There is no better ambassador for this music than Rory Block, who not only knows the songs of these men, but also spent time with them when she was in her teens and learning to play blues guitar. This series brings the foundations of Country Blues, and rock music as well, to the next generation. And along with it we are left to ask some questions.
The words “legend and “legendary” are tossed about like bread crumbs to a flock of pigeons these days. Words like “epic” are used to describe binge drinking soirees. Some artists (term used loosely here) seek to define themselves by a single performance or a controversy, rather than allowing their body of work to speak for them. In the culture of narcissism the need to praise self is absolutely urgent, before the fifteen minute window of fame slams shut.
But what if many of the people we rightly call “legends” were not aware of their own contributions to their art? What if some of their best work was done when they were at their lowest point, scrapping for bread crumbs to put on the table? If part of their story included years toiling out of the limelight, at menial jobs, with no press agents, no entourages, no fanfare? In a world that values getting paid, these artists would be deemed failures. Mosy likely, these legends were not aware that the work they were creating would one day be considered seminal, let alone legendary.
Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James was born in Bentonia, Mississippi in 1902. His first recordings were made in 1931. The Great Depression had a detrimental effect on record sales and so James drifted into obscurity, working a variety of jobs, including bootlegging whiskey and preaching the gospel. He was rediscovered at the beginning of the 1960s blues resurgence. Known for a three finger picking style, steady bass line, and open minor-chord tunings, he influenced a generation of musicians that included not only the Village folk scene, but also rock acts Cream, and Deep Purple, to name a few.
Block kicks off the album with the wonderful “Nehemiah James,” a biography of the blues man’s life. In this opening piece she brings the joy to the celebration of James’ life and provides the listener an excellent introduction to the man who walked the line between gospel and blues music. The song has a bright sound and bounce in its step, the exuberance of the slide guitar illustrating the heights of holy ecstasy James surely found playing in the full gospel band.
The remaining nine tracks are all Skip James originals. The song selection reflects both James' secular and sacred work, "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" and "I'm So Glad" being two of the most well known tunes. Here we see Rory Block enthralled as both a fan and an artist, as she interprets James’ work. She is playing the role of curator, as she presents these works not as a static part of history, but as living installations that represent James' life. In that context, Block is clearly invaluable to our understanding of our own journeys, and of American tradition as a whole, as a sort of musical one woman Smithsonian Museum. The treat for us is that these exhibits breathe.
At the very least the National Medal of Arts is in order here. In Rory Block we have a real treasure, an artist who not only loves the music, but knew its creators, and above all respects their labors with loving presentations designed to honor her forebears.
It seems common sense that before long, other artists will come along paying tribute to their mentors, and surely one of those honored will be a woman named Rory Block. Perhaps then the word “legend” will regain some of its meaning and weight.
Do yourself a favor and get this recording, and after you have listened to it, go back and get the others in the series. Reclaim the music that speaks to the human journey, and to your own. You owe it to yourself, and to those who labored to articulate our very common struggles.