Perhaps the most hilarious send-up of modern blues takes place in the 2001 film adaptation of Ghost World. Steve Buscemi's character gets upset that a personal hero of his, a little-known old bluesman, had been resigned to an opening role at a sports bar/blues club—though a woman he meets assures him that the next band playing does "authentic" blues. The headliner, four pretty white boys calling themselves Blueshammer, takes the stage and launches into a blooze-rock song about the hardships of pickin' cotton for the man. Ironically, Buscemi had just finished pedantically (if not quite accurately) explaining to his companion that his hero's music couldn't accurately be called blues because it didn't have a 12-bar stanza.
The scene is so funny because it's so uncomfortably true. Comparable scenes play out nightly in bars across the country—and especially in the Dallas area, home of the Stevie Ray Vaughan-a-be. And, quite regularly, bands almost as ridiculous as Blueshammer prove that 12 bars is not necessarily proof of authenticity.
Authentic—or even merely interesting—bluesmen are few and far between these days. Occasionally, someone seems to get it, even if the delivery is 90 percent shtick, like that of Jack White or, locally, Dale Jones, aka New Science Projects.
Samuel James performs Saturday, August 8, at Hailey's Club, Denton.
Then there's Samuel James. His sophomore CD, Songs Famed for Sorrow And Joy, is 13 straight-up shots of blues in the pre-World War II style, a blend of Delta-style slide guitar, ragtime and country from a guy that can pick the hell out of a six-string, 12-string, resonator or banjo. But rather than string together a few blues clichés, James actually manages to write songs that sound completely traditional—and yet, somehow, new. There's not a "You don't miss your water till the well runs dry," "Sweet as cherry wine" or "Baby done left me" to be heard. Rather, songs like "Big Black Ben," with its delicious twist of ironic revenge against a racist sheriff, are like short stories set to music rather than tossed-off lines about women and whiskey. The fact that he plays acoustic instruments and is unaccompanied by a band makes it feel that much more intimate and traditional.
Adding to the historic feel of the music is James' life story, which sounds almost like the kind of myth-making that surrounded the earliest bluesmen. The great-grandson of a slave, grandson of an early bluesman and son of a professional pianist, James lost his mother at age 12 and spent his teens in foster homes as the only black kid in Portland, Maine, before he finally reunited with his father at age 17.
This rich family history informs his songwriting, James says by phone from Portland, just minutes after giving his girlfriend a dress as an anniversary present. It almost fit.
"I did a lot of family stories," James says. "I sort of picked and chose certain parts from certain ones. Most of my stories go like that, and I'll give them a sort of O. Henry ending, like, 'Wouldn't it be funny if this happened?'"
That was the case with "Big Black Ben." James' mother, who was white, was the daughter of the county sheriff. And when his black father moved to Maine, he had problems with her family. They didn't know she was dating a black man and didn't care for the surprise. Though the real-life sheriff had died before his daughter got together with James' dad, the idea of "Big Black Ben" leaving his mark on the sheriff's family proved irresistible to the songwriter.
Not that it's necessary to embellish the facts to make his family's story interesting. James doesn't know exactly where in East Texas his great-grandfather toiled in slavery, but believes it was probably on an unincorporated plot of land.
"My father did this thing in the '60s where he went to see his grandfather's grave, and it's under a highway now," he says.
In fact, his father was born in Tucson in 1945. By that point, his family had fled Texas.
"They left because they were running from the Klan," James says. "It's one of those family legends that no one likes to talk about. But either my grandfather or my great-uncle killed a Klansman. So they had to take the whole family and leave. It was a drunken Klansman groping wives and saying he was entitled because he was a Klansman. Push came to shove and the knives came out, and that was it."
James guesses that this monumental event in his family history occurred, incidentally, in the late 1930s—smack in the time period that so richly informs his music. For all its racial difficulties, that era has a romance for him.
"Because I'm from a white place, being black has always been a forefront thing in my relationship with other people, because it's the first thing people see," he says. "And that wasn't an issue for my father or his father, because they all had black communities. African-Americans have this way of creating beautiful art and then throwing it away, and I think it has to do with an impermanence, being the only minority that was forced here against their will. So they create blues, or jazz, or hip-hop or whatever, and then just throw it away and move to the next thing."
So what attracts a relatively young man—James is just 28, practically an infant in blues years—to this creaky old genre?
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"I think it's the intimacy," he says. "There's always something special about one guy screaming his heart out. It's a conversation between him and the audience. If you have a full band, with electricity, it's more about the conversation between the band members. When I think of the best, most intimate forms of 'entertainment,' for lack of a better word—maybe a flamenco guitar player, or a stand-up comedian, spoken word—it's one individual. There's a power there. You can't listen to Son House or Skip James and tell me that an electric ZZ Top can touch that."
That position makes sense, though: Perhaps because of his upbringing, James has always been a solitary type, both musically and otherwise, preferring boxing and track to team sports as a high-school and college athlete.
"I don't play well with others," he says with a laugh.