that rawness with music this haunting, this complex, this impassioned, this lethal, you get magic:

And the people are driftin’ from door to door
Can’t find no heaven, I don’t care where they go


The 8 Musical Influences Behind The Song “Down The Drain”

 

PB_DTD_Thumbnail

“Down The Drain” is the first official video single off my new album “The National Blues” on Coast Road Records. And like virtually everything I write, its roots go deep, and it draws on a great many influences for its shape and sound.

The origins of the song are actually a little out of step with much of what I write, the bulk of which is largely inspired by the early country blues/delta blues canon. Probably the most important influence is actually a comparatively contemporary musical act, a band called Sixteen Horsepower. For my money, they’re likely the greatest band you’ve never heard of. They came out of Denver about the same time as my first album came out (1995), part of a small, localized, but very wonderful sort of Gothic Americana movement that included acts like The Denver Gentlemen, Slim Cessna, Tarantella, Munly, and more. (Full disclosure,  I later spent about two years in Denver, and shared bills at one time or another with most of these acts).

David Eugene Edwards of 16 Horsepower was fond of using open minor tunings in what sounded to me like an Open Gm form, and while I’d already spent half my life in open tunings, and while I was also deeply fond of minor keys, I’d never really put the two together in an Open Gm form until I heard 16 Horsepower. But listen to South Pennsylvania Waltz, or Coal Black Horses, or I Seen What I Saw, or Prison Shoe Romp, and you’ll surely see the similarities! (The following playlist has a whole host of 16 Horsepower gems):

Another big influence on the sound of “Down The Drain” was actually a song I learned to love from hearing my Dad play it on the record player when I was a kid. It was a great guitar instrumental from an era full of great guitar instrumentals, and I used to just love it. I’m not even sure I was drawing on its influence as “Down The Drain” started to come together, but once I realized what I’d done, it was pretty obvious what I’d done! Give it a listen, and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean:

Duane Eddy did a killer version of this as well, which you can check out here, and which I also really love.

The semi-wordless chorus (depending on whether you think “sha” and “la” are words!) of “Down The Drain” is probably the other key component of this song that has clear sonic antecedents. I’ve always loved songs that use vocal “sound” as evocation … think of the “humming” part of Skip James’ magisterial “Hardtime Killing Floor Blues” as but one example (Skip’s melodies on this song are definitely an influence on “Down The Drain” as well!), or Adelaide Hall on Ellington’s “Creole Love Call,” both of which are great examples of this kind of thing. Probably more specific to “Down The Drain” of course is something like Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl”—the sha-la-la’s tell the whole emotional story! Given the sound of my voice though, the comparison that probably leaps to mind sooner than Van Morrison is Tom Waits, from “Jersey Girl.” And yeah, I’ll confess that was in my mind when I first started toying with doing the chorus this way. But honestly, it’s not one of my favorite Waits songs, and truthfully, while “Down The Drain” may SOUND like “Jersey Girl” the effect I was actually after was more akin to Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” which somehow manages to make la-la-la sound somehow so … rueful.

So, where does that get us to so far? 16 Horsepower, Bill Justis, Skip James, and some combination of Van Morrison, Tom Waits, and Iggy Pop. That’s the music!

Now, as to lyrics, that’s a little harder. I don’t entirely know WHERE they came from! I will certainly admit that the drink has played a lot of roles in my songs over the years, and Shane MacGowan has certainly been my patron saint in that regard, so the reference to “your Chardonnay sky will go black & tan” can probably be attributed in no small part to the influence of The Pogues. And I’m not sure one can write a song with rain as a central metaphor and not be thinking of Ann Peebles singing “Can’t Stand The Rain”:

There is actually a LOT of country blues in Peebles’ song, most notably in this verse:

Alone with the pillow
Where his head used to lay, yeah
I know you’ve got some sweet memories
But like a window you ain’t got nothin’ to say

Which definitely calls to mind these lyrics from Son House’s immortal Death Letter Blues:

Got up this mornin’, just about the break of day
A-huggin’ the pillow where she used to lay

I actually first discovered Ann Peebles’ song being sung by a band at Your Place Too in Oakland, back in the late eighties. (Check out my friend Pete Devine’s bio on the Howell Devine website for a nice little reference to Your Place Too). I don’t remember the band, but I’ve always remembered the song!

