Skip James

Well it’s past due I filled a gaping hole in the Grapevine. That hole’s name is Skip James. And boy, is he ever a hole. You lilsten to his music and it takes you down. Down where there is no light. Down to doomy Nehemaia land where people die and get buried and there’s no second thoughts or looking back. No remorse, only bitter spite and scotch. And from this hole he sang and lived and into this hole he was laid down one day and now all we have are these cold plastic discs to remember him by. And we play them, back to from and discover the secret codes like DADFAD and Illinois, trying in vain to find the center of the labyrinth that is Skip James. But the center is a hole, and it will not hold. What’s this music like? It’s like all the suffering and pain and hatred and self-pity and unsolved mysteries of life in the world have gotten together and fallen down into the hole, and some crazy genius man put that hole in his guitar and started pushing strings around to coax all the suffering and mystery the hole. And he sent it into these bits of vinyl and tape and wheels that rolled around in place, orbiting around a hole. And then people shelled out their holy nickels to get these things back to their homey dwellings, so they could stick these bits of plastic and vinyl on their whory record players and listen to this cheap mysterious holy painful music, and try to feel the holes in themselves. You want to know about Skip James? He was a criminal and a genius and a crazy man and a sphinx and a church choir director and a pimp and a cyper and a jerk, but mostly he was a hole. And he’s probably got hismself a nice hole in Hell or Valhalla or a pyramid somewhere in Gondwanaland, still cursing the doctors who cut off his Cherry Balls and the women he laid in the ground. Still sad and bitter and arrogant and everybody else in Hellvalla probably leaves him the hell alone because frankly I don’t think even the devil understands him, and it’s the unknown which is the root of fear. And what is more unknown than a big, gaping black hole in the form of some weird black man from Bentonia Mississippi who happened to be a genius guitar- and piano–player and left this world with some of the greatest unsolved mysteries ever committed to groove. I’m sorry, you cannot know Skip James, any more than you can divide by zero. Skip is the great zero in the blues. The beginning and the end. And if you listen to him, you will fall in the zero hole and you’ll never come out. That will be the end of you, and the beginning of some hollow shell of a record-collector who’s eyes drip blues and ooze with cancerous puss like James’ mistreated manhood and your dreams will be filled with countertenor laments which make the green grass grow pale. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. This isn’t music. This is a curse that laughs at 4/4 time and other marks of sanity. And this hole will eat your soul. And I’m giving it to you because I want you to suffer from leprosy of the ears and festering insanity of the heart and testicular cancer and open-D-Minor nightmares. HAR HAR HAR. Jerk.

The official wikistory (for those who can’t handle the holes in mine):

Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James (June 9, 1902 – October 3, 1969) was an American delta blues singer, guitarist, pianist and songwriter.


Early years
James was born near Bentonia, Mississippi. His father was a converted bootlegger turned preacher. As a youth, James heard local musicians such as Henry Stuckey and brothers Charlie and Jesse Sims and began playing the organ in his teens. He worked on road construction and levee-building crews in his native Mississippi in the early 1920s, and wrote what is perhaps his earliest song, “Illinois Blues”, about his experiences as a laborer. Later in the ’20s he sharecropped and made bootleg whiskey in the Bentonia area. He began playing guitar in open D-minor tuning and developed a three-finger picking technique that he would use to great effect on his recordings. In addition, he began to practice piano-playing, drawing inspiration from the Mississippi blues pianist Little Brother Montgomery.

1920s and 1930s
In early 1931, James auditioned for Jackson, Mississippi record shop owner and talent scout H. C. Speir, who placed blues performers with a variety of record labels including Paramount Records. On the strength of this audition, James traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin to record for Paramount. James’s 1931 work is considered idiosyncratic among pre-war blues recordings, and formed the basis of his reputation as a musician.

