HARD LUCK CHILD: A TRIBUTE TO SKIP JAMES
For the fifth and final volume of her acclaimed Mentor
Series—album-length tributes to “the rediscovered blues masters that I met in person as a teenager”—Rory Block goes out in style with one original song and nine covers of songs by the king of Bentonia (Mississippi) blues, Nehemiah “Skip” James. Not only are the musical performances right on the money in evoking the special lyrical and musical qualities of the singular Skip, but as usual Ms. Block provides the finest annotation in the business, with a personal note full of sharp insights about James and his work and her own encounters with the man. Beyond this she provides song-by-song annotation regarding her personal relationship with each tune and her approaches to the James style. As with her previous tributes to Rev. Gary Davis, Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Mississippi John Hurt, Ms. Block’s interpretations ought to inspire listeners either to return to the originals or introduce themselves to same for a deeper appreciation of the art these men created and which one gifted woman brings to vivid life.
SELECTED TRACK: ‘I’m So Glad,’ Rory Block, from Hard Luck Child: A Tribute to Skip James
In the end, all other attributes aside, it’s the music that counts. Ms. Block makes the most of each moment, to the point where it’s hard to imagine even devout Delta blues purists grousing about how nothing tops the originals. What’s not to respect, or move the body to, about her jazzy swing treatment of “Little Cow and Calf Is Gonne Die” blues, one of the most idiosyncratic tunes in James’s idiosyncratic repertoire, the original featuring his completely idiosyncratic piano accompaniment, itself with an oddly timed but strong swing feel, in support of a fatalistic narrative, as the title suggests. Ms. Block swings it too, but she’s transposed the weird piano arrangement that only Skip James could devise to a more straightforward guitar attack, briskly picked under a sultry vocal as unexpected as Skip’s choices on the 88s. Another piano song transposed to guitar, “If You Haven’t Any Hay, Get On Down the Road,” also has a jaunty feel behind a lyrical message that is both instructional in its title and dark in evoking the dangers the black men of Skip’s day faced (“If I go to Louisiana they’ll hang me sure…”).
SELECTED TRACK: ‘Jesus Is a Mighty Good Leader,’ Rory Block, from Hard Luck Child: A Tribute to Skip James
The album’s most haunting moment comes via one of Skip’s best known songs, “Devil Got My Woman,” another revealing title introducing the story of a man tortured by the knowledge of his best friend stealing his woman (which includes the lyric “some joker got lucky, stole her back again,” which later turned up in Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen,” much as Johnson borrowed James’s “22-20 Blues” as the foundation for his “32-20 Blues” and “Devil Got My Woman” for what became “Hell Hound On My Trail”). Ms. Block’s slide and high-pitched moan do the job in creating a stormy ambiance reflecting the inner turmoil the lyrics describe as well as the roiling outside world. On the other hand, James the preacher man (he was ordained as a Methodist and Baptist minister both) let his convictions show in the many gospel-based tunes he wrote, and here Ms. Block cuts loose on one of the most buoyant of those, “Jesus Is a Mighty Good Leader,” multitracking her voice to become a gospel chorus and fashioning bristling slide runs (you can hear her slide knocking about on the neck of the guitar during her energetic runs). The greatest spiritual life here, though, is provided by the sparkling workout on James’s most famous song (thanks to Cream’s cover), “I’m So Glad,” with its call-and-response vocal chorus, Ms. Block’s emotional delivery and her spirited, bright fingerpicking punctuated by falsetto cries. That something powerful was going on when she recorded this is obvious in the performance’s energy and conviction, and indeed, she explains in her notes what happened: “Even though Skip was talking about a human relationship, the celestial energy and meaning pretty much took over. After all, our interconnectedness is really other-worldly in its power.”
SELECTED TRACK: ‘Hard Luck Child,’ Rory Block, from Hard Luck Child: A Tribute to Skip James
The deep sound James achieved on his guitar tuned to open D-minor is heard in full force on his towering, if chilling, “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” (which is also covered in moving fashion on this week’s Album of the Week, Lockwood, by Jeremiah Lockwood), in which Ms. Block’s weary, spiritually drained vocal is enhanced by the doom-laden guitar work heavy on top-strings punctuations sounding like distant thunder. A robust treatment of “Special Rider Blues,” sparked by an especially gritty vocal; a “smooth and spooky” (her words) treatment of “Cypress Grove Blues,” with nicely understated fingerpicking and a moaning vocal; a riveting treatment of the devastating catalogue of misfortune in “Hard Luck Child”; and her own story-song offering a capsule James biography, “Nehemiah James”—there are no weak links here as Rory Block once again captures the essential sum and substance of another unique blues giant. What to say about the Mentor Series but that it’s been quite a ride? Quite a ride indeed.