So, now we’re up to: 16 Horsepower, Bill Justis, Skip James, some combination of Van Morrison, Tom Waits, and Iggy Pop, Shane MacGowan, and Ann Peebles.

And I think that’s where I’ll stop. Eight! And I tell you what, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to write songs, if for no other reason than you get to listen to so much music! Thanks for helpin’ me continue to get to do it! To borrow (and mutate!) a great quote from the world of creative writing, to be a good songwriter, you must be a good songlistener!

~

Buy “Preacher Boy – The National Blues” direct! Just click the image below:

PreacherBoy_TheNationalBlues_Web

 

 


On The Eve Of The Songwriter’s Showcase Finals, A List Of 23 Genius Songs We All Wish We’d Written, But Didn’t

Tuesday, May 5th, 7-10pm, Britannia

Tomorrow night, it’s the finals of the 13th Annual Songwriter’s Showcase (sponsored by Mars Studios, and hosted by the Britannia Arms in Capitola, CA), and I am to be a judge. Which is very exciting for me, and an honor I accept with the utmost seriousness.

Because said event is nigh, I have songwriting on the brain.

Now, in re: said event, based on what I know to date about the competitors, I think it is safe to say that we are not working with the broadest definition of singer-songwriter (i.e. anyone who sings a song they have written), but rather, we are operating within the more precise realm of the “Singer-Songwriter”; that is to say, within the folk-troubadour tradition. Operators within this space may claim as their ancestors and inspirations the likes of, say, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, or Joan Armatrading; James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett, or Townes Van Zandt; Bill Withers, Billy Bragg, or Neil Young; Tracy Chapman, Dolly Parton, or Nick Drake; Elliot Smith, Patti Smith, or Carol King; Phil Ochs, Suzanne Vega, or Ben Harper; Greg Brown, Indie.Arie, or Bruce Springsteen; Kris Kristofferson, Sam Cooke, or Ani DiFranco, or even, yes, John Lennon and Jerry Garcia. This IS Santa Cruz County, after all.

The point being, there is singing a song one has written, and then there are “Singer-Songwriters.” For this event, I think it is safe to say we are considering the latter.

And so, bearing that in mind, I have elected, almost strictly for personal kicks, to assemble a list of some of the greatest songs (fundamentally — with just a couple stretches– in this mold) ever written, songs that you and I both wish we’d written, but didn’t.

With no apologies for what I’ve left out or what I’ve included, and in no particular order, I proffer the following:

1. Willie & Laura Mae Jones, by Tony Joe White.
Dear ALL aspiring political songwriters. This is how you handle racism in a song. Funkily, powerfully, honestly, and narratively. A masterpiece.

2. The Ballad of Hollis Brown, by Bob Dylan
Devasting. One chord. That is all.

3. Here Comes A Regular, by Paul Westerberg (The Replacements)
If you understand the difference between this and “Piano Man,” you’re on to something. If you don’t, you’re not.

