Friday, February 20, 2009

Skip James - "I'm So Glad" and
Cream - "I'm So Glad" from the Album Goodbye

The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James CD cover Cream Goodbye album cover
Funny how people get when presented with obscure music. While I would hope that most approach the stuff with the clear and open mind with which I try to engage it, most times, it seems two other attitudes apply. Some poor souls are spooked by the unfamiliar music with the unfamiliar name, and sadly resist building a familiarity with something that could possibly enrich them.

But another type is even more misguided, I think. These are the ones who embrace the obscurity, who in fact value the obscurity more than the other salient characteristics of the music.

I sound pedantic, shit, that's no good. Let's go to Terry Zwigoff, let me illustrate.

Zwigoff is an accomplished film director with whom I am familiar because of the two excellent films of his that I have seen: Crumb and Ghost World. Ghost World, on which I'd like to focus here, is based on the comics of Daniel Clowes, and tells the tale of a pair of disaffected young girls, and how their friendship wanes in the months after their high school graduation.

A major theme of the movie is how consumer culture stultifies us. Enid (the more troubled one, and the one who, as played by Thora Birch, gets most of the screen time) in several instances refuses to play nicely with the consumption infrastructure.

Along with her object of disaffection Seymour, she rejects the prepackaged bar band music of "Blues Hammer" and takes up with the music of Skip James. James, who first recorded his finger-picked Mississippi Blues at the onset of the Great Depression, becomes a symbol of individuality through his tune "Devil Got My Woman," the keening refrain of which can be heard throughout Zwigoff's film.

All well and good. But, as I had said, let's go to Zwigoff, to illustrate. The following is from Zwigoff's liner notes to the movie's soundtrack CD:

I tried a lot of my favorite 78s with different scenes and it was very satisfying when they worked. Skip James I knew would work, and it was a great privilege to be able to use his music as part of this film. "Devil Got My Woman" was the first old 78 I ever heard that stopped me dead in my tracks.

[ . . . . . . . . . . . ]

One further note about Skip James. His "I'm So Glad" was part of a huge hit rock LP by The Cream during the 60's. When I was in college it was impossible to escape that damn LP - it was playing in every house, apartment, and coffee house, or so it seemed.

Although aided by the blasting volume of electric guitar, bass, and drums, The Cream's version was vastly inferior in every way to James' intense, frenzied masterpiece which was no doubt fueled by the immense inner anger he clearly possessed. Although The Cream's version sold over a million copies, and James' probably sold less than one hundred, it is James' version that will be remembered (while Bjork and The Cream records are rotting in some New Jersey landfill).

While I'm all for seeking out and finding the music that moves you, by the second paragraph, Zwigoff's notes seem to have devolved from In Praise Of into a Screed Against.

Looked at a certain way, Zwigoff's caterwauling seems to be trying to reignite a battle that's long since ended. It's like, get over it, dude: Muddy Waters and Bob Dylan both fought as footsoldiers in the war that was won by electrically amplified instruments.

Too loud? How very charming.

And, of course, we as readers of Zwigoff's liner notes don't particularly care WHAT kind of music it was that the kids who used to beat him up once listened to.

But as I suggested uptop, I think there's more going on here. I think there's an illustrative trap that Zwigoff falls into, a trap that we need to be careful of as, ahem, consumers, of music. Basically, we need to understand that obscurity is no guarantee of superiority, nor is primitivism, nor poorly-defined notions of "authenticity."

None of us, of course, want to become collector scum. The Misfits on CD are no more or no less authentic than the same fucking songs on the limited edition singles, and Cream is no more or no less "real" than the man they covered shortly before his death in 1969.

Once I get past the hiss, I quite like the Skip James version of "I'm So Glad." The man could clearly play some guitar. And of course he wrote the tune, or at least he wrote it as much as anyone did.

James was a pioneer of the fingerpicked delta blues, it's true. But Cream were pioneers, too, playing the heavily amplified blues as if they were jazz, stretching boundaries and stretching time. And just as their popularity was not their fault, neither was it that their imitators were for the most part not as good as they.

The idea that Cream's interpretations of Skip James songs are in any way inferior to the originals--simply because they are (relatively) newer and louder and more popular--is absurd. To play at the sort of pretention that would hold otherwise sort of reveals some insecurities, no? Because in the end, things like your distribution and your amplification are irrelevant to the music at hand.

Anyway, I thought you the reader might like to compare at least one of Cream's two versions with the earliest known version of Skip James' original. I'm sure any of you who do prefer the James version will at the least not have silly reasons for doing so.

Skip James - The Complete Early Recordings 1930 - 16 - I'm So Glad.mp3

128 kbps mp3, up for six weeks (Right click and save as target)

File Under: Delta Blues

This file was removed April 7, 2009. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

194 kbps VBR mp3, up for six weeks (Right click and save as target)

File Under: Supergroup Rock

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