Samuel James is a master of fingerstyle guitar, slide, banjo and piano and is immersed in the traditions of all the elder acoustic bluesmen, Everyone form Charlie Patton to Son House to Mississippi John Hurt to Skip James, along with sundry pre-WW2 acoustic practitioners who made every utterance sound as intimate and conversational as possible. It’s an historical torch, referred to by cognoscenti as the songster approach, and Samuel James carries it off with aplomb and assurance, as is evident throughout Songs Famed For Sorrow And Joy.
Many songs are novellas or vignettes, often folksy tales about scoundrels, oddballs, rogues and other unforgettable characters encountered in real or imagined travels ("Big Bad Ben," "One-Eyed Katie," "The Sad Ballad Of Old Willie Chan," "Love and Mumbley-Peg"). James is a convincing storyteller throughout this pure solo outing, which comes about as close to a live performance as possible without having an actual admission booth.
Other tracks are deep intense blues, a prime example being "Mid-December Blues," which despite its name has a jaunty feel to it. It’s about returning to one’s birthplace in the South: a well-ploughed theme and virtually a rite of passage, but James carries it off with total credibility. "Sunrise Blues" is about a man about to be executed. It’s sung in the first person and James gives a convincing reading of his horrible fate, squeezing out the last thoughts of a doomed one in a voice wracked by fear, terror and abandonment.
Several songs mine the hokum blues traditions, such as "Sugar Smallhouse Heads For The Hills" that’s a real hoot. It could easily pass as having been recorded circa 1931 and can you’ll imagine it coming out of an RCA Victrola. Plus, there’s also some spot-on guitar work coming our way that takes thing to an even higher level. Interspersed throughout SFRSAJ are several stunning instrumentals, like the slide-infused "Woooo Rosa" and "Runnin’ From My Baby With My Gun," which is a rapid-fire exercise into the intricacies of slide guitar and fingerstyle picking. It also evokes that bygone era that holds steadfast fascination for blues archivists.
Although he’s still in his 20s, Steve James accomplishes his mission with a maturity that belies his age. Carrying the historical torch of the originators, he stays close to the songster tradition, which means everything sounds as basic, conversational and spontaneous as possible, while also uncovering crevices within the human soul. This is music that’s as intimate as it gets and a reminder that everything old will eventually become new again.