4. Grandma’s Hands, by Bill Withers
Can YOU be this powerful, soulful, beautiful, muscular, and emotional, while singing about YOUR grandma? Yeah …

5. In the River, by Michael Been (The Call)
White gospel, from an 80s indie band. Incredible.

6. Straight To Hell, by Joe Strummer (The Clash)
Just an unbelievably great song; epic, monumental; spooky, depressing; vivid, political, social, emotional, gut-wrenchingly raw, pathotically weird and funny and sad and strange and perfect. And so cool …

7. Glory Box, by Beth Gibbons (Portishead)
Incredible lyric movement, traveling from the personal and idiosyncratic, to the most fundamentally raw, sensual, and real. Killer … And that melody line, over that bass line? Killer …

8. Red Dirt Girl, by Emmylou Harris
As good a “story song” as any ever written, coming from out the folk-blues-southern thing …

9. Our Mother the Mountain, by Townes Van Zandt
Because if you write this …

Fingers walk the darkness down
Mind is on the midnight
Gather up the gold you’ve found
You fool, it’s only moonlight.
If you try to take it home
Your hands will turn to butter
You better leave this dream alone
Try to find another.

… then your s&%t is amazing.

10. Four Women, by Nina Simone
Because if you can powerfully and successfully address sexism AND racism in a song with a final line of “My name is Peaches,” and not only get away with it, but kill it? Then your s&$t is amazing.

11. Amsterdam, by Jacques Brel
Epic in every sense of the word. Dirty, seedy, and romantic; beautiful, tragic, and raw. And it ends with an image of pissing. Such an achievement … just towering.

12. State Trooper, by Bruce Springsteen
Simply one of the best road songs ever. And that’s saying something.

13. Death Don’t Have No Mercy, by the Reverend Gary Davis
It’s admittedly hard to concede ACTUAL songwriting credits when it comes to the “shared” folk-blues-gospel cannon, but this is pretty close to clear, so I’m just going to say it’s Davis’ song. I played a version of this recently, and someone from the audience spoke to me afterwards, referring to this song as “dark gospel, but true gospel.” To which I say, yes.

14. Psalm, by John Coltrane
There are technically no lyrics to this song, but if you know the story of this song, then yes there are lyrics. And this song is INCREDIBLE. Listen to this while reading the “lyrics,” and you’ll have one of the most moving poetry/music experiences of your life …goose bumps. Forever.

15. 16 Shells From A Thirty Ought Six, by Tom Waits
Because Tom Waits should be on this list somewhere, and because for my money, it was with this song that Waits not only created a language all his own, but became a genre all his own.

16. Back Home In Derry, by Christy Moore
No one does homesick like the Irish, and few do it better than Christy Moore with this song.

17. Fairytale of New York, by Shane MacGowan (The Pogues)
Ditto the above, except way, way, way sadder and more f&#*ed up …

18. Washington D.C. Hospital Blues, by Skip James
Most country blues artists didn’t really “write” songs in the way we think of it being done, and few if any wrote any new material later in life. The eerily excellent Skip James is the exception; he not only wrote brilliant songs of his own, he wrote NEW songs of his own post his “re-discovery.” This is one such song, and it’s utterly, totally brilliant for capturing in a single story (being sick in the hospital), and in a single couplet (I’m a poor man, but I’m a good man, you understand) an entire universe worth of the relationships between pride and shame, poverty and pride, and everything else about what it means to be both strong in, and at the mercy of, the world.

19. Diamonds and Rust, by Joan Baez
Any song that can sound amazing as sung by both the composer (Baez) and Judas Priest, HAS to be incredible …

20. I Shall Be Released, by Bob Dylan (The Band)
Is it possible someone actually sat down with pen and paper and just WROTE this song? Not possible …

21. Think, by Aretha Franklin
Yeah, she wrote it.  Well, co-wrote it. But she wrote it. And it’s so, so, so badass. It’s like singer-songwriter soul haiku, distilled down to the resonant power of just two words: Think. Freedom.

22. Cities In Dust, by Siouxie Soux
Apocolyptic, graphic, poetic, with a hook from the gods. One of the greatest songs from a great era, transcends all boundaries to simply be great, resonant, and powerful. Just play it on acoustic, solo. It swings so hard, and runs so deep …

23. Go Tell Aunt Rhody, author unknown
I don’t know who the hell wrote this lil’ lullaby of Gothic Americana, but it’s a monster lesson in The Weird Old America … Possibly the first song I ever learned, and possibly the song I’ve been trying to write my whole life …

~

Here’s to tomorrow night, and discovering something new to add to this list!


