Rory Block,
Hard Luck Child
(Stony Plain, 2014)

"James's voice established the singularity of his vision," musicologist Ted Gioia writes in Delta Blues (2008), "his range much wider than one heard in traditional blues, his eerie falsetto soaring above the spare guitar notes. If ever the blues had its own siren song, alluring and hypnotic, it was here with Skip James, the most distinctive vocalist the idiom has yet produced."

In short, if you haven't heard James's recordings, you're missing some spectacularly imagined and executed American roots music. Mississippian Nehemiah "Skip" James (1902-1969) cut two dozen sides in 1930 and 1931 before fading from public view. Rediscovered in the 1960s, he recorded again for the folk revival label Vanguard. Veteran acoustic guitarist Rory Block is only one of many to cover James songs. (I remembering hearing a British rock band's version of "Devil Got My Woman" in the late 1960s, my first exposure to the man's name and music.) In lesser hands an effort to devote a full album to a recreation of James material would be a fool's errand. Block's hands, which are not lesser ones, are always in full control of the project. One would like to think that even James, often described as grumpy, would appreciate what Block has accomplished.

Block, who grew up in Greenwich Village in the middle of the folk scare, is old enough to harbor personal memories of such seminal figures as Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Rev. Gary Davis and Mississippi Fred McDowell, whom she met after they were were encouraged to take advantage of the new fashion for old music. In recent years she has released a series of Stony Plain albums celebrating these men and their contributions to the blues/folk canon. Hard Luck Child honors James, recalling nine of his songs and devoting a tenth, the Block original "Nehemiah James," to his biography.

Block is too smart, however, to try to emulate James. Her arrangements of his songs are her own, and she sings in the same fearless, fluid voice, not a whole lot like her subject's, that she employs elsewhere. She is also a fierce, extroverted guitar player. Her slide work in particular gets a listener's blood to racing. This is pretty much everything you'd want short of James's own essential recordings.

As I listen to Block's reading of "Special Rider Blues" -- James's contribution to the "Easy Rider/See See Rider/I Know You Rider" cluster -- I experience the curious sensation that my head is about to explode. Even more extraordinarily, I find myself thinking that's a good thing. Which is to say that on Hard Luck Child Block is so good she's scary.

music review by
Jerome Clark

15 November 2014

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new