17 songs; 54 minutes
I must confess to being not at all familiar with the work of Homesick James. So it was a more than pleasant surprise to encounter these live recordings, capturing James in the mid-to-late 1970s, when he would have been in his mid-60s. This collection was released in 2017 by Austria-based Wolf Records International GmbH. It features 17 covers, many of which will be quite familiar to blues listeners the world over, songs such as “Tin Pan Alley,” “Crossroad Blues,” “Dust My Broom,” and “Shake Your Money Maker,” which was, of course, one of Elmore James’ signature tunes.
Generally believed to have been born in Somerville, TN in 1910, Homesick James’ birth name has been variously reported to be John William Henderson, James Williams, or James Williamson. He died in 2006. James claimed to have played with Yank Rachell, Sleepy John Estes, Blind Boy Fuller and Big Joe Williams, among others, and also to have been acquainted with Robert Johnson. He also claimed to be the older cousin of Elmore James, to have bought James his first guitar, and to have taught him how to play slide. However, some of these claims lack confirmation.
In the mid-1930s, Homesick James had moved to Chicago, and by the early 1950s he was working with such performers as Baby Face Leroy Foster, Snooky Pryor, and Floyd Jones. He was also a member of Elmore James’ band from 1955 to 1963, contributing to such classic tracks as “Dust My Broom,” “The Sky Is Crying,” and “Roll and Tumble.”
His self-taught approach to slide guitar was honed in local dance halls during his teen years, and – between that and playing in Elmore James’ band – gave him a style reminiscent of his cousin’s. But Homesick’s playing is – at least to my ears – much more raw and expressive. This collection is roughly broken into three sections: the first recordings feature James solo, on electric slide guitar. The second section features James on slide, accompanied by Snooky Pryor on harmonica and Hans Dujmic on guitar (and on 1 track, Fritz Ozmec drums). The third section was recorded at James’ home, and is just James on acoustic guitar and vocals, along with his very steady – and satisfying – foot-stomping.
The opening track, “Louise, Louise Blues,” features James unaccompanied, with just his voice and electric slide guitar. And what a great opener it is! What James lacks in precision is more than made-up in expressiveness and raw energy, in both his playing and singing. It’s followed up by the relentless pulse of “My Baby’s Gone.”
In the songs that are accompanied by Snooky Pryor on harmonica, Pryor knows to give James adequate space to do his thing, and in these tunes, the harmonica is being used primarily as a rhythm and percussion instrument, helping to propel each song forward, yet allowing James’ guitar and vocal to dominate, clearly and authoritatively.
Songs like “Baby Please Set a Date,” “Got to Move,” and “Sweet Home Chicago” are very rhythmic in nature, and benefit greatly from Pryor’s chugging harmonica. The groove is infectious, and helps to galvanize the appreciative audience to clap in time. Make no mistake: This is dance music, and it’s very easy to imagine these songs being played in juke joints and barrel houses all throughout the old south. There is joy in this music, and James is performing with a passion that he clearly feels very deeply. And it shows!
As my first introduction to the work of Homesick James, Shake Your Money Maker has proven to be a real eye-opener, and has only whet my appetite to hear more of his work. Hopefully, it will have the same impact on you!