Meeting Skip James
By Tom Jacobson
In 14 Parts:
I guess it was the winter of '66 when I learned that Skip James was to be playing at The Sign of the Sun, our little coffee house in San Diego. They used to do the occasional concert with folk and blues artists - Rev. Gary Davis, John Hurt, etc. The audience at such events probably numbered 30-50 people, something like that.
I knew Jerry, who was in charge of the concerts, and he asked me if I would show Skip around San Diego on the day that he was here. Of course, I was delighted to do it and called a few of my buddies, of which I think two were able to go along. We were all in our late teens at the time. A couple of us were budding muscians, very much into the blues. As I remember, we picked up Skip at a rooming house downtown. He was slighter than I expected, very courteous and princely in bearing. He got into the car and was peppered with questions on the way to the zoo. Did he know Robert Johnson, what did he think of the Cream's version of I'm so Glad, etc. He was most cooperative, answering in his shy way. We were in heaven.
He walked quite a long way with us around the zoo. I have never taken anyone to the zoo who enjoyed it more than he did. He was entranced. The sea lions amazed him, with their barking. He had never seen one before. It's possible that he had never been to a zoo before. When we came to a cage with some black crows, he mentioned that he had written a song called Crow Jane.
One thing I remember was that after having some food, maybe a hot dog, and a coke, he took out his napkin, folded it lengthwise a few time, and then wiped his teeth with it. He explained that this was a way of brushing your teeth when you couldn't do it with water. That was a first for me. He also would ball up Vicks Vaporub and swallow it. He said it worked from the inside that way!. Maybe he was right, but I was concerned that he was poisoning himself. He apparently had a chronic cough at that time, and sounded congested.
It was a long visit to the zoo for what I thought was an old man. We brought him back to his room around 2PM for a rest before the show. We asked him if we could see his guitar, maybe prodding him a little for a demo. He went to his room and returned with a guitar case, which he carefully opened. Inside he had a soft cloth on top of the guitars strings, removed that, again carefully, and took the Martin out. It had a label on the head that said Skip James. Now we were excited. We all asked if we could handle it, having never played a Martin before. He said sure, and a couple of us tried to play a few licks on it. He was delighted, encouraging us with "That's very good", and such. When the guitar got back to him he took a yellow can out of the case, that he called "Fanga Eeze" and sprayed the strings, explaining that he always used Fanfa Eeze to lubricate the strings. He then started playing something strange. I thought to myself, poor guy can't play anymore. It was a rambling bit of stuff, off rhythm. Then he started to play "I'm so Glad". He played and sang the hell out of that, he was really rolling - very fast, and perfect. We burst into applause. What a moment.
We left him for his rest, really pumped up for the show that night.
Looking through my archives, I see that it was probably in the Spring of 1966 that I first met Skip. I won't go into detail about the show that night, but he played exuberantly, and he began by thanking his friends in San Diego for taking him to the zoo where he saw a fish that barked like a dog (much laughter in the audience).
I took some photographs that night with my father's Nikon and when I wrote to Skip, I sent one along. Not much of a photo, overexposed, etc. I was excited to receive the following letter soon after.
5274 Jefferson St.
June 13th, 1966
Dear Mr. Tom Jacobson. How are you. at this time fine I hope. well Tom I am doing the very best I can. work are very slow now for me. it has been 5 or 6 weeks since I have did any thing at all. and you know just how I stand now. I already Have some few Bills on hand. and there is more to come. and I cannot hear anything from my manager at all. for nothing in sight, as yet. now I really appreciate the picutre I think it very nice. and also my wife. She Love it very much. now the Records Will not be released Until August so I Learn. So Just as soon as they come out I sill let you know- so By for this time. Yours Truely Skip James- 5274 Jefferson St. Phila Pa
Well, Blues-L'ers what would you do if you received a letter from one of the greatest artists that this country has ever produced stating that the bills are piling up, no work in 5 or 6 weeks, and nothing in sight? This from a man who touched you deeply with his music and soul? I did what anyone of you would do today - I sent him what I could. It wasn't much, certainly less than $100, I really don't recall now. Not wanting to hurt his pride, I quoted his lyric, "Cause you're a poor man, but you're a good man, I understand," and suggested that he could pay me back when he could.
