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diskant Gets The Blues

Charley Patton by Robert Crumb

‘The Blues’ is something that strikes fear into my heart. It conjures up images of the House Of Blues and The Hard Rock Cafe. Of Buddy Guy and BB King or Bon Jovi using a slide guitar for that authentic tone.

It brings to mind Eric Clapton

I recommend watching the film Ghost World for two reasons: first is the amazing scene where they go and see Blues Hammer who offer ‘authentic Delta Blues’. It sums up what I am about to write in about 20 seconds. Save yourself the time and see it instead of reading this. Second is to get an accurate glimpse into the future, as Steve Buscemi plays me in 20 years time; moaning about everything, listening to the blues and letching on young girls with black hair.

So, I think you have every reason to avoid the blues. 99% of what is labelled ‘blues’ is embarrassing, tepid, wine-bar background-music bullshit. This is a shame as that remaining 1% contains some of the most incredible music ever played. Seriously, some of it is life-changing and I want to try and explain why.

I’m talking about the earliest surviving recordings of negro, solo (mostly) performers. They’re loosely tied together under the umbrella heading of ‘The Blues’ by common themes in the music. But that damn term is too narrow to describe this. This is country, folk, gospel, traditional, dance… And when you hear Robert Johnson sing…

Squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg

Or Charley Patton holler

Can’t go down this dirt road by myself
I don’t carry my rider, gonna carry me someone’s else

…you know it’s rock & roll and heavy metal too, it just didn’t know it.

I’m not talking about Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker and that later wave of electric blues musicians who are considered to be ‘originals’. I’m not even talking about Howlin’ Wolf, great though he was. They came about after the idea of recording this music had become part and parcel of actually writing it. I’m talking about ‘race recordings’* from the 20s and 30s, before the depression hit the recording industry in the USA. Only a few battered 78s are left from this era, and in fact lots of recordings listed in record company catalogues have never been found at all – in listenable condition or otherwise.

[*By the way, ‘race record’ is a term used by the recording industry of the time to denote a recording made to sell purely in segregated black neighbourhoods.]

That link between writing music and the physical outcome of it is one of the problems I have with the modern ‘blues’ musician. They make records. They are not recorded. It’s not their fault, you understand; we live in a time where music as product is inescapable, so everyone channels their art into this product even if they don’t mean to. Their art is made with format in mind. Therefore the modern version of the ‘blues’ – the type you find under the ‘Blues & Jazz’ section in HMV – is the performer communicating their version of the blues to other people from original idea through to CD in jewel case. They are ‘artists’. My over-simplistic view of the blues is that it has a purpose, and that purpose is to sing away your troubles or sooth them somehow. That’s where the roots of the music lie. In theory, if you do a perfect job you won’t be playing the blues anymore, as you’ll have cheered your ass up. When you’re on a 10-album contract you’re probably less likely to work towards that goal, if you know what I mean.

Now, I know, a ‘real’ or ‘natural’ recording is impossible. I’m not naïve enough to think that the early ‘race’ recordings I’m talking about were made in wonderful, uncorrupted surroundings and that their strength is in their purity, or some such nonsense. Like the late blues-scholar, guitar-legend and fat-drunken-antagonist John Fahey pointed out in his thesis on the aforementioned Charley Patton, any recorded environment is unnatural, even that of the ‘folklorist’ who went from town to town making ‘natural’ field recordings of black musicians.

Listen here boy, you play that there geetar for us and we’ll buy you a Coca Cola!

But the early (late 1920s/early 1930s) race records are the closest we can come to ‘natural’ – to hearing someone articulate their feelings in a piece of music conceived with no mind to commerce – even if the act of recording that music is commercial to the core. Don’t underestimate how powerful that is.

The white guys in suits at the record company didn’t know what would sell to the segregated market, so they just let them ‘nigras’ get on with it in the studio. They might have suggested certain songs worked better than others, or spiced up the sessions with a little booze, but largely they just let it happen. Good call. Thanks guys. Out of luck more than judgement, we’re left with some of the only recordings made by people who wrote songs unaware of the concept that those songs would ever be part of a physical product. The archetypal image of the bluesman singing woke up this morning came later.

How about this for woke up this morning?

