Looking for Bob Dylan Comparables: Skip James and Sin

Tracing Bob Dylan’s artistic roots is an exercise in deception and half truths. Sure, there are the obvious two towering giants of Hank Williams and, of course, Woody Guthrie. However, neither of those two really begin to fill out anywhere near a complete picture of the forces that shaped both Bob Dylan and his music. It is the neglected link between Dylan, blues musicians and rock ‘n’ roll that not only tell the story of popular music but also draws links to several loose ends that, when they come together, one realizes that rock was a progression of small steps.

The more one digs into the blues of the 1930s-1960s, you find little signs that the young Robert Zimmerman passed through here on his way to becoming Bob Dylan. Sin is a theme that laces itself throughout Bob Dylan’s work. While it undoubtedly factors into country and folk music heavily, in blues, it comes out of the song and sits down besides the singer, forever on his case. For, in the black communities of the south, the blues was the devil’s music. The men who played it had to be a little out there. Most of them were quite the characters in their own way.

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An excellent beginning  is Skip James. Born Nehemiah Curtis James in Bentonia, Ms. June 9, 1902, James’ songs dealt a great deal with personal reputation and sin. Adding to the haunted quality of his music was the falsetto voice James sang in. It ripped through your body and took a stranglehold on your soul. A peek at some of the lyrics to James’ song “22-20 Blues” finds  a very Dylan-esque conundrum for its narrator.

Oh, Mr. Crest, Mr. Crest
How in the world you
Expect for me to rest?
Oh, Mr. Crest, Mr. Crest
How in the world you
Expect for me to rest?
You’ve got my 22-20
Layin’ up across my breast

Musicologist Dick Spottswood had this to say about James, the man, “Skip James, you never knew. Skip could be sunshine, or thunder and lightning depending on his whim of the moment.”

The religious aspect of James’ music was there from the very beginning and it caused great inner turmoil inside of him. Dylan sought religion as a way to understand the sought religion as a refuge and even then  one could question whether it was all just a part of the act.

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