I received back the following letter:
5274 Jefferson St.
Mr. Tom Jacobson
Dear friend indeed of mine. Just a few words to let you hear from me and to let you know that I have and did receive the most precious and Greatful suprise that I have ever received from such Kind and affection friend. I am really Lost for words, to express my Graitude of Thanks for such Lovely favour. Hope that you are well and progressing fine. now this Leaves me and family well as can expect. now I have not made the trip over Sea as yet. I dont no Just When it Will be after the new Port festival so Dick Waterman said. Just when I cannot tell. that is if I will except the trip and what it will mean to me. So I will let you no about it in time. Jacobson you never have and will Hit the Target or Spot as true and Direct as you did in this nice favour. Boy I have,nt did any work since the first of may. and Quite natural I was all down and on the cracker Box. but you really lifted me off. (Smile) now as you know and for ever will that my inward affection is more abundant toward you, and I rejoice therefore that I have confidence in you in all Things. Yes I am a poor man. but I am a Good man. I am sure you does understand. Sincely and Truely friend Skip and Lorenza my wife Joins, Sending Love and Best respects. So by for this time. Hope to see you soon.
The next page was written by his wife:
Dear Tom This is Skips Wife riting this altho I Have Never met you He Has talked about you so much until I feel as if I know you, and of course His friends is my friends too. And you Sure are A friend. We Don't Have Words to express our Thanks for your Kind Thoughtfulness it was so very kind of you, and Let him Know that you really care about Him. And I do Hope that you will come this Way sometime and you are always Welcome in our Humble Home. May god ever Bless you and keep you in His Care. rite us any time you can We Remain your truly, Skip and Lorenza James
About a month later I received another letter from Skip:
Phila 19131 Pa.
5274 Jefferson ST.
Mr. Tom Jacobson,
Dear friend, just a few words to Let you hear from me, as a Dear Friend of yours - Skip James. Hoping that you are Well and doing fine. this Leaves me Very well so far - but works are very slow with me now, and has been since the festival. but ar hoping things will be much Better after the Records comes out Which will be in the next 2-or3- weeks. and as soon as it happen I will send you a cuples of them. don't worrie. now I still feel indebeted to you for your kind favours you have did for me- and hope to repay in the early future. so let me hear from you soon. 2) and When ever you feel Like coming This way Please let me no before time. and you are more than Welcome to come to my Home and Stay Just As Long as you wont too. And I Believe that you will Like it very much. Give my Best Respects to all of our friends. so my Wife Join in Sending Love and regards to you and friends. so I close. Yours sincerely - Skip James -
PS- Phone- Gr 76340
Unfortunately I never did get to the East coast. It would have been quite an experience to have taken Skip up on his typically gracious offer of a place to stay. Perhaps if I had I would have met his friend Stephen Calt. Calt lived on the East coast and could visit Skip very easily. Our paths never crossed - that is not until recently, when a friend presented me with a copy of Calt's book on Skip. Of that there is LOTS more to come....
Skip James was basically a humorless person.... He had very little contrition, or even humility.... He took little notice of other musicians, except to disparage them.... A virtual cauldron of hidden aggression - essential coldness marked his personality, regardless of whether Dr.Jkyll or Mr. Hyde was on dispay.... He spent dozens of hours discussing his life with the author, who was attempting to document it: never did he mention doing anything remotely resembling a good deed, or an act of kindness on his part.... On his very deathbed James had nothing to fall back upon except his claim to have acheived musical excellence. He had virtually no friends.--Stephen Calt in his book I'd Rather Be the Devil, Skip James and the Blues
Stephen Calt has written a pathetic book. It will go down in the annals of blues history as an act of great betrayal and deceit.
Stephen Calt is utterly bereft of the equipment required to assess the life of a man such as Skip James. But even worse, he has betrayed the trust and good will of a now departed friend for personal gain. In the above quotes from his most unfortunate book he is really describing himself. Stephan Calt has virtually nothing good to say about anyone. Cold, humorless, aggressive beyond belief, it is hard to imagine spending dozens of hours with the man, let alone discussing positive life experiences. He is the very definition of negativity.