Eddie James ‘Son’ House was a fire-and-brimstone-Biblical-fury style performer. He apparently taught Muddy Waters to play guitar, and was a huge influence on Robert J ohnson and countless others. He wrote the song ‘Death Letter’, which you’ll recognise as being the source for ‘I Feel Like Ahcid’ if you’re a Beefheart fan. It’s also a staple in the White Stripes’ live set. It features the line:

I didn’t know I loved her, till they laid her in the ground

Jesus. That is fairly ‘to the point’.

He enjoyed a career of sorts in the 60s blues revival era, and eventually died in the early 80s aged 86… (well, that was his official age anyway. He told several people he lied about his age to get a job in New York, and if that was the case he was over a hundred when he finally bowed out. If you see the videos of him performing in the 60s, when he was way past his best but still utterly compelling, you’d swear he’d been witness to the making of the Earth itself).

Musician Paul Rishell met and played with Son House in 1977:

“(House) told me he was once living with a woman, and she was sick. After coming back from work one day, he told her, ‘I’m going out; you wanna come?’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘I’m too sick’. When he came home and went to bed, he could tell she was still sick. And he told me, ‘I woke up in the morning, and had to go to the commode. And I opened the door to the outhouse, and she had died there, sitting on the board’. I asked, ‘What did you do?’ ‘Nothin’ for me to do; she was dead. So I left; I just left.’ Completely matter-of-fact.”

Get it? THIS IS NOT ROMANTIC. This is not hazy, cheery nostalgia. Let’s get this clear from the outset. Don’t mistake me for some misty-eyed fool who wants to live in a shack and play his gweetur on the porch in a rocking chair. That’s a world that never existed. It’s an amalgamation at best. A Budweiser commercial.


Let’s get back to the music; I’m veering off track. I’m excited.

I think it is natural when you listen to the music made at the time, to think of the singer’s motives for laying this dread on us in musical form. We always ask ‘why?’ It’s a piece of art that we (incorrectly) assume has been made for consumption and therefore it has a message and we have to decipher it.


We did it when we were kids, and we still do. It’s the first thing we do when anything attacks our senses; we try and make sense of it. To solve the question, we unconsciously relate this old music to similar music of a more modern era. A mistake. People could argue that modern rock albums such as In Utero by Nirvana would have been made regardless of the recording format, because of the muse of the artiste concerned.

“It just spilled out.”
“It was a record I had to make.”
” Writing this record got me through dark times.”

We assume that the process was cathartic for these blues singers, in the same way that modern music that deals with subjects like pain and regret invariably is. But even that somehow implies that the maker is an artiste, and therefore makes a piece of art as an end result. In the very least, it shows that at the end of the creativity there has to come an OBJECT to archive the process. To validate the process. And by that I mean an object like a CD or a record, not a song in its purest form, stored in someone’s head, or a moment experienced and then gone forever.

Fact is, when the modern singer-songwriter writes these songs, they are doing so in the light of them one day being recorded. They are made with the audience in mind, even if they are made despite of the audience. But these people did not write their songs to record them. They had hard lives which I’m not even going to begin to try to appreciate, but these people did not write their songs to escape this life by having a career as a musician.

This is not even a rejected option – it’s not even invented. Even when it was invented, Son House had to wait 30 years to have a ‘career’. The motives for these people making their music are utterly crucial in the way the music turned out, and how powerful it remains even today, generations later – if only because we can’t recreate these motives in ourselves and we should probably stop trying.

Think of it this way:

If you play an instrument, I want you to think of your reasons for doing it.
What are your goals?
If you don’t play an instrument, try and think why you might want to start.

If you think of all the reasons, then every one of them has something to do with the recorded medium, be it that you want to be a huge pop star and get laid, or that you just want to write your own songs. Even writing your own songs is linked so hard to actually recording them that you cannot pull them apart. They mean the same thing.

It’s because of the time we live in. Everything is archived and we have so many forms of technology to do this archiving that the act and the outcome are linked forever. Musicians make records, actors make films, writers write books that are mass-produced and printed.
I could, if I wanted, archive the sound of my fecal movements for a week in full stereo without any large problem. Hopefully you see my point without me having to undertake this particular task.

We have learned that archiving is the natural outcome of creativity.

Now, unlearn it. Imagine it doesn’t exist. You are not rejecting the idea of making records; the idea is unknown to you.


Go on, try and think like that.

You can’t do it. It’s too deeply set in us. So forget trying.

