Skip James - Rare and Unreleased

Skip James
Rare and Unreleased


First Appeared at The Music Box, April 2003, Volume 10, #4

Written by John Metzger


Like many blues artists, Skip James toiled for decades in relative obscurity, performing whenever he could between various jobs as a laborer and eventually a Baptist minister. In 1931, he was briefly signed to Paramount Records and recorded 26 songs ó 18 of which were released to little fanfare, though Robert Johnson took note, borrowing portions of several tracks. Nevertheless, by the 1940s, James had given up any hope of making it as a musician. In fact, it wasnít until the folk-blues resurgence of the 1960s that his career got back on track when several scholars found him in a Mississippi hospital. He returned to the stage at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival and finally achieved the prominence that had eluded him years earlier. Over the course of the next few years, Cream covered his upbeat Iím So Glad on its debut, James toured with Mississippi John Hurt, and he released a pair of albums for the Vanguard label ó all before passing away in 1969.

Apparently, James put together a third album for Vanguard during a studio session held in 1967, but the resulting material was never issued. This is the subject of Rare and Unreleased, a 19-song compilation that contains what may be the final tracks that James ever recorded. Most interesting is that the collection features more gospel-oriented material than previous efforts by James as well as his increased emphasis on piano rather than guitar accompaniment. Unfortunately, it probably will be better known for its historic qualities than for its musical ambitions. All of the tunes are traditional songs, reinterpreted by James with varying degrees of success ó some of which sound like demos rather than finished product. Thatís not to say that there arenít some true gems here, most of which are carried by James' pliable, wistful voice. Throughout much of the set, his eerie, falsetto vocals float like ghostly apparitions above the finger-picked guitar of songs like My Last Boogie and One Dime Was All I Had as well as the jazz-oriented piano of tunes like Lazy Bones and Omaha Blues. Even at its ragged worst, Rare and Unreleased remains a haunted document of a tormented soul who clung mightily to music and religion as a means for staying alive. starstarstar

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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


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