James - Songs Famed For Sorrow And Joy
13 songs; 53:45 minutes; Library Quality
Genre: Delta Blues; Solo Acoustic
Samuel James must wonder, “Is it irony or
evolution?” The Blues music scene that reveres its
one-man-and-his-guitar originators, like Robert Johnson and Son
House, today is mostly band oriented. From clubs to live-music-fans
to the record buying public, mainly the interest is in groups and
ensembles. The solo artist is not totally dead, of course. For
example, the Blues Foundation has a “Solo/Duo” category for its
annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis.
While struggling for a larger share of
attention, a solo artist occasionally comes along with undeniably
creative and joyous talent, as proven by first-listens to a new CD.
Such an artist is Portland, Maine’s Samuel James. Still in his
twenties, James’ genius is found in his ability to take the pre-war
blues idiom and passionately move it into the 21st
century without revivalist intent or butchering it into a rap mess.
With musical influences ranging from Skip James and Kokomo Arnold to
Gus Cannon and Charley Patton, James is a master of finger style on
acoustic guitars, slide on resonator guitars, banjo, harmonica, and
piano. Vocally, James’ mid-register singing makes one think – yep,
this is the voice of blues!
James’ musical lineage stretches back to his
grandfather (b. 1890) who played guitar in contemporary blues styles
of the era. James’ father was a professional pianist and trombone
player. Samuel learned to tap dance at five, learned piano at eight,
and toured the Northeastern circuit professionally by 12. Samuel
lost his mother at age 12 and spent his teens in foster homes. At 17
he reunited and rekindled a relationship with his father. Beyond
inheritance came acquisition -- Samuel James fully discovered his
musicianship after a girlfriend broke his heart.
This album is James’ second CD and his debut
for NorthernBlues Music. The CD was recorded by numbers: One artist,
five days, nine mics, two guitars, one banjo, both feet for
percussion, 100% acoustic equals thirteen original songs by James.
“It was the hardest week of my life, which is saying something
considering I grew up black, in Maine, in white foster homes,” he
said. The CD was produced by David Travers-Smith.
The set opener is a ragtime number that might
have fit better along about track five. “The ‘Here Comes Nina’
Country-Ragtime Surprise” track does introduce us immediately to
deft finger picking and James’ voice that grows on the listener
faster than a horror movie viral plague.
Slowing the pace slightly, “Sunrise Blues”
showcases intricate double-picking as James simultaneously sustains
the bass rhythms and lead melodies. The anxiety of the protagonist
facing the electric chair comes keenly through as he can neither
know his alleged offense nor end his suffering through suicide.
In “Big Black Ben” the protagonist, unfairly
harassed by the local sheriff, gets his revenge in a most satisfying
way for him and a most unexpected manner for the listener.
Each song is a story, often, a humorous tale or
a tale from history (“The Sad Ballad of Ol’ Willie Chan” – 1870’s
Coolee Railroaders), of the discomfort from wrong turn lovers, or
small town racism, or a folk tale. The songs reflect that,
lyrically, James is among elite bluesmen - the clever songster and
storyteller. His songs are often written as linear stories, novels
in musical format with the denouement sometimes coming in the final
seven seconds. Some song titles are, themselves, a story – for
example, “Sugar Smallhouse and The Legend of the Wandering Siren
Cactus, and the hard-driving “Runnin’ From My Baby’s Gun, Whilst
Previously Watchin’ Butterflies From My Front Porch.” The latter’s
an instrumental, by the way.
When James does stop singing to do another
instrumental like “Wooooooo Rosa,” one’s first instinct is to do a
quick search at Youtube to see if there is a video available. That
would be the only way to improve this seven minute masterpiece.
Fifty four minutes later, one realizes that he
has been listening more carefully than normal to catch the details
of each story-song. That makes Samuel James a rare breed in the
blues world, indeed.
James is steeped in the traditions and has
created his own voice that speaks with clarity. The historical torch
has been passed to him from both today’s elder masters and
yesterday’s originators. He is carrying it very well.
“Skyy Dobro” Walker
is a noted Blues writer, DJ and Blues Blast
His weekly radio show “Friends of the Blues” can be heard each
Thursday from 4:30 – 6:00pm
on WKCC 91.1 FM in Kankakee, IL