I’ve been listening to a lot of old, acoustic blues recordings lately. Scrolling through Amazon Unlimited (note –> not Spotify), one song stood out to me. Not because of the music, but the name, Special Rider Blues. After a few seconds, it came to me that Special Rider Music was the name of one of Dylan’s music publishing companies. That got me thinking about Skip James – who wrote Special Rider – and his connection with Dylan.
I wasn’t super-familiar with James’ work. I knew I’m So Glad from the cover version done by Cream, which I didn’t know was a cover before this week.
If you’re interested in checking James’ music out, I’ll save you a little time. Start with the 1968 release Skip James Today!, a re-recording of songs that James originally recorded in the 30s. I guess it’s debatable whether the newer versions are better than the originals, but the sound quality is far superior.
James’ biography is interesting. He recorded only one album before giving up on his recording career. Thirty-odd years later, he was tracked down by now-legendary guitar player John Fahey and a couple of his friends. They found James in a hospital in the Mississippi, brought him to Washington DC, and helped kick start his career. He ended up playing at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. He made some money from I’m So Glad and other songs. See the link below to an excellent City Paper article for more information.
James’ playing style is quite distinct. He played his guitar in an open-D tuning and sang with a high falsetto. He played piano as well as guitar, using the instrument extensively on his recordings. The sound of many blues singers can be a bit monotonous, but that is not the case with James.
Now on to the connections between James and Dylan. Somewhat surprisingly, given Dylan’s many borrowings from his ancestors, there are not that many.
We do know that Dylan is a big fan of James. On his Theme Time Radio show, episode 14, he said:
Here’s another barn burner [Devil Got My Woman]. This is my man, Skip James. Skip had a style that was celestially divine, sounded like it was coming from beyond the veil. Magic in the grooves. He had a style that was ghostly and otherworldly, rare and unusual, mysterious and vague. You won’t believe what you’ll hear.
Dylan recorded Robert Johnson’s 32-20 Blues, which was released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Take Signs. 32-20 is based in part on James’ 22-20 Blues.
Dylan’s Pledging My Time includes the line “Somebody got lucky, but it was an accident”. The “got lucky” phrase could be from Skip James’ Devil Got My Woman, although it could just as well have been inspired by another song, such as Robert Johnson’s Come on in My Kitchen, or Blind Willie McTell’s Stole Rider Blues.
Dylan’s Had a Dream About You, Baby contains the phrase “rolling across my mind”, which could be a reference to 4 O’clock Blues. But that’s not definite either, since the same phrase is used in, for example, Prison Wall Blues.
That’s about all I could find. I always marvel at the incredible number of interconnections between Dylan and other artists, like Skip James. Check him out, watch the videos below, you’ll be glad you did.
Interview with James relative – https://angiemackreilly.com/2005-angie-interviews-skip-james-and-mississippi-john-hurt-descendant/
Review by Peter Guralnick of Skip James Today! https://www.pastemagazine.com/crawdaddy/skip-james/crawdaddy-classics-today-skip-james-and-mississipp/