Skip James - Biography

To guitarist John Fahey, who rediscovered him in a Tunica, Mississippi, hospital in 1964, Skip James was “a cipher,” or “the Sphinx.” Until he emerged from the mists of time at the height of the folk revival, James was one of the most enticing of great bluesmen. He had vanished, seemingly without a trace, after recording a mere 18 sides in 1931; those records were unsurpassed in their cryptic beauty and power, and some influenced the music of the genre’s towering mythic figure, Robert Johnson.


Even today, one listens to James’ recordings, issued by the long-defunct Paramount label, and marvels at their brilliance. He was one of the few bluesmen of his day to demonstrate equal ability and originality on both guitar and piano. His strange, haunted guitar work was the product of his unusual open E minor tuning and his three-fingered picking style. His out-of-time, unpredictable barrelhouse keyboard work has been compared by historian Ted Gioia to the arrhythmic inventions of jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. Then, floating above it all, there is James’ voice — high, almost a falsetto, angelic sounding yet promising violence with every dark-minded verse. It is impossible to mistake his music — which he calculated to be different from anyone else’s — for the work of any other bluesman. Skip James simply was his own man.


James was also a hard case. After his rediscovery, his young acolytes learned that he had made his living not from making music, but primarily from bootlegging, gambling, and pimping. In his younger days, he carried a knife and gun, and used them; he intimated to some that he had killed a man. He viewed other musicians, and the world at large, with disdain, and demanded to be treated without condescension, as an artist. His no-nonsense, harsh, prideful personal style inspired bile in associates like Fahey, who called him an “obnoxious, bitter, hateful old creep” in his book How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life; it is impossible to read Stephen Calt’s biography I’d Rather Be the Devil without being overwhelmed by the blues historian’s anger and misanthropy, which clots every page. In almost every way, Skip James finally emerged from the darkness of history as the wraith of the Mississippi country blues.


He was born Nehemiah Curtis James on June 21, 1902 on a plantation near Bentonia, Mississippi, a small town near Yazoo City and Jackson. He was the only child of Phyllis and Edward James. His father deserted the family when James was around five, and he was raised by his grandparents until he joined his mother in the town of Sidon at the age of 12. In a time of towering levels of illiteracy among blacks in the South, James managed to attend high school; in later years, he displayed both a florid penmanship and a highly fanciful polysyllabic vocabulary.


James began his performing career as a teen, while working as a footloose laborer in road construction crews, sawmills, and lumber camps. He cited Will Crabtree, a pianist and hustler he encountered in the sawmills, as his principal keyboard influence. He played at weekend house frolics at the plantations, but found it easier to make money as a cardsharp and bootlegger; he often made more money selling moonshine than he did performing. James was briefly married in the mid-‘20s to a woman who left him, after the couple had moved to Texas, for a World War I veteran; his wife would inspire his most devastating composition, “Devil Got My Woman.”


Back in the Bentonia region, James ran with guitarist Henry Stuckey; the older musician, a friend since boyhood, introduced him to open E minor tuning. In 1927, James met Little Brother Montgomery, the Louisiana pianist whose “Vicksburg Blues” had a pronounced impact on James’ later style. In time, James was working as a music instructor, though he later claimed he had nothing but contempt for his incompetent students. As a performer, he always maintained that his style was his alone: “It’s just Skip’s music,” he told one reporter in the ‘60s.


James said that in 1927 he was approached by a talent scout for OKeh Records to record for the prominent “race records” label. The musician said he lacked the confidence to step into the studio at that point, while James’ friend and disciple Johnny Temple recalled that James was stricken with influenza and couldn’t make the session. However, in February 1931, James was encouraged by local guitarist RD “Pig” Norwood to approach the Jackson talent scout HC Speir. Owner of a local furniture store that sold all the popular “race” labels, Speir had successfully scouted such outstanding (though for the most part poor-selling) bluesmen as Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Ishmon Bracey, Blind Joe Reynolds, and Bo Carter. Speir auditioned James, liked what he heard, and dispatched the musician by train from Jackson to Milwaukee, where Paramount Records recording manager Art Laibly picked up James and drove him to nearby Grafton, Wisconsin, for his first recording session.


By 1931, Paramount — like several independent labels, a division of a furniture company that sold victrolas — was on its last legs, but it had seen some glory days: In May 1930, the company had hosted a historic session by Charley Patton, Son House, and Willie Brown, three of the titanic figures of Delta blues. James’ February 1931 recordings sold negligibly when they were issued on nine Paramount 78s in 1931-32. However, while they were obscure — and only a handful of copies survived the Depression years — they are still considered among the jewels of Mississippi blues.


Recorded over two days, James’ sides found him recording on both guitar and piano. The first day was devoted to guitar pieces, and produced the haunting masterpieces “Devil Got My Woman,” “Cherry Ball Blues,” “Illinois Blues,” and “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues.” Covering all his bases, James also cut two gospel songs that day. He also recorded a high-speed, virtuoso reading of an old vaudeville song called “So Tired,” which he retitled “I’m So Glad.” On day two, he turned to the piano for “If You Haven’t Any Hay Get On Down the Road” and “22-20 Blues.” Johnny Temple later claimed James made between $200 and $300 for the session, while James himself maintained that Paramount had cheated him and paid him a total of $8 in expenses and some smaller sum for recording.


