“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
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.
“Fantastic! Great voice and a great playing
style! Traditional blues done with a hip twist.”