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Hard Time

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Album Review

Skip James' fame rested initially on a handful of 78's recorded in 1931, and with his eerie falsetto and odd guitar tunings, not to mention his utterly unique piano style, he was that rarest of bluesmen, a maverick performer with a completely original and singular approach to the blues. His rediscovery in the 1960s, with all his skills still intact, had all the makings of a miracle, and that his many sessions in this later period never saw his skills drop in quality is truly amazing. This collection gathers an assortment of tracks from both live and studio performances in his rediscovery period, and given the mishmash of sources, it retains a remarkable cohesiveness in tone, with a near-perfect balance between guitar and piano pieces. Highlights include versions of "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues" and "Illinois Blues," both familiar staples in James' repertoire, but there are striking takes on more obscure songs here, too. James' high, soft vocals give "My Last Boogie" an uncommon poignancy, and his resigned singing on the old gambler's tune, "Jack of Diamonds" turns the tone of the song from boast to regret, all without changing a word. Another highlight is a piano version of "All Night Long," which James turns into a medley by dropping in bits of "If You Haven't Any Hay." The place to start with Skip James is with a copy of his collected 1931 work for Paramount Records, and then move on to his Vanguard releases from the 1960s, but for a wonderfully balanced look at this singular bluesman near the end of his life, this compilation does very nicely.


Born: 21 June 1902 in Bentonia, MS

Genre: Blues

Years Active: '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s

Among the earliest and most influential Delta bluesmen to record, Skip James was the best-known proponent of the so-called Bentonia school of blues players, a genre strain invested with as much fanciful scholarly "research" as any. Coupling an oddball guitar tuning set against eerie, falsetto vocals, James' early recordings could make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Even more surprising was when blues scholars rediscovered him in the '60s and found his singing and playing skills intact....
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