Skip James / Jack Owens

50 Years: Mississippi Blues in Bentonia

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The 18 tracks that Skip James recorded in Grafton, WI, for Paramount in 1931 have long been among the most distinctive in the history of country blues, and the cumulative effect of James' high tenor vocals and odd, delicate guitar picking led many blues scholars to assign him his own niche in blues history, the founder of the so-called Bentonia (named after James' home region of Mississippi) school of country blues. When James was rediscovered in the 1960s, his skills still intact, his mysterious guitar style turned out to be the result of playing in minor key open tunings, and scholars more or less decided that there was no real Bentonia school of Mississippi blues, that James was a singular, unique stylistic iconoclast. Now it appears that there actually was a real Bentonia style, one that featured heavy use of D minor and E minor open guitar tunings (often called "cross-note" tuning), and a shared local song repertory. This intriguing album includes all of James' historic 1931 recordings, with five tracks of Jack Owens singing related material recorded in 1981, and the similarities are striking and eerie. Owens doesn't use the high tenor as much as James did, and his vocals have a decidedly rougher edge, but on songs here like "Hard Times," "Cherry Ball," and "Devil Blues," the link to James is obvious, particularly in the guitar style and the overall ethereal feel that Owens generates. Blues scholars were quick to call Owens a disciple of James, but that appears not to be true, either, since the two were actually contemporaries (Owens claimed to actually have taught James how to play guitar, which appears unlikely, since both appear to have learned their craft [or at least the minor key open tunings] from another local guitarist, the never-recorded Henry Stuckey). In retrospect, there actually was a small and viable local Bentonia school of Mississippi blues, and although Skip James thus turns out not to have been quite as unique a stylist as scholars and collectors originally thought, he was clearly and unarguably the high-water mark of this particular style. Adding Owens' tracks to James' original 78s makes 50 Years of Mississippi Blues both a blues history lesson and a wonderful purchase (if you can find it).

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