“Samuel James is like a time machine – the same one that keeps Son House and Mississippi John Hurt traveling back to the public consciousness”
– Portland Phoenix, November, 2006
“Fantastic! Great voice and a great playing style! Traditional blues done with a hip twist.”
Authenticity in blues. Sick of hearing about that yet? Perhaps authenticity isn’t the main issue in the state of the blues today. Perhaps a more important issue in bringing fans back to the blues is “relevance.” Listening to Samuel James
one realizes that they are listening to a rare breed in the blues world. A very rare breed. Here is a young man, still a few years away from 30, whose debut cd is a set of 12 original
songs. Each song is a story, an often humorous tale, of love gone haywire, or small town racism, or a folk tale of mythical symbolism.
Samuel James is equally at home on guitar, banjo, harmonica, hambone or piano. He’s steeped in the traditions of his elders but has already created his own voice that speaks with clarity and pathos to a contemporary audience.
Samuel James is the most relevant young blues artist to come our way in quite some time.
Samuel James is a performer of singular talent. A master of fingerstyle, slide, banjo, harmonica, and piano, this phenom 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 second CD and debut for NorthernBlues Music entitled Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy.
The CD was recorded by numbers: One artist, five days, nine mics, two guitars, one banjo, both feet for percussion and 100% acoustic. “It was the hardest week of my life, which is saying something considering I grew up black in Maine in white foster homes.”
The CD was produced by David Travers-Smith whose credits include Ani DiFranco, Harry Manx and Russell Crowe. 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.