Skip James: Devil Got My Woman (1931)
There’s a million songs about the Devil, especially in Blues: after all it was Satan’s genre, as opposed to Gospel. Released in 1931 by Paramount on 78rpm record, Devil got my woman is one of the 18 tracks Skip James recorded at the age of 29, before virtually disappearing from the music scene for over 30 years. What James did in those years is anyone’s guess. Probably he became a preacher, maybe he worked in a mine. “It was not until 1964 that guitarist John Fahey and two friends located him in Tunica, Arkansas, where he lay in a hospital suffering from cancer.”* He briefly became a star in the Blues/folk revival (also because he still played the Blues as he did in the 1920s, some kind of musical time capsule), before dying in 1969.
The guitar tuning of Devil got my woman (open D minor) is so peculiar, it has its own name, Bentonia (after James’ hometown in Mississippi). The song features a very simple, archaic structure: a single line (with different words, and a few variations), alternated with guitar riffs. But the unresolving tuning, the haunting quality of the melody, James’ otherworldly voice, and the lyrics (“Well, I’d rather be the devil, (than) to be that woman’s man”) make it one of the most satanic tunes ever. And Skip James agreed: “Calt (Stephen, James’ biographer) wrote in I’d Rather be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues: “Before his death, James was to tell the author that he had considered blues sinful to perform. As a compromise, he had played with his ‘thinkin’ faculties’ but had deliberately refused to ‘put my heart in it.’ What James feared above all was becoming the mesmeric blues performer he had been in 1931 and thus infecting others with the sin that blues represented. “Feelin’ in music is electrifyin,” he said, “it’ll infect people.”*
There’s a number of covers of this song, but none captures the spirit of the original. Gregg Allman, on his 2011 album Low country blues, gets pretty close☊ to the mark, thanks to an arrangement identical to James’, and the eerie sound of his voice – at this point also somewhat archaic.
Tom Waits: Way Down In The Hole (1987)
Originally included in Waits’ 1987 album Frank’s wild years, it’s a modern classic – also thanks to being the main title tune for the five seasons of The Wire, in as many (mostly) magnificent versions: (1) The Blind Boys of Alabama♾ (roots), (2) Tom Waits♾ (more below), (3) The Neville Brothers♾ (murderously Funky), (4) DoMaJe♾ (downtempo, a bit weaker, sung by a group of Baltimore teenagers) and (5) Steve Earle♾ (Country Rock), who also has a role in the show (links point to clips of the various seasons’ opening titles). An extended version♾ of the Blind Boys of Alabama’s version is featured in the series finale. I have reasons to believe that the amazing (and utterly demonic) Neville Bros cover was also recorded just for the show, as it seems to be the only studio recording available (it lasts just 1’34”). I could use a 9 minute version of it.
Waits’ original is certainly the deepest – in an almost archaic way. The arrangement is bare bones: double bass, a shaker, a saxophone (mixed with a short, loud, obtuse, perfect one-tap delay) and Waits’ growl. The lyrics are a collection of classic biblical images (the garden, the narrow path, the sword, etc), punctuated by the admonition to keep the Devil in the hole. Here’s a “religious” song that can also be sung by irreligious folks like myself. Just replace the Devil with your worst bad self *.
* On the other hand, Waits has often repeated a quote he took from a Tennessee Williams interview: “If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.”
Bob Dylan: Gotta Serve Somebody (1979)
Another modern classic, from the 1979 album Slow Train Coming. When it came out, Dylan had just become a born again christian. You know, odd things happen in life. But with his religious songs, and especially this album and the following (Saved), Dylan gained a very special status in America: an songwriter revered both by white audiences and older, more traditional black folks – for a different repertoire. Gotta Serve Somebody is a perfect example. It has admonishing lyrics, the point being that, whatever you are, you need to be either on the side of good (which he happens to call the Lord), or viceversa (you can find the complete lyrics, along with all Bob Dylan’s songs, on his excellent, and huge website). Again: I’m not religious, but I can relate to this song. It’s a mid-tempo, 12 bars blues, straight and very tight. The players are top notch, including the underestimated Dire Straits drummer Pick Withers, along with an almost invisible Mark Knopfler, and one of my personal heroes, country/rock bassist Tim Drummond. The singing’s so good that, in ’79, Dylan got a Grammy for best male rock vocal performance specifically for this track. Recorded at Muscle Shoals, Alabama (with some of the legendary local players), it was produced by Jerry Wexler (one of the inventors of this professional figure, AND of the term Rhythm’n’blues).
The album went at #2 in the UK chart, #3 in the US, and this song is Dylan’s last hit single, at #24 on the Billboard Magazine chart. But, more unusually, Gotta Serve Somebody became a standard in southern Gospel churches. Of course some of Dylan’s early material had been appropriated by the civil righs movement, and covered by african american artists. But this is very different: it’s a contemporary song, written in the gospel language, and written so well that gospel folks actually sing it – exactly as it’s written. Pretty rare, perhaps unique.
You can find countless covers of this tune on Youtube. Some fair (Eric Burdon♾ unplugged at Burning Man, Pops Staples♾ live on tv, Willie Nelson‘s☊ country tenor version), some ok (Patti Austin‘s☊ funky strut, Natalie Cole‘s☊ top 40 radio version), some terrible (like the terminally uncool Melbourne Mass Gospel Choir♾) and some quite revelatory, like the 5 minutes extract of the documentary Gotta Serve Somebody – Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan (also a compilation album), where you can hear a churchy, I’ve-seen-the-light type rendition♾ of the song.