Calt claims that Skip never once mentioned, in the dozens of hours of interviews with him, a single act of kindness. Stephen Calt, let me ask you something: did Skip James EVER demand to be paid for his interviews on tape? Did he EVER ask you for a cut of the book that you were working on? Did he EVER ask for the right to review and edit your interviews?
Stephen Calt would not recognize an act of kindness if it bit him in his scowling face. I had the honor to interview Skip James on tape. He was as kind and giving as he could be. No demand for remuneration - not a hint. Skip gave Calt all that he could give. He had no money. If he had been the success of a John Lee Hooker, or Buddy Guy, I am sure that he would have shared that success with others less fortunate.
Stephan Calt is despicable. He has taken the gifts of Skip James and turned them against him after his death. He has attempted to appropriate the legacy of Skip James and fashion it to enhance his own legacy. That will fail - it will fail miserably.
"Had James been more fond of himself,no doubt, he would not have had such reflexive severity with others."
--Stephen Calt, I'd Rather Be the Devil, pg. 321
STEPHEN CALT ON:
- SON HOUSE: "...a hapless derelict..." pg 300
- JAMES MCKUNE: "...a forlorn, irrelevant figure....a semi-derelict...." pg 217
- AL WILSON: "...a high school nerd..." pg 269
- COLLEGE BLUES FANS: " ...strange misfits...commited suicide..." pg 260
- DICK WATERMAN: "...virtually a mental case..." pg 299
- NICK PERLS: "...petulant and abrasive." pg 299
- MABEL JAMES: "...the sort of woman to plunge an icepick into a Delta Sharecropper, leave the body in a plantation ditch..." pg 294
- REV. E.D. JAMES: "...a man of primitive anger." pg 166
- ROBERT PETE WILLIAMS: "...a caricature of a pimp." pg 267
- ANNIE MCDOWELL: "...had a pop-eyed deranged look..." pg 268
- FRED MCDOWELL: "... musical piety did not blend well with his purple shirt." pg 268
- JOHN FAHEY: " ...avariciously attached [himself] to blues singers.." pg 268
- BANANA ED DENSON: "...knew nothing about blues music...a hanger-on..." pg 278
- TACOMA RECORDS: "...two -bit label...inept ambitious schemers..." pg 281
I am of the opinion that one can only really understand Stephan Calt's book on Skip James by focusing on the thread of violent incidents that he presents to his readers. Since part of my focus will be the way that cuts and edits can be used to distort, I will quote the following without any cuts or edits. For the sake of clarity I have used the quotation marks as they appear in the original text of the paper back edition.
KEY QUOTE # 1:
This episode began when a mule-driver discovered that James had loaned his wife eight dollars during a Georgia Skin game. Reasoning that the loan concealed sexual designs, he opened James' tent. Inside, James was sitting in a cast-iron bath tub. He listened stoically to the man's tirade, and then volunteered the claim that he had loaned the money with the intention of receiving it back. The driver, however, was unmollified. "He started performin', cussin, and goin' on; see, he was one of those tough ones, too....He started sayin' that he wasn't gonna pay me a damn thing, and she wasn't, neither, and that he was gonna beat the hell out of me." "I say: 'Well, you have your priviledge; you got the advantage over me. ' " "...He stepped over inside the tent. When he made the step, I was lookin' for it in a way...He ought not to have done it."
In a moment James was aiming the .38 he kept concealed beneath his pillow on the bed beside his wash-tub. "I kept a gun all the time," he recalled. At point-blank range, he pumped six bullets into the man. "Could you blame me?" he later asked. "Man wanna beat me up, and I'm buck-naked?"
Knowing that there is no statute of limitations on murder, James would not admit to having killed the driver when he recounted the shooting decades later. When asked if the driver had died from his wounds,he replied archly: "I don't know what happened, but he was still there when somebody come and got him. Like I said, he ought not to have done it."
Quite possibly, he had been guilty of committing adultery with the driver's wife. In his own mind, however, he was an innocent victim of agression. For that reason, he had felt no fear during their confrontation. "I didn't have a right to be afraid," he said, as though it were a matter of principle, " 'cause I was right and he was wrong."
