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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Desperately interesting - but little enthusiasm for anything but attack.
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...
Published on 19 April 2008 by G. P. Akerman

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2.0 out of 5 stars Should come with a free bar of soap......
I had read some of the previous reviews of this book, it's fair to say that none of them do it justice. I was hoping to read a balanced biography of a blues giant. Recording session details would have been appreciated, likewise a discography of what is available by Skip James on cd and vinyl. Instead what the author has produced is nothing but the worst kind of hatchet...
Published 10 months ago by foomum


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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Desperately interesting - but little enthusiasm for anything but attack., 19 April 2008
By 
G. P. Akerman "g p a" (Oxford, England) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: I'd Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues (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.

(The roll call of insult is pretty extraordinary: Son House is hapless and simple-minded; Robert Pete Williams is semi-psychotic; Jesse Fuller is a bitter loner; Fred McDowell has a bleating voice and a deranged wife; Robert Wilkins is a bore; Muddy Waters is a has-been; Mississippi John Hurt dull and simple; Al Wilson (Canned Heat) is an ugly nerd; John Cephas is a poor guitarist; Cream/Clapton - a bit crap; Alan Lomax is ridiculous; John Hammond is narrow-minded; John Fahey is machiavellian; Dick Waterman ignorant and dishonest (he REALLY hates the last two!). I could go on... He particularly saves up his rancour for "an obnoxious blues guitarist" who he slanders but leaves unnamed - though most readers would put the fairly obvious clues together and assume it's Stefan Grossman. I'm not suggesting that biographies have to be filled with love, and part of the book's purpose is to expose what the author sees as the fraud of the blues revival, but at times it turns into score-settling with nobody but Calt capable of sincerity or intelligence.)

This book is definitely worth reading if you're interested in blues - it's far and away the most detailed account of a single performer I've come across. However, there's a strange paradox at its centre: it ridicules blues enthusiasts for culturing a love for this music purely out of a desire to be seen as experts in an authentic, obscure art formed out of a socially deprived, musically primitive context - but Calt counters their approach by arguing that James was EVEN more obscure than we might think, EVEN more deprived, EVEN more primitive. He doesn't actually argue against the idea of biographical authenticity, as an irrelevant idea in creative art, he just argues that his authenticity is better than anyone else's. Well, maybe it is...

Given the lyrics of James' songs, it wasn't a surprise to find that he was a pretty unpleasant guy, bitter and self-important - but I was surprised to feel the same way about the author! Calt and Wald have made me wonder why I'm so attracted to pre-war blues (but not to modern, less romanticised forms like rap etc.); however, I still think that it's possible for great music to appear DESPITE its context rather than simply because of it. By the end of Wald's book, I listened to Robert Johnson's music with a new ear. by the end of the Calt book, the challenge was to return to the music with the same level of enjoyment as I had felt prior to reading it (surely an odd response from a book about music!). Who would win: the music or Calt's demolition?

(Skip James won.)
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Groundbreaking Piece Of History, 19 Jun 1998
By A Customer
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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An unsentimental portrait, 8 Nov 2008
By 
jbezzo "jbezzo" (Cumbria) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: I'd Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues (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
5.0 out of 5 stars No One Said It Was Going To Be Easy . . ., 7 Feb 1999
By A Customer
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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2.0 out of 5 stars Should come with a free bar of soap......, 17 Jun 2013
By 
foomum (Swansea,Wales,U.K.) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: I'd Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues (Paperback)
I had read some of the previous reviews of this book, it's fair to say that none of them do it justice. I was hoping to read a balanced biography of a blues giant. Recording session details would have been appreciated, likewise a discography of what is available by Skip James on cd and vinyl. Instead what the author has produced is nothing but the worst kind of hatchet job. Stephen Calt seems to have despised just about everyone he ever came into contact with. Whether they be fellow blues fans, blues concert promotors, other blues musicians or record company personnel none of them are safe from the venom filled bile that the author deems fit pour over everyone. The very worst of that bile is reserved for Skip James. I will not repeat some of the rubbish that the author has composed between the covers of this book, suffice to say that Stephen Calt was very wise to wait until the subject had passed away before getting this published. I'm sure that he would have been sued to hell and back if Skip James had still been alive when this thing went into print. All this is bad enough, but the single thing I have found to be the most offensive about this book is the fact that the "facts" in it, according to the author, all come from taped conversations with the subject. The author brazenly states at the very beginning of the book that he regularly went to the home of Skip James and his wife during the sixties and recorded conversations where the subject would talk about his own life and all manner of other things. To then produce a rag such as this about the man, based on those alleged conversations, is probably the worst act of treachery I have ever seen in print. It does however say more about the true character of the author than he can ever hope to say about his subject. I can only think of one worse thing than having Stephen Calt as an author and that would have been having him for a neighbour. Would I recommend this book? Not on your life, it has no redeeming factors at all and as an alleged "biography", it is well suited for inclusion in the "fiction" section of your local library .Why the free bar of soap as mentioned in the title of this review? Well, after reading this I wanted to wash my hands. They felt dirty.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An apreciated present, 13 Feb 2013
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This review is from: I'd Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues (Paperback)
Again an appreciated Christmas present, prompt arrival in good condition. A supplementary prese3nt to go with the book 'The land where the Blues was born@.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars All hail Skip, 30 Jan 1997
By A Customer
I must thank mr. calt for his dedication to mr.james for he deserves all the credit and acclaim that he can get. through out the book I got the feeling that mr.calt was letting his personal judgement concerning mr.james get in the way of an acurate representation. most of the character jugements so often hinted at throughout this biography seem to come from calt's experiences with the man towards the end of his life. Lets all remember Mr. calt what a genius [as John hurt has called the man] really means. I'm sure dieing of cancer and not reciveing your due during your lifetime would make anyone bitter. I hope there are others out there who wait for anything to read about such a person and if so, this is a good place to start.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well researched but mean spirited, 15 May 1998
By A Customer
Calt obviously knows his stuff when it come to Delta blues. Regrettably, his spiteful and unneccessary attacks on fellow blues enthusiasits ( guitarist John Fahey is a favorite target) and the apparent contempt he has for any white student of that genre detract from this otherwise darkly fascinating portrait of Skip James.
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I'd Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues
I'd Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues by Stephen Calt (Paperback - 10 Sep 2008)
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