And with that, Skip James disappeared from the public eye for more than three decades, more or less. James’ music reared its head from time to time. Robert Johnson certainly knew it, either via James’ records (unlikely), or through his association with Johnny Temple, who himself recorded James’ “Cypress Grove Blues” in 1935 and “Cherry Ball” in 1939; Temple also cut “Devil Got My Woman” as “Evil Woman Blues” with Charlie and Joe McCoy in 1934. Johnson transcribed James’ murderous “22-20 Blues” from piano to guitar, re-titling the piece “32-20 Blues.” (In neither version does the caliber of the weapon make sense.) More importantly, the guitar figure from “Devil Got My Woman” served as inspiration for Johnson’s key song “Hellhound On My Trail.”


James also had some impact outside the community of musicians. In 1944, the collectors John Steiner and Hugh Davis released “Little Cow and Calf is Gonna Die Blues,” one of James’ piano pieces, on their Fine Jazz Documents label; that 78 is believed to be the first blues reissue directed at the white collector’s market. It harbingered great things to come in the life of the man who made the music.


It would be some time before Skip James even played the blues again. Not long after his Wisconsin recording session, his errant father re-entered his life: Leaving bootlegging behind, Eddie James was now the Reverend ED James, operator of a Texas seminary. HC Speir would later maintain that James had turned down a second recording session in Memphis because he had “got religion.”


James did in fact join his father’s ministry, and even sang in a gospel group, the Dallas Jubilee Quartet, for a time. By the mid-‘30s, however, James had returned to Bentonia and was reportedly playing blues again. He would bounce back and forth between the ministry and secular music-making. During the ‘50s, he deserted Bentonia and performed for a time in Memphis. He worked odd jobs in Mississippi and Louisiana. His recordings were a distant memory.


A distant memory for most, but not all. By the early ‘60s, interest in the blues music of the ‘20s and ‘30s had begun to manifest itself in independent-label reissues of rare 78s; these compilations fired the imaginations of some younger blues fanatics, who mounted a quest to locate the living practitioners of what was now known as “country blues.” Researchers had used lyrical clues on some of the old sides to “rediscover” such early, now superannuated bluesmen as Mississippi John Hurt. John Fahey -- who had unearthed Bukka White via a reference to Aberdeen, Mississippi, in one of White’s songs -- set out to locate Skip James in the summer of 1964 with two other guitar players, Henry Vestine (later of Canned Heat) and Bill Barth (who later played in the Memphis band the Insect Trust with future New York Times critic Robert Palmer). Such a search was not without its perils: A white man visiting a black man’s house in Mississippi in 1964 could easily be mistaken for a civil rights worker, and be dealt with accordingly by the locals.


A clue supplied by the former blues singer Ishmon Bracey (who had himself heard it from another blues researcher) ultimately led the three guitarists to a barber shop in Dundee, Mississippi, where the proprietor pointed them to a nearby shack. There they discovered Skip James’ wife Mabel, who told the blues hunters that her husband was in Tunica County Hospital.


When Fahey, Vestine, and Barth visited James at the hospital and presented him with a discography of his recordings, the ailing bluesman replied with a deadpan, “Now isn’t that nice?”


Though still ill, James traveled to Newport, Rhode Island, within weeks of his discovery to play a hurriedly arranged workshop show at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. Then the principal platform for stars of the still-burgeoning urban folk movement, the festival that year featured appearances by the newly rediscovered bluesmen Sleepy John Estes, Mississippi John Hurt, and Robert Wilkins (now the Reverend Robert Wilkins), as well as such contemporary stars as Bob Dylan. His gifts still mostly intact, James wowed the crowd with a 10-minute performance that included a spine-tingling “Devil Got My Woman.”


Soon managed by Dick Waterman, who also handled John Hurt, James cut hasty one-off sessions for Fahey’s label Takoma (which went unreleased for three decades), Biograph, and Melodeon before signing with Vanguard Records, home to Joan Baez and other folk luminaries; the company had recorded his comeback performance at Newport. James’ ghostly voice, ethereal guitar, and shattering piano were heard anew on two Vanguard albums, Skip James Today! (1964) and Devil Got My Woman (1965). (His complete original recordings, long in the public domain, were subsequently made available by such collector’s labels as Yazoo, Document, and JSP.)


James, who moved north to Philadelphia and worked the folk clubs as extensively as his health and his difficult temperament would allow, did not enlarge his original repertoire appreciably in later years, but one of his old songs provided him with a windfall in his last years. In late 1966, the English blues-rock trio Cream, fronted by guitarist Eric Clapton, included a version of James’ dizzying fingerpicked masterwork “I’m So Glad” on their debut album Fresh Cream. The album proved to be a hit, and supplied the bluesman with the last major payday of his life.


Sadly, James was in desperate need of the $6,000 in royalties the Cream track delivered. Radical surgery had failed to stem the spread of a cancer that consumed the aging musician, and he finally died on Oct. 3, 1969, at the age of 67.

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