To his poisonous sense of affronted rectitude, he had added another deadly twist. Throughout his life he would remain a mild-mannered creature of cunning, using a disarming outward calmness to his advantage in confrontations. As he put it: "I let the errors of others be my success." The characteristic error of his violent contemporaries was blustering or being demonstrative. He never displayed his violent intentions in advance or forewarned his adversaries.
What was chilling about James' style in the above-recounted situation was that he had actually drawn his victim in by affecting helplessness. His behavior could only have encouraged the driver's belligerence. He could have scared the man off simply by brandishing his gun. Instead, James killed as if he had been playing poker, first lulling his victim into overconfidence, and then displaying his trump card. Instead of flourishing his winning card, he fired it: "I never draw a gun unless'n I pull the trigger," he was to say somberly.
It is impossible to even guess how many times in his life as a roustabout James pulled the trigger on someone as a matter of principle, pride, or pathology. He only discussed specific incidents of violence, and only then in the context of telling stories about his past. For the most part, he preferred not to discuss his past. The fact that James habitually carried a pistol and could kill someone with aplomb indicated that he was likely involved in several shooting episodes, considering the life he led.
-- pgs 59 and 60 of I'd Rather be the Devil, paperback edit.
Let's take a very careful look at this extensive quote. In the first paragraph we have James claiming to have innocently loaned another man's wife eight dollars during a Georgia Skin Game. Yet, we have Calt saying on page 320 stating that, "He spent dozens of hours discussing his life with the author, who was attempting to document it: never did he mention doing anything remotely resembling a good deed, or an act of kindness on his part." Calt goes on to quote James describing his confronter "see he was one of those tough one's, too..." He breaks the quote at that point. Why? Does Skip go on to describe this guys previous behavior, perhaps very violent? We don't know. Note that there are two more cuts in the Skip's narrative to follow in the first paragraph. What is missing?
In the second paragraph James is recalling, "I kept a gun all the time," Why does Calt then break the narrative and use his own words in the next line? " At point-blank range, he pumped six bullets into the man." Why do we not have Skip's words here? What does the tape actually say? We only have Calt's words on this very key point. Surely if he had Skip saying, "I fired six bullets into the guy", we would have had that quote! We have the entire incident described by Skip, except the most important part. I repeat, we only have Calt's word that Skip fired six shots into this man at point- blank range.
In the third paragraph Calt states, "Knowing that there is no statute of limitations on murder, James would not admit to having killed the driver when he recounted the shooting decades later" How do we know that Skip knows there is no statute of limitations on murder? Why not accept Skip at his word? We have Skip saying, "I don't know what happened, but he was there when somebody come and got him." However, do we really know to what he is reponding? Calt wants us to believe that he as aked Skip if the man died. Maybe he asked him, "What happened to the guy after you shot him?" Again, we only have Calt's spin. What's on the tape?
Jumping to the 6th paragraph we have Calt claiming that what is chilling is that Skip had "...actually drawn his victim in by affecting helplessness. His behavior could only have encouraged the driver's belligerence. He could have scared the man off simply by brandishing his gun." Is it true that his behavior could ONLY have encouraged the driver's belligerence? Hardly. This is only Calt's spin. James could have been appealing to the macho of the man, asking him, " are you going to attack a defenseless guy, sitting here naked?", hoping that he would back off . Calt has James killing as if he had been playing poker, bragging, " I never draw a gun unless'n I pull the trigger." Well, we really don't know that James killed anyone, do we? We only have Calt's words on that. Surely he shot the man. But that seems like self defense to me. Skip claims he never draws a gun unless he pulls the trigger, not that he never draws a gun unless he intends to kill!
Finally in the last paragraph we have some absolutely ridiculous speculation on Calt's part.: " The fact that James habitually carried a pistol and could kill someone with aplomb indicated that he was likely involved in several shooting episodes, considering the life he led." We do not know that Skip has killed anyone - ever. All we have is Calt's spin.
Let's move on to the second account of a violent incident. Skip is now working at another camp in northeastern Mississippi, working as a loader for about $2.00 a day.