It’s a shame though, as with no object to strive for and none of the rewards associated with it, we would immediately wipe out 99% of people making music or art of any kind.
No bad thing. But Son House, for example, did not write his songs to convey his suffering, and worry to an audience outside of the people he played for and knew, because he had no idea they would be recorded or saved. When he wrote them he believed they’d die with him or when he forgot how to play them; whichever came first.
In fact, after he was rediscovered he had to be coached through his old repertoire by young white blues enthusiasts so he could relearn his own songs.

So, again, why the hell did he write them? Why did any of these people write their songs?
I have no idea for sure. It’s hard to contemplate people’s motives when, like I said, the time we live in is so obsessed with producing a final object. I can’t remove myself from that. I can’t imagine what it would be like to write a song without that knowledge. To write a song for the sake of writing a song.

But, my guess is that their reasons were either this notion of self-expression being a tonic for hard times and a way to vent some spleen, or that it stemmed from more simple goals like earning a little money by playing to people and also raising their own social standing by being able to entertain a crowd. In most cases it was a finely balanced mixture of the two. And that last reason is something that’s forgotten in the age where the performer is respected and elevated – especially if they are seen to be EMOTING.

Blues isn’t entertainment, it’s me and my pain

Eric Clapton said words to this effect in Q magazine a few years back at a review of a concert he did at the Fillmore in California. I may have misquoted slightly, because after reading this I immediately tore the magazine into tiny pieces and ate them in a fit of phlegm-fountaining fury.

When Eric Clapton plays the blues it’s slow, smooth and elegant. Sadly, if he’d played it to a crowd of plantation workers in Mississippi in 1931 he may not have had such a good response as he gets at the Royal Albert Hall. And not just because he dresses like an extra from Miami Vice and is officially The Whitest Man That Has Ever Lived. Nope, being Slowhand is not a virtue here.

Analysing the role of the performing musician back then is complex. It isn’t about one man and his ‘pain’ because if it were, that one man would sit in his home all day and play to himself because there was no outlet for this type of music at the time it was written. Basically, the musician’s role was nearly all about getting people dancing. And to do that as a solo guitar player you have to be hot. You have to be Fasthand.

Sure, you sang about yourself and your life, and it was dark subject matter, but you had to bring the people along with you and raise the spirits otherwise you wouldn’t do well playing music and you wouldn’t earn. It is about entertainment. There was no room for the introverted singer songwriter crafting their art and having the audience pay a respectful hush. They didn’t write songs and make records for people to listen to on headphones in their rooms and, y’know, delicately ponder. It was all about sin and lust and bumping rhythms and making people want to dance when they sang about their worries because it was fun. It had to really motor and fill a room with sound.


There are slight exceptions to this. Or at least exceptions where the balance of motives is skewed more towards something personal but no less driven.

Nehemiah ‘Skip’ James cut 18 songs in 1931. He wailed. His music is unearthly, disembodied and bathed in utter dread. It is deathly. It’s not ‘woke up this morning’. Neither is it ‘my woman left me’. It’s getting a gun and shooting a woman ‘just to see her fall’. It’s about a life going from one town of strangers to another, leaving nothing solid or tangible behind when you die to show you had ever even lived.

It is ugly and it is nasty in its content. The gaps between the picked notes are as icy as his falsetto wail. It is genuinely unsettling. He veers off the standard 4/4 timing track, lengthening phrases and cutting some back giving the rhythmical impression of conversation more than song. Wim Wenders made a documentary about James called The Soul Of A Man that features present day artists reinterpreting some of James’ songs. If it wasn’t for the fact that my housemate owns the TV, I would have happily put my face through it when I saw Bonnie Raitt reduce James’ ‘I’d Rather Be The Devil’ to a standardised, slick 12 bar, pool-hall soundtrack abortion. It’s always us whiteys who mishear what’s good in anything. No-one can wail like James, so you’d think she’d try and capture some of the coldness of the song somehow – but instead she just reduces this amazing song to some lowest common denominator pub blues sack of shit. Bonnie, if you’re searching for your name on Google and you’ve come here, then e-mail me sometime. Though I doubt you’ll have a computer, preferring to live in a shack in Mississippi to capture some of that there VIBE.

And that’s the best blowjob in the world compared to Lucinda Williams and her band of smug richboy cumvessels who proceed to butcher ‘Hard Time Killing Floor Blues’ to such a degree that if you were unfortunate to receive this as an introduction to James’ music, or fuck it – any music at all, you’d never think of investigating further.

