365 Days of Song Recommendations: Jan 7
When one is a fan of the country blues, one is a sufferer of a peculiar kind of fate — the material is finite, and what little is available is constrained by forces that time has placed beyond our influence.
We are left to wonder what more Robert Johnson could have done with another recording session; what more he could have done with another ten years of life lived; what more he could have done if the recording technology of the time didn’t hold him to three-minute compositions.
And think of that other Johnson! Tommy; he of the startling falsetto and haunted tones — what if he’d recorded an 18th, a 19th, a 20th song? What would they have sounded like?
And how about Ishmon Bracey? We only have 16 songs of his. Or Willie Brown, from whom we have less than a dozen recorded performances. There are so many other examples, and, of course, there are so many more that were never recorded at all.
Precious and few are those who lived long enough to be “rediscovered” in the 1960s, but thank god they did! What a joy to have fresh and new recordings from the likes of Mississippi John Hurt and Son House! And then there are those like Fred McDowell and Mance Lipscomb, whose first recordings were made in the “revival” years! Such a blessing.
What this all means, though, is that the country blues canon is small. And when one inspects it, one sees only a handful of true geniuses — artists like Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Bukka White — artists who brought the full measure of their talents as singers, performers, and composers to bear upon their work. And of those who survived to record again, how many were writing new songs? Regrettably, not many.
Skip James was one who was.
Not only was he one of the most unique, most compelling, most idiosyncratic, and most innovative artists at the time of his first recordings in 1929, he was every bit as beguilingly creative upon his “rediscovery,” and some of this best and most chilling performances were of brand-new songs.
For my money, the greatest of these is Washington D.C. Hospital Center Blues, a devastatingly powerful narrative that recounts, in part, his battle with the cancer to which he ultimately succumbed:
all the doctors
the nurses, too
they came and they asked me
who in the world are you?
i said I’m a good man
but I’m a poor man
In the halls of blues history, we find so many great voices, so many remarkable performers, so many astonishing instrumentalists. We find fewer great songwriters, and far fewer still are those who were able to continue writing new and great songs into their later years. Fortunately, the fates arranged it that we’d be blessed by at least a few, like Skip James, whose brazen and singular genius was afforded fair opportunity to continue expressing itself. We are richer for it, and if you’ve not yet given yourself the reward of listening to all of Skip James’ music, please begin doing so today. You will be grateful.
Listen to all the songs compiled for #365Songs to-date: