Up all Night with Skip James
There Are No Records Like “Devil Got My Woman”
I don’t believe in The Devil, but I believe in Skip James’s “Devil Got My Woman.” It is a song of such mystery and beauty, it could not be really covered by anyone—not Canned Heat, not Greg Allman, not even Beck. The only person who could cover younger Skip James is older Skip James, and, even though he was in poor health, you’d never know it. It’s not lightning in a bottle, it’s not listening by flashes of lightning. It’s the little flickers in the sky right before it rains. A drama is brewing, but the wind is soft. The earth is soothing for a moment, right before the storm. It’s not endless summer. It’s a moment of calm, right between Hard Time Killing Floor and Sick Bed. In that flicker, you get to live. You get to feel what you need to feel. A falsetto voice will guide you. You are losing everything. Everything you care about is being taken away, and these are the good times.
In Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, Enid (Thora Birch) buys a record from Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a collection of 30s blues tracks. Enid is at her dad’s house. She just graduated high school, is taking a remedial art class, and hates absolutely everything. She is washing green dye out of her hair, is looking in the mirror, and has a moment of recognition. This song is sending shivers down her spine. This may be the only thing she likes. What is this? Is there some other world I don’t know about? This pierces me like nothing before. The lyrics are hard to understand, but it’s about the sound, the feeling, the idea that misery could be so pleasurable. It is about liking it because it is bitter and because it is your heart. It’s like a release of everything she had ever felt, it has been right here since this scratchy record.
I'd rather be the devil than to be that woman man
I'd rather be the devil than to be that woman man
Aw, nothin' but the devil, changed my baby's mind
Was nothin' but the devil, changed my baby's mind
I laid down last night, laid down last night
I laid down last night, tried to take my rest
My mind got to ramblin', like a wild geese
From the west, from the west
The woman I love, woman that I loved
Woman I loved, took her from my best friend
But he got lucky, stoled her back again
And he got lucky, stoled her back again
Guy has girl, loses girl, Satan is somehow involved, but then when is he not? We have heard this story a million times, but this is the one. It’s not even about the girl or the devil, but that place in between. It is in the melisma, the quavers and moans and riffs that sound as close to the other side as a voice and guitar could possibly be. A mind gets to ramblin’ like a wild geese. The camera slowly circles Enid. Hours have passed, she is dressed, and she is still lifting that needle and starting it over, every three minutes. She has been up all night with Skip James.
The next day, Enid goes back to Seymour, who is selling records out of a garage. “That one record, ‘Devil Got My Woman,’ I just keep playing that one over and over,” she says. “Do you have any other records like that?”
Seymour says, “There are no other records like that.”
There are no other records like that.
“Devil Got My Woman” was the title track of Skip James’s final album. It’s the blues equivalent of Glenn Gould beginning and ending his career with The Goldberg Variations. Skip James must have felt everything. He languished in obscurity and poverty until the blues revival of the early 60s gave him some recognition until the end in 1969.
Why should I expect that old guy to give it to me true
Fallen to hard luck
And time and other thieves
While our limo is shining on his shanty street
Joni Mitchell wrote that about Furry Lewis, who was no Skip James, but he was available. Someone else is always suffering more than us, but no one knows our torments. I have been told that I can play the blues, and there is no precise equation between suffering and expression.
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
Thomas Stearns Eliot wrote those lines, and he had problems of his own. Many problems, folks. And he does not care about mine.
I would tell you about my problems, and if you are any good, you are an out of network provider, so I will pay. Or I can play the blues pretty convincingly. Or I can be like Enid in Ghost World, playing that record forever.
Albert Murray wrote that when we stomp the blues, we stomp it away. But it keeps coming back, like desire itself, evidence that we are still here. “Devil Got My Woman” has a foot out the door. Having the actual words doesn’t say anything about what it does to us.
Many people need their suffering to be louder, angrier, driven by electronics and clangor. I hear them driving past my block. And I get it, I do. And I know that the folk blues artists of the 30s would have played with bands if they could have. They recorded that way because it was all they had. Leadbelly was in prison when Alan Lomax stuck a microphone between those bars to get “In the Pines” and “Goodnight Irene.” And here I am finding the beauty of it all, the elegance, the delicate strains. A car could drive by with something else on its mind, but I choose this.
Sometimes when I lay my head, my mind gets a ramblin’ like a wild geese. And I try to get to a place of calm and reality keeps coming back. This is where a poem begins. This is where a song begins. I don’t believe in the devil, but I believe in evil, which is devil without the d. It is everywhere. It is undeniable. We are all sinking. The house always wins. What devil conceived it? “Devil Got My Woman” still feels like a discovery every time I hear it. But I also know that between the idea and the reality falls the shadow. We’re all heading there, and someone should document it while they can. Records were made to be broken. There is a sadness that surpasses utterance. It is mute. It is pent. It is everything you ever wanted and everything you ever lost. It is so desperate, it has given up. It has flatlined, a blank playlist. There are no records like that.