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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Desperately interesting - but little enthusiasm for anything but attack., 19 April 2008
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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Location: Oxford, England

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