As is typical of his era, James recorded a variety of material — blues and spirituals, cover versions and original compositions — frequently blurring the lines between genres and sources. For example, “I’m So Glad” was derived from a 1927 song by Art Sizemore and George A. Little entitled “So Tired”, which had been recorded in 1928 by both Gene Austin and Lonnie Johnson (the latter under the title “I’m So Tired of Livin’ All Alone”). James changed the song’s lyrics, transforming it with his virtuoso technique, moaning delivery, and keen sense of tone. Biographer Stephen Calt, echoing the opinion of several critics, considered the finished product totally original, “one of the most extraordinary examples of fingerpicking found in guitar music.”

Several of the Grafton recordings, such as “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”, “Devil Got My Woman”, “Jesus Is A Mighty Good Leader”, and “22-20 Blues” (the basis for Robert Johnson’s better-known “32-20 Blues”), have proven similarly influential. Very few original copies of James’s Paramount 78s have survived.

The Great Depression struck just as James’ recordings were hitting the market. Sales were poor as a result, and James gave up performing the blues to become the choir director in his father’s church. James himself was later ordained as a minister in both the Baptist and Methodist denominations, but his involvement in religious activities was sketchy.

Disappearance, rediscovery, and legacy
For the next thirty years, James recorded nothing and drifted in and out of music. He was virtually unknown to listeners until about 1960. In 1964 blues enthusiasts John Fahey, Bill Barth and Henry Vestine found him in a hospital in Tunica, Mississippi. According to Calt, the “rediscovery” of both James and of Son House at virtually the same moment was the start of the “blues revival” in America. In July 1964 James, along with other rediscovered performers, appeared at the Newport Folk Festival. Several photographs by Dick Waterman captured this first performance in over 30 years. Throughout the remainder of the decade, he recorded for the Takoma, Melodeon, and Vanguard labels and played various engagements until his death in 1969.

Although James was not initially covered as frequently as other rediscovered musicians, the British rock band, Cream, recorded two versions of “I’m So Glad” (a studio version and a live version), providing James the only windfall of his career. Despite the band’s well-known musicianship, Cream based their version on James’s simplified 1960s recording, instead of the faster, more intricate 1931 original. Deep Purple covered “I’m So Glad” on their first album, Shades of Deep Purple. Singer Dion DiMucci released an album in November 2007 entitled Son of Skip James.

Since his death, James’s music has become more available and prevalent than during his lifetime — his 1931 recordings, along with several rediscovery recordings and concerts, have found their way on to numerous compact discs, drifting in and out of print. His influence is still felt among contemporary bluesmen. James also left a mark on 21st-century Hollywood, as well, with Chris Thomas King’s cover of “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and the 1931 “Devil Got My Woman” featured prominently in the plot and soundtrack of Ghost World. In recent times, British post-rock band Hope of the States released a song partially focused on the life of Skip James entitled “Nehemiah”, which charted at number 30 in the UK Singles Chart. “He’s a Mighty Good Leader” was also covered by Beck on his 1994 album One Foot in the Grave.

James was known to be an aloof and idiosyncratic artist. He seldom socialized with other bluesmen and fans. Like John Fahey, James loathed the so-called “folkie” scene of the 1960s. He held a high regard for his own work and was reluctant to share musical ideas with other performers. James epitomized the complicated personality typical of many bluesmen, living a hard and sometimes reckless life while holding austere religious beliefs. Though the lyrical content of some of his songs led to the characterization of James as a misogynist, he remained with his wife Lorenzo (niece of Mississippi John Hurt) until his death. He is buried with his wife at a private cemetery (Merion Memorial Park) just outside of Philadelphia in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

Musical style
James’ sound was unique to the blues genre and although he influenced other blues musicians, such as Robert Johnson, few have been able to recreate his style. His high pitched voice seems otherworldly and frail, even in his early recordings. He is said to have had a ‘preaching’ style of singing and was known to also sing spirituals. James is regarded as a gifted and distinctive guitarist. He often used an open D-minor tuning (DADFAD) which gave his instrument a dark and desolate tone. James reportedly learned this tuning from his musical mentor, the unrecorded bluesman Henry Stuckey. Stuckey in turn was said to have acquired it from Bahamanian soldiers during the First World War. Robert Johnson also recorded in this “Bentonia” tuning (see below), his “Hell Hound On My Trail” being based on the James opus “Devil Got My Woman.” James’ classically-informed, finger-picking style was fast and clean, using the entire register of the guitar with heavy, hypnotic bass lines. James’ style of playing had more in common with the Piedmont blues of the East Coast than with the Delta blues of his native Mississippi.

