There are superlatives -and then there is Steve James. And very rapidly we run out of superlatives to describe how uplifting and affecting a Steve James performance is -and for how long Steve James’s rendition of Texas and Delta Blues remain in the memory and in the heart.
The blues, like jazz, are the gifts that black American slaves gave to the world. The only truly American musical-art-forms. The blues were born from slavery in the USA - and derive their power by showing that it is possible to rise above that grotesque, despicable, brutal and degrading history.
Steve James recognises and celebrates the unique contribution to music made by the brilliant Black songwriters and guitar players who forged a new art from the complex, shame, misery and tragedy that was - and regrettably, still is - slavery.
Unlike many of his British counterparts [who plundered that rich tradition - but took the money and gave back very little, and even commercialised the blues, got massively rich while lauding racism (which is the contemporary corollary of slavery) and adopting the crass politics of Enoch Powell], Steve James showcases the contributions of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Henry Thomas, James A Rochelle, Big Joe Williams, Charlie Pool, Sam McGee, Roosevelt Williams, Hudie Ledbetter, BB Slim and the amazing Sylvester Weaver.
Steve James has travelled the highways and byways of the former ‘slave states’ of the USA - and has sought out the the men and women to whom we all owe a huge debt of gratitude. They are often unknown. They collected no royalties. They often lived and died in hunger, pain and penury.
However, collectively they created a supreme musical form that gives expression to feelings created by inhuman conditions so profound, so complex, so overwhelming that what they were like to endure would have been beyond comprehension and expression without their music.
The shorthand we use to describe their experience is ‘the blues’. The names of the creators of the blues may not resonate, but their music and their experience enlivens and enriches our emotional lives. Their experience lives on in all of us through the many musical derivatives born of their unique emotional bedrock.
Steve’s playing astounds and impresses. However, he is the first give credit to the musicians listed above who talked to him and played their music to him. They shared their history, their pain, taught him their chords, their runs and their licks.
We all owe everyone of them (known and unknown), and Steve James, our heart felt gratitude for sharing their talent - and in so doing greatly enriching our experience of life, its emotional complexities and its vast potential to overcome apparently crushing inhumanity.