The Country Blues

In Memory of Samuel Charters

Samuel Charters passed away last week. A man to whom I owe an almost inexpressible debt.

As I read Mr. Charters’ obituary, I was stunned to realize that I first read his book “The Country Blues” 30 years ago. Because of his book, I have been playing this music for 30 years. 30 years! If I read that number in someone else’s bio, I’d immediately assume elder statesman; a grizzled veteran; a lifer. Strange to realize that number 30 applies to me now.

TheCountryBlues_SamuelCharters_1

But that’s how important that book was to me. It literally changed my life. Dramatically. Who knew one seemingly innocuous trip to the library by my mother would result in a 30-year immersion in this music?

PreacherBoy_BlindPig

I signed my first record deal in 1994, with Blind Pig Records. This was approximately 10 years after I first read “The Country Blues.” If you look up my first bio on the Blind Pig Records website, you’ll find the story of the book right there:

“When he was 16, he stumbled upon Samuel Charter’s book entitled The Country Blues, which his mom had brought him from the library, knowing his current fascination with a Howlin’ Wolf record that he had found in the family record collection. Although he had never heard of any of the names in the book, their stories and personalities completely swept him away. He immediately ran to the record store and purchased a compilation album from the Newport Folk Festival, and thus began a lifetime of respect, love and devotion for the music of players like John Hurt, Son House, Fred McDowell, Bukka White, Mance Lipscomb and many others.”

GuttersAndPews

On my second Blind Pig album (Gutters & Pews), we did a version of Catfish Blues, based on a performance from the Newport Folk Festival by Willie Doss that I discovered on that Vanguard album noted above. The Vanguard album I bought because of Samuel Charters.

DemandingToBeNext_1

My album Demanding To Be Next was released in 2004. 20 years after I first read The Country Blues. On it, I did a version of “Death Letter Blues” by Son House. A song I first heard when I was 16 years old. Because of that book by Samuel Charters.

It’s early 2015 now. It is 30+ years since I read “The Country Blues.” And I am going to release a new album this year. (Actually, I’m going to release 3 new albums! But that’s another story …). And that album is going to contain performances of songs I first discovered because of Samuel Charters.

I won’t name names, but there are a lot of writers out there these days trying to make their names by debunking the idea of Country Blues. Writers who seem to think they’re awfully clever for “proving” that the whole story of Country Blues was “invented” by a bunch of misguided young white kids in the 60s who “rediscovered” Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Skip James, Bukka White, Fred McDowell, and more.

Well, listen. I’m not rendering judgement on the conduct of those individuals. Dick Waterman, Stephan Grossman, John Fahey, Dick Spottswood, et al. But what I will say is this: I don’t care how clever you think your book is, or how deep your research is, or how many myths you think you’ve debunked, or how much you think you know about race issues as they relate to this music. Nothing — I repeat, nothing — can change the truth of those recordings. They exist. They are real. Those performances happened. Those songs were written. Those voices were lifted. Those chords were played. And my life –and the lives of so many others — was changed. Not because of any myth. Not because of some false and over-romanticized narrative. Not because of some imagined and perpetuated legend.

We were changed by the music.

I read the book, and the book took me to the record store. (Tower Records, Seattle). And the book and I, we found that Vanguard Twofer full of names that were in the book. And so the book and I bought it. And then the book and I took ourselves home on the bus. And when we got home the book and I went to the living room and put the album on the record player. And the book and I sat back and listened as Mississipi John Hurt began to play “Sliding Delta.” And my life changed.

And that is a true story.

And I would not have experienced any of this truth if it wasn’t for Samuel Charters. So to him I offer deep bows. Very, very, very deep bows.

Samuel Charters, you changed my life. And I cannot thank you enough.


%d bloggers like this: