Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Devil Got My Woman

SONG: Devil Got My Woman

WRITTEN BY: Skip James

PERFORMED BY: Skip James—also Rory Block, Beck, John Cephas et al.

APPEARS ON: Skip James: The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James (Yazoo), Rory Block: Gone Woman Blues (Rounder), etc.

The old bl
ues often isn’t “easy” music—if we listen to the lyrics of many of these tunes, we encounter violence, both random & that spurred by powerful negative emotions, particularly sexual jealousy, & often violence against women—this can arise in songs by even relatively affable singers such as Mississippi John Hurt; while his later version of the song “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” is quite mild, his 1926 version is quite violent. Singers such as Robert Johnson seem to celebrate murder & beating (“32-20 Blues” & “Me & the Devil”) & Skip James—the great bluesman we’re considering here today—wrote the musically great but lyrically disturbing song “Crow Jane,” in which the singer apparently shots Crow Jane simply because she held her “head up high.” Those of us who like to listen to traditional music really are bound (my opinion) to come to terms with this; & those, like myself, who play & perform this music have to come to terms with it in different & perhaps more exacting ways.

Skip James was almost certainly a musical genius, if the term means anything at all. His fingerstyle blues—quite a bit different in technique from contemporaries such as Robert Johnson & Son House from the same Mississippi Delta region—involved guitar playing of a very high order. It’s been said that his 1930s version of “I’m So Glad” (musically quite different from Cream’s later cover) is as fine a piece of fingerstyle guitar as you can hear. In some cases—as in the song under consideration, “Devil Got My Woman”—James used an innovative tuning which made the guitar’s unfretted strings play an E minor chord; this tuning is sometimes called “Bentonia tuning” after James’ hometown, or “Cross Tuning,” a term, as I understand, coined by James himself. A lot of people write about this tune as accentuating the “minor” or mournful character of the songs, & there’s certainly truth in this. On the other hand—& to be technical for a moment—the difference between a major & minor chord is one tone—the third tone of a given scale. So for instance an E major chord contains the notes E, G# & B; an E minor chord contains the notes E, G natural & B. Much of blues playing involves a play between those two forms of the third tone—in E, for instance, a rocking back & forth between G# & G natural. This produces a very characteristic sound. However, if you look at James’ Cross Tuning, you’ll notice that the G natural appears on an open string only once: the tuning goes E, B, E, G, B, E. Because of this, the guitar player is able to limit the use of the third tone, making the song in a sense more eerie, because for stretches of time it doesn’t resolve to either major or minor, but exists in a sort of nether world between.

But what about the lyrical material? “Devil Got My Woman” is a landscape of betrayal—the woman betrays the singer, the singer betrays his friend, & at least in some sense, the friend also betrays the singer. This song is generally considered to be inspired by James’ own broken marriage. However, the motivations behind all these betrayals aren’t understood in terms of human impulses: sexual desire, anger, disappointment, jealousy. They are explicitly understood in a frame of reference of demonic possession. James himself said:

You can lay down happy at night, you and your companion... and in harmony. Everything goin' well. Satan'll creep in the house overnight... next mornin' you cannot get a good word out of her. Why? Because Satan has got the bill of sale over her. He done crept in overnight...

James was, like Son House, a mass of contradictions when it came to religion. He was an ordained Baptist preacher who reportedly believed in Voodoo practices, & also was reputed to be a compulsive womanizer & gambler. He claimed to always carry a gun, & said, “I never draw a gun unless I pull the trigger.” These contradictions certainly come out in his music. For a compelling account of James, you might look at The Haunting of Skip James on the Fascinating People blog.

There are two versions of this song in circulation—one is James’ 1930s version, which only contains three verses, & I must say I find the condensed form very effective. The other version is typified by John Cephas’ cover in the video below; while Cephas is a very gifted singer & guitar player, I find this version a bit more unfocused. I’d also commend Rory Block’s version (as “Devil Got My Man”). Ms Block is a favorite artist of mine—someone who has the rare gift of being able to play old-time blues very close to the source & yet at the same time make the music seem completely her own.

Finally—& to return at last to my original point—I’m aware that this song is sometimes considered misogynist for the line “I’d rather be the devil than to be that woman’s man.” Comparing this with “Crow Jane,” for example (you can see the lyrics for "Crow Jane" here)—a song I can appreciate musically but wouldn’t perform—it seems that the landscape is much more complicated, involving demonically-inspired betrayal, & a sense that relationships exist in a place where human agency only has a limited influence.

I’d be interested to hear what others think of these songs along these lines.

Devil Got My Woman

I'd rather be the devil, to be that woman’s man
I'd rather be the devil, to be that woman’s man
Aw, nothin' but the devil, changed my baby's mind
Was nothin' but the devil, changed my baby's mind

I laid down last night, laid down last night
I laid down last night, tried to take my rest
My mind got to ramblin', like a wild geese
From the west, from the west

The woman I love, woman that I loved
Woman I loved, took her from my best friend
But he got lucky, stoled her back again
And he got lucky, stoled her back again


  1. I don't hear this song as misogynist: James is singing about "that" woman, not "any" woman or "all" women. There's not much doubt that plenty of women feel the same way about an individual man, usually with good reason. And, man or woman, most of us have been involved at one time or another with someone we'd have been better off without.

  2. Hi K: I agree with you. Also, while it's almost impossible for a Skip James' song not to have a menacing edge (at least to my ear), this doesn't involve any actual violence. It's a song I'm working on myself.

  3. It's always great to see posts on great gems like these. I know they're out there, but anyone who thinks a song like this is "misogynist," I would hate to get stranded on the tiny, suffocating desert island where they live. The 1966 Newport juke joint film of the same name ("Devil Got My Woman") is truly one of the finest cultural documents of our time. The Wolf is a force of nature, as expected, so are the other performers and to have these living legends in the same small room together is riveting to say the least. Even Son House, who is out of his mind, unfortunately, due to his deteriorated condition, turns in a spine tingling performance. I would add that if you really think Crow Jane is about killing a woman named Jane, you are missing volumes of meaning. The lyrics are actually a cleverly coded discussion of killing the white boss man. Double and triple entendre like these were common motifs in the culture, lending even more edge to the immense power of the music.

  4. Hi jessesublett:

    Thanks for stopping by, & for your insights. I appreciate your taking the time to explain the sub-text of "Crow Jane," & have seen this explanation elsewhere. I guess my problem is twofold: first, & most importantly, I don't believe you can so completely separate literal & underlying meanings. Given that the songwriter has various ways of presenting his narrative, I don't see that there's any absolute necessity for presenting a story about killing "Jim Crow" in the context of a story about killing a woman named "Crow Jane" in cold blood. As I understand it, the literal colloquial meaning of "Crow Jane" is a woman whose skin is very dark. Do I believe the sub-text complicates the song in an interesting way--you bet! Do I think it erases the literal meaning of the words? No. Also, as a white performer, I wouldn't perform this song not only because for me, it's not possible to sever literal & underlying meaning, but because given my ethnicity, there wouldn't be any genuine connection to the more valid underlying meaning--the same reason I probably wouldn't perform Leadbelly's "Bourgeois Blues," which I think is a great song. I will say that I prefer "Crow Jane" to some noteworthy country songs about murdering women--for instance, "Bank of the Ohio" or Johnny Cash's "Cocaine Blues," both because it does have some cultural context & also because it doesn't"prettify" the story musically (as in "Bank of the Ohio") or make it sort of boisterous & fun, as in Cash's song.

  5. Skip James dd not write "Crow Jane" -- he didn't record it until the 1960s, and many other people had recorded it long before him.

  6. The narrator's best friend is the devil. He stole this woman from him and he stole her back again. Robert Johnson, The Grateful Dead and many others have touched on this theme prevalent in blues and folk.

  7. And Skip James recorded his second career in the 60s ... he recorded well before that ... you are right though, he did not write "Crow Jane" but he did write this version of the tune.