Dion, The Son of Skip James (Verve, 2007)
The first week in February 2008 marked the 49th anniversary of a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. There were no survivors. That was the day the music died, the day that Buddy Holly died.
Dion DiMucci was touring with Holly. Turning down an invitation to chip in and charter a plane (the $36 was as much as his parents paid for a month's rent) saved his life. But Buddy Holly's death shattered his soul. Dion began a descent into drug abuse and hit bottom nine years later when his friend Frankie Lymon died of an apparent drug overdose. Looking for a new beginning, Dion and his wife moved to Florida, and there his life literally changed overnight.
Dion's career took off again with the recording of "Abraham, Martin, and John." Fast forward a few decades and in Son of Skip James we find Dion singing the blues and celebrating his faith. In an introduction to excerpts from the Psalms, Bono links David's blues with the Delta blues, "I hear echoes of this holy row [Psalm 22] when un-holy bluesman Robert Johnson howls, 'There's a hellhound on my trail' or Van Morrison sings 'Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.' " Dion has a similar view of the blues, "I define the blues as the naked cry of the human heart longing to be in union with God" (liner notes, Son of Skip James and NPR interview).…I was at an all time mental and spiritual bottom. Out of depression we moved to Miami… There I would have the surprise of my life: I got to see God work through my father-in-law, Jack. Jack helped fan into flames the gift of God that was in me through the laying on of hands at my confirmation. I said a prayer one night in Jack's home: 'God, I need your help.' I was delivered from the obsession to drink and drug; it was just lifted off me like a weight. On that day, April 1, 1968, I became aware of God's power… [http://www.diondimucci.com/journey.html]
On Son of Skip James Dion pays homage to the likes of Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, and Skip James. With all due respect to Dion, in some of these numbers there is a "naked cry" but it's not clear that it's calling out for "union with God." Willie Dixon's "Hootchie Coochie Man" would be, for me, a hard sell. But not so with Robert Johnson's "Preachin' Blues" or the Dion originals, "The Thunderer" and "Son of Skip James." In the former Dion borrows lyrics from Phyllis McGinley's poem about St. Jerome ("God's angry man, His crotchety scholar"), and in the latter Dion practices what he preaches and delivers a bluesy cry to God.
I want to be more like Jesus
Oh Mary don't you weep
I keep my lamp trimmed and burnin
His grace don't come cheap . . .
Everybody ought to live right
Be ready when he comes
Let my Jesus lead you
So you can hear Him say "well done" . . .
That Dion can hold his own with the likes of Robert Johnson and Skip James speaks volumes. I bet Bono would hear holiness in Dion's faithful blues.