KEY QUOTE # 2:
''When I was a loader, " he recalled, "one guy came in drivin', and I asked him to go a certain way. He wanted to go his way, but as I was the loader, it was his duty to go as I directed him. He got offended about it. "And he went on to the dump [levee] and picked him up a club. When he came back, he... made an effort to hit me....He meant to hit me in the head. I dodged it, and he hit my shoulder. That is where me and him had a little tangle then." "Quite naturally, I had to shoot him. I shot him in the neck, and then twice in the shoulder. I just wounded him enough to let him know what I would do if he made another attempt.... "Of course I could have killed him...But I passed it up." This was blatant double talk, for shooting someone in the neck could hardly have been James' idea of a warning shot. Most likely, his aim had been off.
--pg 63, I'd Rather be the Devil, paperback edit.
For the first time we have Skip's own words describing an actual shooting. He is being attacked by a man with a deadly weapon, has tried to avoid being hit in the head and has been struck in the shoulder. Imagine being faced by an enraged man with a club raised for attack. If you had a gun and wanted him to drop the club you would shoot around the area where the club was held, i.e., around the shoulder and neck area. Certainly at this point he is at point-blank range. This is not a warning shot, as Calt calls it , but a defensive shooting. Calt again comes up with his spin: "Most likely, his aim had been off." Apparently when Skip James doesn't kill someone, it is only because his aim is bad. This assailant was close enough to hit Skip with a club. Certainly he could have killed that man at that range if he wanted to. He wouldn't have shot at the neck and shoulder area, he would most likely have aimed at the largest body mass, the torso.
Next we come to the Chapter which Calt has titled "The Murderous Music Cat". We find Skip opening his own jukehouse in Bentonia.
KEY QUOTE # 3:
The club was only a few nights old when a gun fight broke out between two patrons as he played piano. Quickly it became "like a war." Stray bullets shattered the club's kerosene lamp and windows, and whizzed past James, nicking his piano.
Enraged, he flung his piano stool at one of the shooters. It caught him on the back of the head, pole-axing him on the spot. By then several other patrons had drawn their own guns.
James retreated into his kitchen. In a moment he appeared with a shotgun. He looked fruitlessly for the customer he had cold-cocked with his piano stool, but someone had already dragged the man outside. In a murderous rage, he then levelled the gun on the dance floor. He did not stop firing until the club was empty.
No one will ever know how many people were injured or slain by James - a deadly shooter with a deadly weapon - that night. No one much cared what happened to black partygoers on Mississsippi plantations of the period, least of all James' boss who would sometimes mildly chide James after an eruption of gunfire from one of the "frolics" his bootlegging tenent threw had disturbed the sleep of himself and his wife. Nor did James care about the casualties he inflicted during his rampage. Believing that the shooting had been staged by rival bootleggers to put him out of business, he grimly closed his club the following day.
--pgs 128 and 129, I'd Rather be the Devil
Well folks, we now have Skip James- mass murderer. Are we really going to take Stephan Calt's word about this incident? Where is Skip's description of the event? Isn't it much more likely that Skip fired into the floor and cleared out the room? Are we really to believe that even in Mississippi a black man can kill several unrelated other blacks in a fit of rage and no one reports the incident to the authorities? Calt's incredible statement that, "No one will ever know how many people were injured or slain by James - a deadly shooter with a deadly weapon - that night", sounds like a bad line from a pulp fiction detective story. What about the families and friends of these slain and injured people? Is it really likely that after having killed and maimed several people that night, Skip James would hang around until the next day and "grimly" close the club?! This with possible authorities, angry friends of the victims, grieving family members, and a gang of rival bootleggers all out to get him!! This Skip James guy is one hell of a bad hombre!
Stephen Calt ends his book on Skip James with a dramatic device I'll call "the enigma". He writes (pg 356):
Shortly before he took ill, he hinted that great revelations were to come. 'I've got a lot in store to tell you; I haven't even begun. I don't know if you're ready for it' Once the subject of blues lost its juvenile mystique, and I was able to reflect upon James from a mature perspective, I found myself pondering the implications of his sphinx-like deathbed statement.