The film itself seems to exist purely as an example of the type of thing that gets my goat enough to write this much about it: “Skippy [SKIPPY?] left [the studio] with just $40 of expense money in his pockets, but he sure felt like a rich man.” Yeah, until he went back to work the next day. This romanticising of hardship is plain sick.

Enough of the Wenders film, lest publicising it more actually makes you intrigued enough to see it. Simply, I can’t put in to words how much you need to hear Skip James if you haven’t already.

Something not mentioned in Wenders’ film is how John Fahey tracked down James after a long and almost mythical search through the Delta in the 60s. Fahey had this, among other similarly withering things, to say about him in his book How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life (Drag City Press): “I think it is a shame to permit a man like Skip James, who had so many talents such as being a pimp and a killer, to only display one section of his creativity, i.e. his music. Limitations should not have been placed on such a multifaceted renaissance man like James.”

He was something of a loner and as Fahey points out, he was also a self confessed pimp and murderer. If anyone singer fits the idea of the bluesman as people see it then it’s Skip James. Man, imagine what his motives were for singing these songs. Imagine what drives someone to the act of creativity that produces this bleak music.< /p>

Even then, this music – taken by James to its most extreme introverted form – still isn’t written with any mind to recording it or even too much to presenting it to an audience. In fact, in the 60s after Fahey tracked him down and he performed in public, he showed a mixture of contempt and total apathy for his crowd. But even the king of the downer had bump and grind in there somewhere.

Practical exercise for you guitar players: get a guitar and TRY and play what Skip James is playing on the song ‘I’m So Glad’. Just TRY. Tell me what that has to do with Eric bloody Clapton. Tell me what that has to do with SITTING STILL. It’s like an orchestra. Clapton covered this in Cream and with three men and a wall of sound it’s still nowhere near as rump shaking as the original. This music moves. Some of James’ songs positively cook. However, while searching for him, Fahey noted that noone in the Mississippi Delta area mentioned James when asked about great blues singers. Seems he didn’t play much or wasn’t much of a success in terms of public performing (as much to do with his personality as his abilities).

Not in comparison to Charley Patton at any rate.


When you listen to Charley Patton now, for example, it’s hard not to imagine him playing alone, under spotlight, to a respectful, hushed crowd – such is the emotional punch his music packs. We’re used to people commanding this kind of respect. That’s how acoustic, solo music is presented these days.

This might have been true had he lived long enough to be rediscovered and play to a college crowd in the 60s (he died in 1934). But this vision just isn’t the case. There was no reverence for Patton, he was an entertainer, a plantation pop star (if you’ll excuse the heavy-handed pun). He was, by all accounts, a veritable human jukebox of styles (sorrowful blues being just one of them) who apparently played guitar behind his head, swinging it about, dancing on it and pulling all kinds of tricks and probably with a boner for every woman in the room.

I like to fuss and fight, I like to fuss and fight lord, and get sloppy drunk off a bottle and ball and walk the streets all night
(‘Elder Green Blues’)

He cut some of the finest recorded examples of solo acoustic music ever made in between drinking himself into an early grave, being a no good layabout and shifting from one woman’s bed to another. He was also a bit of a coke-fiend too, according to legend, and if that’s the case I guess it’s the one thing Clapton has in common with him. Patton even survived having his throat slashed in a brawl and when W.R. Calaway, a recording executive, went to ask him to make some more records shortly before Patton’s death in 1934, he found Patton and his lady (and musical partner in later recordings) Bertha Lee incarcerated in the local jailhouse for knocking lumps off each other. The man was, by all accounts, an animal.

Patton is the perfect example of a man who could make deeply affecting, sorrowful music that simultaneously inspired the listener to get up and dance. And this behaviour brings up something that hangs like a shadow over all the early blues music. Something two polar opposites in style like Patton and James shared vividly. Something that we can’t hope to understand as graphically as those singers did: SIN.


People like Patton were there to get people dancing. People had a good time and they got drunk and it all kicked off. Dancing was considered sinful, as was sex and drinking. In the eyes of the church, blues singers were the ringleaders of all that is evil, whipping groups of people up into a frenzy. The church saw them as competition. And these were God-fearing times. Even someone like James who didn’t perform much was responsible for his fair share of sinful activity in his private life as previously mentioned.

