James is like a time machine – the same one that keeps Son House and
Mississippi John Hurt traveling back to the public consciousness” –
Samuel James is a performer of stunningly singular talent. A master of
finger style, slide, banjo, harmonica, and piano, this phenomenon is not yet
out of his twenties. With musical influences ranging from
Skip James and
Sonny Terry to
Gus Cannon and
Charley Patton, such understanding of
pre-war blues is rarely embodied in the music of one person.
But Samuel James is not a revivalist. His songwriting is absolutely
unparalleled in contemporary blues. His writing is descended from the
long forgotten art of the songster. While musically one could compare
him to Patton or Cannon, his writing goes in another direction entirely.
His songs are often written as linear stories, novels in musical format:
O. Henry meets Mose Allison.
James’ musical lineage stretches back to immediate post-slavery. His
grandfather (b. 1890) played guitar in contemporary blues styles of the
era. James’ father was a professional pianist, and trombone player.
Samuel learned to tap dance at five, learned piano at eight and toured
the Northeastern circuit professionally by 12. Samuel lost his mother
the same year and spent his teens in foster homes. At 17 he reunited and
rekindled a relationship with his father.
Samuel James fully discovered his musicianship after a young woman broke
his heart. He booked a flight to Ireland figuring the gray and rainy
climate would match his mindset. Short of funds to make it home, he
learned harmonica from local street musicians. Collecting enough change
to make it back to Maine, he gave up a nascent painting career and dove
head first into the guitar. Today, still in his 20s, James releases his
third CD entitled For Rosa, Maeve, and Noreen. This is Samuel James’
third album and second for the NorthernBlues label. It is produced by
David Travers-Smith whose credits include Ani DiFranco,
Harry Manx and
Both live and recorded Samuel James cherishes “the intimacy of one man
screaming his heart out…a conversation between him and his audience as
opposed to between band members. When I think of the best, most intimate
forms of entertainment—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
Top can touch that." Based on consistent standing ovations, Samuel James
clearly knows entertaining.
The recording reflects Samuel’s live performances as much as one can,
but more importantly it showcases why Samuel James doesn’t consider
himself a bluesman per se, but a songster and storyteller within a style
of music. James is a hardworking individual steeped in the traditions of
his elders and has created his own voice that speaks with clarity and
pathos to a contemporary audience.
Live, Samuel James includes some older material in his set, and when
playing a song created by a previous blues master he truly makes it his
own. His stamp of originality is evident in every song he picks. Clearly
the historical torch is being passed to him from today’s elder masters
and yesterday’s originators. Does that make him authentic? Let the
listener decide if that is even the question. Samuel James is the most
relevant young blues artist to come our way in quite some time.
Samuel explains “Pre-war blues is much more intimate for me . . . much
like a conversation. I’m not really drawn to anything contemporary
because it’s not nearly as engaging.” Based on consistent standing
ovations, Samuel James clearly knows engaging.