After wisely ruling out that James was going to confess to having sold his soul to Satan, Calt concludes that , "The omission would be something that would likely make him appear treacherous or untrustworthy." He finally figures it out: "This missing link in his life, I concluded must have involved significant acts of criminality, ones that he recognized as crimes. The crimes would involve not the readily-rationalized homicide, but naked aggression or duplicity: armed robbery or theft." pg 357
Calt goes on to show how this "hidden crime career" can explain so many of the other enigmas of James' life such as why didn't record in 1927, how he became an accomplished pianist, and even his "high level of verbal skill." He confidently states, "Nothing he said about his past had explained how he had acquired an immense vocabulary for a black Southerner of his period, and used non-idiomatic words with such precision....Scouring through dictionaries happens to be a favorite pastime of convicts, both to alleviate boredom and to acquire a cultivated air that enables them to function more effectively as criminals by appearing innocuous." pg 359
Ladies and gentlemen, it seems that even Skip James' "immense vocabulary" has sinister underpinnings!!
THE SPIN REVERSES
I hope it has become clear that Stephen Calt has tried to put a very consistent, calculated spin on Skip James. Three violent incidents are recounted in his book, and in every case he has (in my opinion) twisted, fabricated, edited, argued, and interpreted to show Skip James - "The Murderous Music Cat".
Please have a look at the following excerpt that Calt was apparently unable to alter to fit his needs:
KEY QUOTE # 4:
James' musical experiences in Texas were far overshadowed by the unexpected dissolution of his marriage when Oscella became romantically involved with their traveling companion, a World War One veteran, whom James (accentuating the betrayal) would later idealize as "a dear friend of mine that I would entrust very much with my companion." Instead of confronting the couple, James let matters take their course. "After I saw the way that she wanted to go, there wasn't nothin' for me to do," he said, "I couldn't prohibit her unless'n it was gonna cause some trouble. She wasn't worth it and he wasn't either, and I wouldn't incarcerate myself for either her or for him by tanglin' up with 'em, unless he pushed for it. He stayed his distance, and so did I, and then I gave her the rope and the rein. I threw it over her head, and she could run off or do anything she wanted to do.
-- pg 109, I'd Rather be the Devil, paperback edit.
If there was ever a time for Skip to act out his purported inclination to murder, this seems like the one - his young bride stolen away by his trusted friend. Instead, we have a remarkably level- headed attitude: He was not going to initiate the violence - or even a confrontation that might lead to violence. If pushed, he would, however, protect himself. "I never knowed Skip to get mad," , Jack Owens is quoted as saying on pg 112. In the only situation that James appeared to be angy, he " did not even argue with the person who had provoked it, by not paying him for his Bentonia "house frolic" performances, '...He'd get his guitar and leave there,' Owens told Edd Hurt."
Not one incident of domestic violence, or even angry confrontation can be cited by Calt. He describes Skip's marriage to Lorenzo : "On the surface, theirs was a placid relationship, without friction." pg 336 He admits to witnessing only one argument, and that ends with Skip "stalking out of his apartment for a drink".
Maybe Skip James wasn't such a bad hombre after all. Sounds like kind of a softy to me.
Even James' high level of verbal skill is subject to a dark interpretation. Nothing he said about his past explained how he had acquired an immense vocabulary for a black Southerner of his period, and used non-idiomatic words with such precision. During the entire time I knew him he never so much as looked at a book. At some point in his life, however, James must have carefully studied a dictionary. Scouring through dictionaries happens to be a favorite pastime of convicts, both to alleviate boredom and to acquire a cultivated air that enables them to function more effectively as criminals by appearing innocuous.
--Stephen Calt, I'd Rather be the Devil, pg 359
Does it strike anyone else that the above comments smack of racism? Does a black Southerner who has educated himself , strengthened his vocabulary, automatically arouse suspicion - prove himself to have served time in prison? Calt claims, "Nothing he said about his past explained how he had acquired an immense vocabulary for a black Southerner of his period..." It seems that Calt has not even read his own book!! Let's go back page 27 of this same "extraordinary work", as Lawrence Cohn has called Calt's impressive tome. On that page we find that "To compensate for his lack of formal knowledge, [Skip] acquired a pretentious vocabulary, and brandished it at every opportunity. A word like "speed" was too humble for him; in its place he would say "velocity," even if the plantation blacks who heard him speak listened uncomprehendingly." On page 28 Calt explains that, "Even in childhood, James was wont to look down on his peers. 'Kids in my day were just after rippin' and playin' and fightin' one another - they wasn't trained. They didn't wanna learn anything; they were bad kids.' James had more exalted interests. While attending the St. Paul elementary school on Woodbine he was consumed by curiosity for strange words: whenever he found a scrap of paper he would attempt to read it. He often carried such scraps to older people in an effort to learn the strange words he saw written on them."
