I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues by Stephen Calt
In I’d Rather Be the Devil, Stephen Calt grates against our perceptions of Skip James, indicating that he was a limited and even lazy musician. Even James’s well-known “cross-note” guitar tuning Calt characterizes as a crutch, because it made playing easier. Such sentiments may not sit very well with those of us familiar with the amazing virtuosity of I’m So Glad and the gloomy sentiment of Hard Time Killing Floor Blues. Incongruently, in other places Calt seems to over-praise James, such as his assessment of 22-20 Blues: “the piano masterpiece that probably offers the greatest instrumentation of any blues song” and “probably the most impromptu, improvised effort found in blues recording”.
As if railing on Skip James wasn’t enough, Calt seems to take on almost all blues fans by trying hard to deflate some popular notions. In the early part of the book he dismisses the usual romanticized thinking about classic blues artists and implies that much of the perceived intent in their music is actually fakery. He even goes so far as to suggest that these artists were largely not even ‘blue’, that it was just a persona that they adopted to sell themselves. But Calt doesn’t limit his criticism to artists only as he indicates that folk music fans are imbeciles, along with the majority of blues fans.
Calt also alleges that “country blues” is a myth and that there was, essentially, no such thing as local blues traditions. The problem with these allegations is that they are backed up with rather flimsy evidence. This is a missed opportunity for us to hear an opposing viewpoint, which always a healthy thing if it gives us impetus to ponder and reconsider what we assume to be true. But Calt needed to provide a lot more information in order to be taken seriously. On the matter of local traditions, for instance, the subject is handled much better, in great detail by David Evans in Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues, and by Jeff Todd Titon in Early Downhome Blues: A Musical and Cultural Analysis.
This is essentially a joyless book. The author seems to take no pleasure in the contents, even to the point that he muses that he wished he had never met Skip James at all. One wonders why he bothered writing the book if it dredged up such unpleasant memories. Still, it would be wise of us to not dismiss everything Calt has to say just because he is so grumpy. Presumably he came to his conclusions not at a whim but through first-hand knowledge. Certainly he is correct about the issue of fakery in the case of some artists, such as illustrated in the case of Rube Lacy in Titon’s Early Downhome Blues. About his recording, Mississippi Jailhouse Groan, Lacy tells Titon that he never actually spent time in jail: “Sometimes I’d propose lyrics as if it happened to me in order to [appeal to] somebody else.” However, Titon views this not so much as fakery but an expression of sympathy.
Calt does also have some interesting things to say about various topics, one being the barrelhouse. It was originally a sporting house, for the purposes of dissemination of alcohol and hosting prostitution, and Calt alleges that the early barrelhouse blues players were essentially pimps. However, he says that this sort of barrelhouse ceased operating in the early 1920s due to prohibition. The demise of the barrelhouse was also hastened by the ascendency of blues guitar players, who were no longer dependent on a barrelhouse to house their instrument but could instead take their guitar wherever they went. As a result of these developments the barrelhouse gave way to events at residences such as the house rent party. According to Skip James, “There wasn’t no clubs; they’d have their jukes and parties in private homes.” Nevertheless, James talks about playing in barrelhouses well into the 1930s. Calt points out that these were not respectable establishments but seedy dives, which, to be fair, pretty much describes what most of us consider a barrelhouse anyway.
Another point Calt brings up is that, technically, most of the songs that Skip James played were not blues, if we adhere to the 12-bar and related structures as a necessary characteristic. Calt refers to them as “rag” songs played in a blues manner. Since most of us would not put James in the ragtime category, like we might do with someone like Mississippi John Hurt, then we may need to reevaluate what qualifies as blues. If blues is a feeling, or a manner of playing, then James’s music certainly qualifies.
To sum up, the wealth of information presented in this book should qualify it for a five-star rating, were it not for the writing defects. Often, learning the true character of our heroes can be painful and disillusioning. However, what’s troubling here is not just the facts of Skip James’s character but the apparent contempt that Calt has for his subject, someone who he spent many hours with. One wonders what affront James perpetuated against Calt to leave him so bitter. It seems most likely the truth is that Calt and James were both ill-tempered, dissatisfied people by nature. That Calt feels necessary so often to drive home the fact that James was a misanthrope only points out that he is just as guilty.
Only at the very end does Calt admit that despite the time they spent together Skip James was an enigma to him. The tone turns wistful for just a few short pages. Unfortunately this conflicts with the tone of the rest of the book since so much of it is judgmental. This leaves us longing for the book that could have been written if only Calt had given a more balanced, objective account.
In the end I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues is still an essential read because there is no other biography of Skip James. The reader is simply cautioned to have their eyes open and have plenty of grains of salt on hand.