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I'd Rather be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues Paperback – 21 Aug 1994

3.9 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Paperback, 21 Aug 1994
£45.90 £13.79
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Product details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press Inc (21 Aug. 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 (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 4,977,489 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product description


"Penetrating and idiosyncratic . . . A remarkable book." "--Minneapolis City Pages"

"Entertaining and on the mark . . . Calt's narrative is always interesting and often spellbinding . . . Fascinating reading." "--Acoustic Guitar"

"[Calt] writes with a knowledge and intelligence that make even his most extreme statements interesting . . . His greatest virtue is his insistence on painting James as a real, albeit infuriating, person ." "Boston Globe""

"The appearance of a book on Skip James and his worlds as thorough, clearheaded, and insightful as Calt s should be considered a gift of fate. To say I d Rather Be the Devil is the best book on the subject of country blues for the layperson would be an understatement on the order of 'Air is good for your body.'"" Village Voice""

"This is the real thing. I drink up every word. This and Calt s life of Charlie Patton are the best books ever written on the subject of old-time blues." R.Crumb, author, "R. Crumb s Heroes of Blues, Jazz and Country""

"Intimate, learned, trenchant, chilling, and true . . . This work surpasses its task with comprehensive research and insight suggestive of far, uncharted travels." Alan Greenberg, author, "Love in Vain""

"An extraordinary work devoted to blues, and more specifically, to one of the true enigmas of country blues." Lawrence Cohn, editor, "Nothing But the Blues""

"Penetrating and idiosyncratic . . . A remarkable book." "Minneapolis City Pages""

"Entertaining and on the mark . . . Calt s narrative is always interesting and often spellbinding . . . Fascinating reading." "Acoustic Guitar""

"A fascinating and disturbing book, containing a lot of truth, a lot of interesting historical research, and a lot of food for thought." "Living Blues""

From the Back Cover

This probing study uncovers much of the life and personality of one of the most talented, but disturbed, of bluesmen, Skip James. In documenting the singer's decline during the period of his greatest exposure, Stephen Calt challenges the values of blues enthusiasts and calls into question widely accepted beliefs about the blues genre, its history and its exponents.

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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is one of the most readable, unputdownable (true, that is not a word) books on the old weird American blues scene you will ever read. No other book you will read on this music is comparable though the late John Fahey was a pal of author Calt's and there is a connection here and with Fahey's How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life.
What mars this book is the huge chip on Calt's shoulder. Yes, he captures the tough, primitive conditions of the bluesman in the pre-WW2 Deep South better than anyone else ever has but Lord, does this Calt fellow have a chip on his shoulder or what? He maintains Skip James was a musical genius (true), a total nightmare as a human being (seems to be so, alas...) and that James had only four truly great songs (baloney).
By the end of the book you want to both hear some Skip James music and find Calt and smack him in the mouth. He's dead now so we have missed our collective chance but I doubt, much as we admire his knowledge, there is a single Amazon customer who would want to have had a meal with Calt as company. Or had a meal with Skip James either but at least James could pick guitar like no other soul on this planet before or since. Still, this book is valuable and we thank both gentlemen for their art if not their lifestyles.
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