So, Skip's "high level of verbal skill" is either (A) evidence of his pretentiousness or (B) evidence that he spent time in prison. It's your choice, Blues-L'ers.
There may be other explainations for Skip's "immense vocabulary", but that is, as we say, for later.....
" He spent dozens of hours discussing his life with the author, who was
attempting to document it: never did he mention doing anything remotely
resembling a good deed, or an act of kindness on his part."
--Stephen Calt, I'd Rather be the Devil, pg 320, paperback edit.
This may be the single most damning quote in Calt's regretable book. The fact that Skip let Calt tape interviews for dozens of hours, basically gifting Calt an exclusive on his life story - no demands for payment, no cut, no royalties, goes completely over Stephan Calt's head. He is too distracted with finding, or fabricating faults. In fact, he is so distracted that he neglects to read his own book. If he had bothered to to back to page 24 he would find the following quote from his interview with Skip James:
"There was such a close tie or relation in a community then," he said of his childhood years. "...Brotherly love was existin' so...When we raised cattle and would have an overplus of milk and butter, we'd divide and distribute among the people that didn't have any. I've walked miles a lots of time to take neighbors things like tomatoes, milk, and butter. "
There are numerous instances recounted in the book of Skip teaching his guitar techniques to friends and fans, sending records to fans, etc. But enough of this! In the next post we'll have a possible answer to the "great enigma".
In part 9 of this running commentary I wrote:
Stephen Calt ends his book on Skip James with a dramatic device I'll call "the enigma". He writes (pg 356):
Shortly before he took ill, he hinted that great revelations were to come. 'I've got a lot in store to tell you; I haven't even begun. I don't know if you're ready for it' Once the subject of blues lost its juvenile mystique, and I was able to reflect upon James from a mature perspective, I found myself pondering the implications of his sphinx-like deathbed statement."pg 357
After wisely ruling out that James was going to confess to having sold his soul to Satan, Calt concludes that , "The omission would be something that would likely make him appear treacherous or untrustworthy." He finally figures it out: "This missing link in his life, I concluded must have involved significant acts of criminality, ones that he recognized as crimes. The crimes would involve not the readily-rationalized homicide, but naked aggression or duplicity: armed robbery or theft.
My guess is that Calt is not even in the ballpark on this matter. Of course he comes up with hidden acts of horrific aggression. Isn't that what he has been setting up for us all along, with these bogus homicides, mass killings, etc. ? If there was an untold revelation, I would put my money on something that has probably never occurred to Stephen Calt.
Skip James was in awe of his father. During our brief time together, he mentioned the Rev. James frequently. He handed out a hymn composed by his father to all he met. His father abandoned his family in 1907, leaving 5 year old Skip fatherless. He felt "like a forsaken child" (pg 25). In my relationship with Skip there was a strong element of father and son feeling - absolutely parallel to his relationship with Stephen Calt on the other side of the continent. Calt claims that James fancied himself a father figure to him. (pg x). I believe that Skip longed for a son. It is fascinating to me that Calt admits that : "Jack Owens was certain that James had borne a son." pg 320 However, he writes: "James never mentioned the existence of children..." pg 320
Isn't it amazing, Blues-L'ers. Stephen Calt apparently never asked Skip James if he had had any children!! Dozens of hours of interviews!! He didn't "mention" children? What about ASKING him! Too busy with his own agenda, Stephen Calt has failed in a big way. My guess is that if there was a revelation to come, it had something to do with a child or children.
Last Take On This Enigma Business
Of course, it may have been that there was no revelation to come at all. In what I find to be one of the saddest passages of the book, Calt relates:
Despite his standoffish character, he became increasingly clinging to the author. When the latter would visit him in Philadelphia, it would become awkward to leave, as James' disappointment became evident. "You ought to come and stay here for a month, " James suggested. By then he had taken to calling me 'son.'pg 341
Most likely Skip was just baiting him. "Come on back, now, Steve. I've got lot's more to tell. I haven't even begun. I don't know if you're ready for it. Come on back, son"