Samuel James as "Guitar Man"
By Peter A. Smith
Photographs by Michael Winters
To get a sense of Samuel Jamess currency on the Maine music scene, you need to hear a story about Scott Levy.
As the artistic director of the Penobscot Theatre Company, Levy had been incorporating more African-Americans into the Bangor theaters seasonal productions since 2006, when he cast a local child actor who happened to be black as Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol. A production of Driving Miss Daisy, featuring another black cast member, followed in 2007, but Levy had his eyes on a bigger prize: staging a show with an all-black cast, about the black experience, in one of the whitest cities in the whitest state in America.
Problem was, Levys dream showSpunk, an adaptation of three stories written by Zora Neale Hurston during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920sneeded more than just an all-black cast. As conceived by George C. Wolfe, the piece centered on a character called Guitar Man, an omnipresent troubadour type whose bluesy acoustic guitar and all-seeing insight ties the shows trio of disparate tales together.
Remembers Levy, I needed a black actor who not only could play guitar, but who was young, and who could play the blues in a way that felt wise and experienced and authentic. He laughs. The show wouldnt work, otherwise. Guitar Mans onstage the entire time.
Levy figured hed find his Guitar Man the same way hed cast the rest of Spunk, through national auditions. But last fall he explained the role to Paul Benjamin, organizer of the North Atlantic Blues Festival, who was hosting a Tab Benoit concert at the Penobscot. Theres only one guy in the world who can plays this part, Benjamin told him. And he lives in Maine.
Born in Biddeford, the great-grandson of a slave, James came into the world with music etched firmly in his DNA. His grandfather was a blues guitarist. His African-American father was a session musician from Tucson, Arizona. Mom, the white daughter of a church pianist, was a dancer. Their house was never without with music, thanks to Dad, who played everything from piano to trombone. He knew Maine was a really white place, remember James, so he took it upon himself to surround me with as much black influence as he could.
Hence Langston Hughes was on the bookshelf
and Duke Ellington on the stereo. Dad taught his son how to play guitar, then piano at the age of 8, when Jamess hands were big enough to handle the keys. After Dad moved back to Tucson, Mom commenced with tap-dance lessons. Eventually, James was touring four times a year on the New England circuit, even giving lessons to older folks hoping to put some pep in their stepall by the time he was 12.
That year, his mother passed away, and since his father was out of the picture at that point, James spent his teen years in a series of foster homes, including one in Gorham presided over by a father who called him chocolate baby and black bastard. But even in welcoming houses, James still felt alienated. Youre a black kid in a white foster home, so kids in school are going to call you nigger, and the foster parents wont know what to do about it. They try to console you and say stick-and-stones and things like that. But its sort of broken from the beginning.
Yet the loss of his mother ultimately deepened Jamess belief in himself, and his faith in the world at large: I realized that, when somebody says something bad about you, you can take it to heart, or you can move on to the next person and hope they say something nice. And if they dont, probably the next person will.
If we were really spinning a classic myth, The Tale of How Samuel James Got the Blues, this is the part that would take place at a rural crossroads at midnight, with James playing the role of an ambitious guitar player eager to sell his soul to the devil. In reality, though, Jamess blues epiphany began in Portland and unfolds a lot like the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
This is such a corny story, and I really hate telling it, James says, laughing. But its true! Absolutely true.
Id been to art school, he continues, and I was living in Portland, painting and hanging shows and stuff. And there was this girl that Id been seeing for about a year and half. I thought it was pretty serious. But then one day, really surprisingly, she said, Were done. Just like that.
Its worth noting that this happened on June 13tha Friday, to be exact. The beginning of summer! he remembers. So I said, If Im not feeling right by fall, Im takin off. Guess who ended up buying a ticket to Ireland with a three-month departure date? I ended up meeting this street musician from Oklahoma whod gone AWOL from the military, who was making money by playing songs that everybody loves. Stuff by Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters, Sweet Home Alabama, anything.
The concept of being a one-man showa solo acoustic actwas incredibly appealing. I knew I could do this, says James. Im incredibly impatient, especially with myself. But if I had a drummer who forgot his sticks? There might be a fist fight.
He returned from Ireland with a new sense of purpose, taking advantage of his hometowns sizable network of music venues and open-mic nights. Portland doesnt really have any specific music scenes, he says. You can go to a hip-hop show or a death-metal show or one of my shows and probably see all the same people there. So if anybodys good, theyll get noticed pretty quickly in this town. And people will support them.
Six feet tall, wearing either a dapper vest and tie or just a tank-top and suspenders accessorized with a pork-pie hat and aviator shades, hunched over his acoustic guitar and keeping rhythm with his tapping shoes, Samuel James sure cuts an image of the true, red-blooded bluesman when hes performing onstage. In fact, you might even think hes not performing at all, like maybe this cat drinks his coffee and eats his morning eggs with that six-string still strapped across his back.
But James, who sports jeans and sneakers like the rest of us when hes offstage, is really a showman at heart. Ive always loved to tell stories, he says.
Indeed, Jamess third album, For Rosa, Maeve and Noreen, plays all of six seconds before bucking an expectation or two. After letting his slide guitar weep a few chords, James launches into the tale of Bigger, Blacker Ben, who wakes up one night to find a burning cross on his lawn and a gang of white-hooded husbands: We hear you been
with white women, behind closed doors/ Ben gave em a wink and a smile and said, Just yours and yours and yours and yours
Since the husbands are more like the Six Stooges, they hang Ben from a tree with a rope thats too long. Then, after they all end up shooting each other dead, Ben strolls off into the dawn. You know the suns comin up, James roars, and someones gotta go console some wives!
Far from being a confessional songwriterthe type of artist whose songs read like journal entries, for better or worseJames admits that he does cherry-pick from his family history on occasion. For instance, his mother was the daughter of a county sheriff, who died well before she ended up meeting Jamess father. I like to pick and choose certain parts from certain things, he says. But then Ill give them a sort of O. Henry twist at the end. Like, Wouldnt it be funny if this happened?
Its worked out well so far. These days, James carries a well-stamped passport, having played shows in Poland, France, Spain, Scotland, and Wales. But Portland is still the place he calls home. You can walk down the street and smile at people, and no one thinks youre crazy, he says. If you dont know somebody, you can ask them their name, and theyre likely to tell you. Im a world-traveling musician, but I dont own a car because I can walk in my hometown.