Everyone knows the legend of selling your soul to the devil at the crossroads to get the skills to play guitar: you go to the crossroads at midnight, you wait till the devil appears, you hand him your guitar, he tunes it and you are blessed with musical power. However, the devil now owns your soul. And he’ll come and get it when he pleases. Riiiiiiight…

But, maybe this is more of a metaphorical thing. The crossroads just being the two distinct paths you can go down in your life. You either went to church and you accepted life as the horror it was, but you knew God would get you out if you stayed righteous and eventually you’d be in a better place. Or you sinned because you accepted that no God could stop you getting lynched by southern rednecks and why the hell shouldn’t a person have a little fun?

Despite R&B (Rhythm and Blues) having an infatuation with thanking God at every awards ceremony, the original bluesmen were camped very firmly in the ‘Against God’ camp in the eyes of the Church. Plenty of the original blues singers straddled both sides of the fence, as it were. In fact, if anything can be used to define the term ‘blues’ in its earliest form then it’s surely all about the opposing forces of good and evil and being torn between the two; the swing from sin to redemption, from lust (sexual or bloody) to regret.

Skip James gave up music to preach (Old Testament wrath and fury style admittedly) before relenting and moving back to the ‘dark side’ of the blues. Even then, he started his performances with a spiritual. Story has it he repented on his deathbed and promised to sing only songs of praise if God would save his life. God didn’t.

This is a real struggle, both mentally (internally) and socially (externally) that these singers had to battle. This isn’t Jimmy Page buying Alistair Crowley’s castle and mincing about with Ouija boards surrounded by piles of money. This is DARK SHIT. This is brutal, desolate, cursed horror. But you have to remember, it’s matched to the desire to seriously party despite it, or at least find a way to stare it in the face. And that, to me, is the forgotten part of this music – but that is what’s so amazing about it even now, and what separates this music from modern practitioners of the ‘blues’ who seem to prefer to wallow in the name of art rather than attempt to rise above. So with all this exciting talk of people having their throat slit, doing drink and drugs all night and the wrath and vengeance of God almighty (not to mention lots of heavy, heavy duty fucking): why the hell is the idea of the blues in the 21st century so intrinsically linked to these pottering, slow, over-reverential, po-faced idiots?

The problem comes in the 60s when guys like Son House (and to a less successful degree; Skip James) get ‘rediscovered’ and brought back to play to halls of white musicology students who may as well tap the cage and feed them a banana. They do not dance, they do not bump and grind, they do not whoop in agreement. The party does not get started.

The problem was that people viewed these singers as artists. They thought these people made their music as a piece of art. They assumed the singers’ motives were the same as the people making music in that time. The way I see it, they misunderstood. They paid no mind to the motives behind the music they were hearing preferring to assume them to be the same as their own. Of course, Son House wasn’t going to say a thing about this. He’s not going to cuss the audience for misunderstanding, so he was doubtless happy to proliferate the idea that the correct way to experience this music is in an environment of detached reverence. Hell, I am sure he positively milked the atmosphere and fed it as much as he could as part of what had now become his ‘act’. If you’d lived the life he had you’d bite your tongue and you’d rim these stupid whiteys for everything they had too.

Yessir, thank you kindly fur lettun me play ma music sir

I don’t doubt the sincerity and understanding of the young men who went out into the Mississippi to find these performers. In John Fahey’s case, he only wanted to find Skip James to get a guitar lesson! The problem comes when these performers are put in front of a white, wealthy college or coffee shop audience. Those college kids thought these old guys’ power came from an ability to engineer an air of reverence and respect that, in fact, was entirely their own making. In doing so they seem to have overlooked the whole sinlustpartydancingsexdrinkangerdespairjoy thing. Quite an oversight I’d say.

Clapton apparently quit the Yardbirds when they began to veer away from playing only blues music. The irony is, if he’d played the lowly pop music he thought was worthless, he’d have been closer to the real idea of the ‘blues’ as he’d have been providing a soundtrack for people to have a connection and empathy with and dance to and enjoy themselves. Playing rigid, serious blues to a crowd of kids in the 60s (kids like my Mum who just saw the Yardbirds as a pop band) is like me going out tonight to a country music club in the heart of East Anglia armed with a Casio drum machine and performing ‘Rebel Without A Pause’ and ‘Straight Outta Compton’ for the assembled farmers. You cannot re-create something you weren’t part of, especially if it’s so rooted in the social and economic climate of the times. Seems to me those young cats were too obsessed with this idea of
authenticity – even at the expense of any discernable skill. Even if the performer in question was, by that time, a shrivelled, weakened old man. Not important! The palsied prune in the chair carries a weight of realness that these people were desperate to buy into, or steal a piece of, to make up for something lacking in themselves. So they bring out this 80-year-old cat who can barely fret a string and who sits there and lets out a slow stream of drool onto the National guitar they bought for him, and this is somehow seen as great. Just seeing them is enough, and that stinks. It’s making a personality out of someone who only came to the attention of the world outside their community because they weren’t personalities, or artists. The performer is seen as authentic even though the reason we know about them – i.e. their skill and ability – is no longer present. The term ‘authentic’ is defined in some strange way by these recordings made in the 20s and 30s seeming to be real because they have a crackly distant sound, and because of the unintentional mysteries surrounding them. We as the public have been subjected to enough signifiers in TV and film to know this rough quality somehow signifies a gutsy, rough AUTHENTICITY.

