Book of Samuel, Vol. 3
For the ages, and For Rosa, Maeve and Noreen
It’s so easy not to think about the music Samuel James makes much at all. Built from the very pillars of American music, it’s easy to dismiss it as an homage, a throwback, a curiosity. And it is all those things, with James’ ageless voice – he could be 20 or 80 – and variety of stringed instruments that scoff at modern technology [this originally ran in 2009].
In some ways, it’s downright innocuous, as likely to appeal to toddlers and grandmothers as the modern-day equivalents of those who marveled at blind-old (a young 40, actually) Doc Watson when he played the Newport Folk Festival for the first time in 1963.
But it’s hard, also, not to think about issues of race and class when you hear Samuel James play this music, in this way. Just as it’s striking to see the straight-laced, square-framed earnest and preppy young men and women applauding politely in front of the ivy and brick for Watson on the Newport lawns in those old black-and-white photos (“Gee, Nelson, I really do think this hillbilly music is what America was built on, don’t you?”; “By all means, Amanda, I do. Let’s say we drink bourbon tonight in his honor — it’s made down in Kentucky, you know”), so, too, is it interesting to imagine our white-bread populace here in Maine marveling as they do at James’ “Big Blacker Ben,” where he updates us on Ben’s exploits by telling a story of him being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night by hooded Klansmen because of rumors he’s “been with white women.”
Making America’s historical black eye funny=hard to do, but James pulls it off: “Never in my life have I seen such cowardly racists/ You’re too scared to even let this black man see your faces/ And one by one they pulled their hoods off their heads/ He said, ‘You’re all just as ugly as all your wives said.’ ”
They try to hang Ben, but the rope turns out to be too long. James chuckles.
It’s no big thing, right? A modern artist creating new traditionals? Telling stories you’ve never heard, but seem familiar? Theoretically, those old traditionals aren’t all that brilliant to begin with. “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad?” I think I could have thought that one up myself, given enough time with the G, C, and D chords. The thing is, though, no one has ever thought up “I’ve Haddock up to Here” before, and not only does James do a silly song without it making you wince in embarrassment, he makes you wonder why it’s not in the songbook they give to new students when they sign up for classes at that 317 Main Street bluegrass academy in Yarmouth.
Ultimately, I’d argue James’ genius comes not in the whistle solo on “Rosa’s Sweet Little Love Song,” or the crescendo up the neck on “A Sugar Smallhouse Valentine,” or the manic and intense double time of “Trouble on Congress Street Rag,” but in the way he makes it seem so genuine and important.
Noreen? “She’s dancing for the Philistines.” Like “Old Joe Clark” and “Angelina Baker” before them, James’ characters are society’s underbelly and underclass, sometimes recognizable in today’s strippers and working poor, sometimes historical figures that make us pine for days when heroes and good guys were easier to come by (as if they ever were).
“John Ross Said” is as low-down and dirty as Andrew Jackson treated its title character, the first elected leader of the Cherokee and the man who oversaw the trail of tears that left “Oklahoma ground forever red.” What did John Ross actually say? “We are overwhelmed; our hearts are sickened; our utterance is paralyzed, when we reflect on the condition in which we are placed by the audacious practices of unprincipled men.” Isn’t that a sentence that could have been said last week? To say that James does Ross justice is enough high praise.
On this third full-length album of original material, James continues to grow as an artist. He fingerpicks better than ever, sure, and the production leaves you feeling like you just spent 10 hours with the man in a jail cell, but it’s the gravitas you notice now. He no longer conveys the air of a man playing a character. He has become the role he’s asked himself to play.