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I'd Rather be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues Paperback – Oct 1994

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Product details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press Inc (Oct. 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306805790
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306805790
  • Product Dimensions: 2.5 x 14 x 21.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,683,678 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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3.9 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By G. P. Akerman on 19 April 2008
Format: Paperback
Calt has a fantastic understanding of pre-war blues, based largely upon a series of interviews he conducted with James himself. Whereas most blues writers rely upon myth and hearsay, Calt employs direct quotation - often followed by critical interpretation. Skip James always seemed - and sounded - mysterious, so Calt's reinvention of him as a rather tawdry figure is a revelation. Like Elijah Wald's book on Robert Johnson, Calt positions blues as essentially a pop music from the early C20th rather than a mythical folk movement. Like Wald's book, it provides a fascinating insight into the world which created the performers and their music.

So why only 4 stars for such a great book?

Whereas Wald's book dissected the myths and closet racism surrounding some white blues appreciation in order to present a personally dearly loved music with clarity and respect, Calt pours spleen over everything. James was clearly a "bad man" in Calt's eyes, and this infects his appreciation of the music. Blues itself is seen as a severely limited art form (which it obviously is, in some ways) unworthy of consideration beyond Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Skip James - and Skip James only produced about three songs of any lasting worth in Calt's eyes. Blues enthusiasts are universally presented as idiots, charlatans or exploitative businessmen - despite the fact that this reviewer, and probably you reading this, would never have come across Johnson, James, Patton, House etc. if there hadn't been a revival of interest in the 1960s.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 19 Jun. 1998
Format: Paperback
In this book, Stephen Calt uses Skip James as a case-study to show the guts of the popular music industry from completely new angle. In the 1960s, a generation of British musicians suddenly became Blues aficionados after hearing that music on records. The recordings they heard were new reissues of old forgotten 78rpm discs from the 1920s and 1930s. Calt traces the story of how the reissued records came to be, and the new market they ultimately created. The story is not a pretty one. For fans of most popular music--especially the line which runs through the Stones, Clapton, and Led Zeppelin--this is fascinating and disturbing stuff. Skip James, the unlikely intellectual with many moral faults of his own, turns out to be a perfect lens through which to view the ugly business of some incredible music.
Calt is often accused of being "mean spirited" and pompous and such. Any writer whose purpose it is to shatter baseless myths is certain to ruffle some feathers. And that is the point.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By jbezzo VINE VOICE on 8 Nov. 2008
Format: Paperback
Stephen Calt's biography is a scathing reflection of the folk-blues boom of the mid-sixties and of one of its most challenging figures - Skip James. Calt shatters the illusion that the veneration of re-discovered performers was justified. He portrays them as artistically and physically decrepit, ravaged by time and in Son House's case alcohol. You can almost feel Calt cringe as he describes how the wet-brained alcoholic had to be taught his own songs by one of his adorin white acolytes Al Wilson. Calt holds many of the white enthusiasts "blues nerds" who scrabbled in the Delta mud to unearth long lost careers with barely concealed contempt. (It would be fair to say that Calt emerges as nerd to some degree - the chapters on James' song construction and guitar tuning shows that he has analysed those scratchy 78's with a level of detail that is almost clinical)

And then there's James. Calt probably got closer to James than anybody, certainly any white person and the emerging portrait is not an attractive one. James was cold, emotionally remote and mean-spirited; a seemingly bottomless well of contradiction; for example he portrayed himself as a victim of women who wished to bring him down, while he himself had used women in the most cynical sense by working as a pimp.

Calt knew James for the last five years of his life, by which time the brilliant musician of the 30's had become a bitter, ailing old man. When you read this book you will begin to get a better understanding of his music. The high, wailing voice and haunting guitar runs that are the perfect vessels for James to express his deep dissatisfaction of the way life's cards were dealt to him.

While not uplifting, this is an important book which any fan of the blues should read.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 7 Feb. 1999
Format: Paperback
What we have here:1) The lengthy and always compelling transcribed oral-autobiography of Skip James, a brilliant, idiosyncratic (and none too nice) blues musician from Bentonia, Mississippi whose greatest work was done in the 20's and 30's. A cynical fascinating tale of violence and feigned redemption, petty compromise and amoral cultural brilliance in the Jim Crow South. 2) A tour-de-force critique of the early 60's Folk Scene and the misguided, patronizing white college students who "rediscovered" blues musicians like Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Skip James. Told by a man (Stephen Calt) who, to his lingering shame and horror, played more than a bit part. A scathing dark comedy about race, art, America and ostensibly good intentions, which Tom Wolfe would've given a kidney to have penned.3) Pages upon pages of detailed technical musical analysis that, alas, is all too often prejudiced by the ambivalence and still festering rage of Calt. 4) A minor yet compelling intellectual memoir in which -- twenty-five years after James' death -- Calt tries and fails miserably to reconcile all of the above.The end result is a deeply flawed, mashed together work of incendiary history, cruel insight and all manner of self-delusion. A messy harrowing work of great worth and constant interest.
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