So, some big shot records a song on their album with a 1930s guitar in a shack with one microphone, because they think it will make it ‘authentic’. That it will give them the same quality as those old recordings that they have been affected by. Because they think the blues singers they love did the same and gave great thought and patience to this serious job in hand, or that their records were made this way through creative choice and conceptual thought rather than being shown into a primitive recording studio (or motel room) and asked to play. Or, because they saw Son House sit down and play to an awestruck room of 60s students they feel that they need to engineer this kind of intimate environment as it is more ‘bluesy’ and genuine. Bullshit!

Son House didn’t write his music to play to a bunch of people stroking their chins and empathising. He wrote it as a soundtrack to his and his friends’ lives. Which means it encompasses the bad times and the sorrow and the anger, but it also encompasses partying, drinking, laughing and grabbing hold of someone’s ass and dancing yourself silly.

I am a 27-year-old British white middle class man. Well, lower middle class maybe. Whatever. I have no possible way of understanding what living in the Southern States of America was like between the wars for a black man or woman. I have made assumptions in writing this piece, and even that makes me feel presumptuous and stupid. If Skip James walked up to me in Akbars off license in Sneinton I’d leg it. I have no idea what living in that time was like. NO IDEA. I am so thankful that I could fucking cry. I do not believe that suffering on this scale somehow brings out inner strength in people or is in some way ‘character building’. It is not. It is brutal, relentless and unimaginable to me.

In ‘If You Haven’t Any Hay’, Skip James sings:

If I go to Louisiana, mama, Lord God, they’ll hang me sure

He is talking about being lynched. He is talking about being hanged from a tree by the neck for sport. And bear in mind, this is 1931 in the deep south of America. In Alabama they were still burning churches in 1963. So, maybe I can guess what it was like, thanks to the music, but it’s not music made for me, it’s made for the people of the time and made only with them in mind. I don’t live in a time where right and wrong is so clear-cut and people truly fear judgement from God. Likewise I can’t appreciate exactly how exciting cutting loose from those fears must have been. Simply, nothing I can do can make me totally understand this music. It’s not worth trying.


I have waffled long enough and doubtless contradicted myself in my enthusiasm, so let me conclude before I dig myself a hole I can’t get out of.

The reason people should still listen to this music, and the reason that music made with such a small audience in mind (if any audience at all) can still be relevant is that, if there is anything authentic about this music, it’s in the display of base emotions within it and how universal those emotions are. Love, loss, regret, fear, lust, pain, joy, enthusiasm, despair… we might not experience these in the same manner as Son House or Skip James, but then they didn’t experience it in the same manner as I do now. Or you. It’s not comparable. It’s just different.

But yet, the two worlds are linked through this music. THAT is its authenticity. It is honest. Not because the sound of a slide guitar on a crackly record conjures up a feeling of nostalgic ‘honesty’ (bleurrrrgh) in me, but because the subjects these people were singing about are so universal and beautifully dealt with, and the motive for making that music is as close to being simple and unaffected as it possibly can be. Couple this to guitar or piano playing that positively boils over, and you have something wonderful. So fuck authenticity. It doesn’t matter.

Concern yourself with how great this music sounds, and be thankful that it survived at all. It’s worth listening to because it is amazing. And you don’t have to be able to empathise with these peoples pain to love this music. Sure, I am aware of the conditions and climate this music was born in and that’s important (as I really hope I’ve gone some way to showing), but I can’t completely understand it and it would be stupid to try. It would be even more stupid to suggest that I feel these people’s pain and it would be plain idiotic to suggest that me playing the blues today, in its traditional form, has anything to do with the source material. Clapton tried, and look at the results.

