Born: June 21, 1902 in Bentonia MS
Died: October 3, 1969 in Philadelphia PA
Mired in obscurity, heard on only a handful of existing (and mighty scratchy) 78-rpm records, blues artist Skip James nevertheless would become one of the best-known and influential of the Mississippi Delta bluesmen during the early 1960s. Possessing a unique vocal style that often soared into a chilling falsetto, wielding a highly individual guitar-playing technique that utilized minor keys and odd tunings, James' legend is almost entirely based on the handful of sides that he recorded for Paramount Records in 1931.
Skip James - Rambling Man
Born Nehemiah Curtis James near Bentonia, Mississippi, James' mother worked as a cook and nanny for wealthy land-owners the Whitehead family, and his absentee father was a bootlegger-turned-preacher. James became enamored with the blues after hearing guitarist Henry Stuckey and the Sims Brothers playing in and around Bentonia. He taught himself guitar and piano, taking a few lessons and picking up more from Stuckey.
James was somewhat of a lazy bluesman, pursuing music when the mood hit him, often partnering with Stuckey to perform at parties and fish fries. Throughout the 1920s, James worked building levees, in logging camps, and performing other back-breaking labor, traveling from Mississippi to Texas and back. He worked in Bentonia, ostensibly as a sharecropper on the Woodbine Plantation, but he actually made most of his money as a bootlegger under the protection of the Whitehead family.
The Paramount Recordings
While living for a while in the Jackson, Mississippi area, James auditioned for local talent scout H.C. Speir, who got the bluesman a deal with Paramount Records. Speir arranged for James to travel to Grafton, Wisconsin for his first and only Paramount recording session. James waxed 26 songs over the course of two days, mixing his unique take on blues music with traditional spirituals.
Among the most emotionally powerful blues songs ever caught on shellac, James' original material and his versions of songs like "22-20 Blues," "I'm So Glad," "Devil Got My Woman" and "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" are simply stunning, the starkest blues one will ever hear. Unaccompanied, James played both guitar and piano on different songs during the sessions, at least half of the sides he recorded (including the aforementioned songs) standing as classic performances.
Years In The Wilderness
Actually known as "Skippy" back home in Mississippi, the Paramount rep mistakenly labeled James' records as "Skip James," and that's how they went down in history. Sadly, with the impact of the deepening Depression affecting the economy throughout the rural South, James' records failed to sell in any significant quantities - thus their historic scarcity - and Paramount itself would go bankrupt in 1935.
James would return to Mississippi, temporarily quitting blues music, reuniting with his father in Texas and forming a gospel group to back his father's preaching. James himself would become an ordaining Baptist minister in 1932, later becoming a Methodist minister in 1942. James never led his own church, instead he often moved in his father's wake, traveling across the Southeast U.S. before returning to Bentonia. James played blues music only sporadically throughout the 1940s and '50s.
The Folk-Blues Revival Discovers Skip James
Due to the impact of those surviving 1931 Paramount sides, James would be the subject of much debate in the small but fervent early-1960s blues community. He would be "rediscovered" in 1964 by folk guitarist John Fahey, and his friends and fellow musicians Bill Barth and Henry Vestine (who would later become a founding member of Canned Heat). The three convinced James to pick up the guitar and perform at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, his stunning performance leading to a deal with the folk label Vanguard Records.
Managed by blues historian Dick Waterman, James would subsequently be booked on the folk festival and coffee house circuit during the mid-1960s, often appearing alongside Mississippi John Hurt. James recorded two well-regarded albums for Vanguard, Skip James Today! and Devil Got My Woman, but he remained impoverished due to a scarcity of bookings. In 1966, Eric Clapton's band Cream recorded a cover of James' "I'm So Glad," which resulted in a minor financial windfall for the bluesman.
The Legend of Skip James
Better-educated than most of his peers, and raised in marginally better circumstances due to his mother's position in the Whitehead household, James seldom associated with other blues artists. Egocentric to the point of absurdity, and mistrustful of women, James thought highly of his own songwriting and performing skills. Due to the nature of his material, and his low-key, almost introverted performance style, James was not highly thought of as a juke-joint performer as were Charley Patton or Son House.
As historian Stephen Calt has recounted in his excellent James biography, I'd Rather Be The Devil, James was a complex and idiosyncratic personality. He would take the best of what he heard from other bluesmen, but seldom shared his material with others. James openly disdained the folk music of the 1960s, and his religious beliefs often conflicted with his hard-drinking, gambling, and bootlegging lifestyle. Due to the unique tuning he pursued on his guitar, in part inspired by Henry Stuckey, James is often considered one of the leading proponents of the "Bentonia" blues style, the existence of which is still debated by blues scholars and historians.
Recommended Albums: Because of his relative obscurity as a blues artist, quality copies of James' early 78s are near-impossible to find. The Early Recordings of Skip James collects James' Paramount recordings from 1931, sourced from old records and rife with surface noise, but the songs feature the artist's incredibly complex guitar style, a bit of piano-pounding, and haunting falsetto vocals. Skip James Today! is the best of James' 1960s-era albums.