Rory Block is back with another fine album, Hard Luck Child, the fifth in her Mentor Series. On this latest outing she celebrates the music of Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James, a pivotal figure in the history of country blues. Block, in ten tracks, manages to distill the sound and the soul of the former bootlegger turned preacher. In her “Mentor” series, Block has paid homage to the men who shaped not only her sound, but that of an entire generation of musicians. Block’s previous releases have centered on the works of Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Son House. This excellent series is a must-have for any serious student of the blues.
There is no better ambassador for this music than Rory Block, who not only knows the material, but also spent time with these men 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.
What makes a legend? What raises an artist to the status of auteur? Singular vision and originality would seem to be key elements to that elevated status. Taking a particular discipline or art form in a bold new direction might be important. The test of time is certainly a critical factor. Influence on other artists matters also.
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 diverse generation of musicians including 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 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 a 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, and presents these compositions not as static 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.
Block’s technical mastery of form, and reverence for its roots is well known in blues circles. This is a woman who plays music that matters, not only to her, but to us as well, and she understands that. Block is here for our own good, whether the masses realize it or not. We need her, and if this were a just world, we would shower Block and her contemporaries, those who carry the banner of our collective past into the present, with high praise. Block’s efforts give our current struggles context and meaning.
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, and knew its creators, but above all respects their labors with loving presentations designed to honor them.
In time, other blues 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.