Surely all anyone can do is appropriate the things they like about this music into their own, out of respect and out of love. That is the only way anyone can be authentic. And by the way, when I say ‘appropriate’ I mean that. Not ‘stolen wholesale’. And yes, Jimmy Page, that was aimed at you. If you think you can only play blues on an acoustic guitar or you need to sing about picking cotton – fuck you and fuck your stupid affectations. They are insulting to the people who made this music.

The blues is being played today but it’s not being played by Eric Clapton or Robert Cray or Bonnie Raitt or The Rolling Stones or BB King even, it’s being made by people doing things for their own reasons – be it on guitar, laptop, autoharp, zither, saxophone, violin, jew’s harp… rich, poor, black, white, green, orange… just conveying something as purely as they can. You don’t have to copy it to be influenced by it, so Cream covering ‘I’m So Glad’ by Skip James has less to do with the man himself than someone making minimal electronic music in his or her room. It’s just jumping the original for some depth by association, and without a fresh context it stinks. It’s Moby using samples from the Alan Lomax field recordings to imply a depth to his music that just isn’t there. Or some kid from the suburbs dressing like a cotton picker and affecting a Mississippi drawl to imply some sort of realness by association of image and signifier, when in fact it’s just a series of empty gestures. Damn it, if Skip James was alive today he’d probably be making the darkest hip hop imaginable. Or some form of music we haven’t even thought of.

It’s this purity of motive that’s the true lineage of this first wave of amazing blues singers. By using words like ‘purity’ I’m not putting these guys on a pedestal, by the way. I mean that they boil their music down to the simplest actions. It’s not:

I need to make a record that accurately reflects the internal sorrow and anguish that falls heavy upon my soul. I will create music that fellow sufferers will relate to. When asked about this conceptual masterpiece by journalists I will tell them that…

It is literally just:

Feel shit. Got to feel better

It’s nothing to do with the House Of Blues or endless jam sessions by middle aged guys in pubs on a Tuesday night. They have nothing to do with it. It’s been filtered down and become something else to these people. Don’t blame the originators for it. They went with the 60s revival just like you would have done if you’d have picked cotton for 40 years and you were on your 8th wife. They played in coffee shops for whitey and they were viewed as anthropological exhibits. It gave people a false idea, and sent people on the wrong track. That’s not their fault. And more to the point, they couldn’t give a shit anyway.
This music is deeply, profoundly powerful at its most basic level – forget this notion of authenticity, that’s not its power. Its power is in its mix of the positive and the negative (exactly like life itself) and the stunningly uplifting, exhilarating effect it has on the listener. This music overcomes.

That’s why this is some of the most incredible music ever made.

The only way to let this music influence you is in the manner you approach your own – with as much purity of motive as possible. If that appeals to you, then you cannot be without this music. If you let it, it will inspire you more than you can imagine. It might change your life.

It’s just Skip’s music… I don’t sing other people’s songs. I don’t sing other people’s voices. I can’t.
(Skip James)

The images in this article are by Robert Crumb and are reproduced without permission. We’re not making any money from this, but if someone out there wants them taken down just get in touch and we’ll oblige. They are all available to view at www.celticguitarmusic.com/crumb.htm.

Crumb’s amazing biography of Charley Patton is also essential, and is at www.celticguitarmusic.com/patton1.htm.

Dick Waterman managed Skip James, and his website has some wonderful photos, especially those from the Newport Festivals of the 60s. It’s at www.dickwaterman.com. Be sure to look at the wonderful photo of John Fahey with Son House and also this one of House, Skip James and the wonderful Mississippi John Hurt.

The Son House quote from Paul Rishell is taken from the splendid Heaven On Earth: Feeling The Power And Glory Of The Great Son House by Ted Drozdowski which is located at

The tale of the rediscovery of Skip James is told here:
guitarvideos.com/interviews/fahey/core3.htm though it’s told much better in Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life by John Fahey which you can buy from www.dragcity.com.

Finally, you can get modern CD reissues of the early 78s mentioned on lots of different labels (especially it seems for Charley Patton, who has numerous CDs of his work all recorded from the same 78s that have been turned up, with the Revenant box set being by far the finest. If not the finest box set ever. www.revenant.com). A good place to look is the Snapper series, available very cheaply usually: www.instant-shop.com/snapper/category240018.html.

Just don’t go for the Martin Scorcese DVDs.