James’ signature lick in open D-minor involves a fingered slide of the third string from the second to the fourth fret; a slide on the same string from the fourth back to the second fret; striking the fourth string open; then hammering the third string in the first fret. James used this simple but effective lick in many of his songs, especially “Devil Got My Woman.”

“Bentonia School”
James has often been called one of the exponents of the Bentonia School of blues playing, which was later carried on by guitarist and singer Jack Owens. Calt, in his 1994 biography of James, I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues, maintains that there was indeed no style of blues that originated in Bentonia, and that this is simply a notion of later blues writers who overestimated the provinciality of Mississippi during the early 20th century, when railways linked small towns, and who failed to see that in the case of Owens, “the ‘tradition’ he bore primarily consisted of musical scraps from James’ table.” Whatever the truth is regarding the origins of James’ style, or of the “Bentonia School,” he certainly stands as one of the most original of all blues performers.

Biography by Cub Koda:
Among the earliest and most influential Delta bluesmen to record, Skip James was the best known proponent of the so-called Bentonia school of blues players, a genre strain invested with as much fanciful scholarly “research” as any. Coupling an oddball guitar tuning set against eerie, falsetto vocals, James’s early recordings could make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Even more surprising was when blues scholars rediscovered him in the ’60s and found his singing and playing skills intact. Influencing everyone from a young Robert Johnson (Skip’s “Devil Got My Woman” became the basis of Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail”) to Eric Clapton (who recorded James’s “I’m So Glad” on the first Cream album), Skip James’s music, while from a commonly shared regional tradition, remains infused with his own unique personal spirit.

John Fahey’s take:
“I didn’t like him, and he didn’t like me,” Fahey said flatly, adding that he had footed the bill that enabled the destitute 62-year-old to check out of the hospital: “I bought Skip James for $200.”

As I was to learn, this response was classic Fahey—contentious, cantankerous, and straight to the heart of the matter. No mincing of words, no romanticizing, and no apologies: The rage and tormented melancholy that made James so compelling on record wasn’t so charming in person. “I expected to find something interesting and enlightening,” Fahey later wrote. “But instead, all I found was this obnoxious, bitter, hateful old creep.” Others would call this a harsh judgment, but most would agree that James was a major head case—just like Fahey. “They both had big egos,” recalled an acquaintance of both James and Fahey. “Skippy pretty much expected hero worship, which he pretty much got from most everybody, but Fahey was a pretty arrogant person.”
(excerpted from In Memoriam of Blind Thomas of Old Takoma)

Note: John Fahey devotes an entire chapter of his book How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life to the story of how he discovered Skip James. It is replete with mythological overtones and Fahey’s inimitable style. I wanted to paraphrase it here, but it would be an injustice to leave out any part of the chapter. Needless to say, I highly reccommend it.

Skip James – Rare and Unreleased

Year: 2003
Label: Vanguard

Review by Richie Unterberger

All of these 19 songs, not released until 2003, come from a 1967 recording session. That might make it the last studio work Skip James did before his death in 1969, although the liner notes, frustratingly, offer virtually no specific details about the session and why it wasn’t released for 35 years. This wouldn’t rate among James’ better recordings, as his voice, material, and instrumental skills weren’t as sharp here as they were on some of his other releases (from both the 1930s and 1960s). It’s OK, however, if not that exciting. James stuck to traditional songs for this set, and some listeners might be surprised or disappointed to find that much of the material is spiritual/gospel in nature. Too, he played guitar only about half the time, moving to piano for the remainder of the tracks. His trademark high, haunting voice was still intact; in fact, on songs like “Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep” and “One Dime Was All I Had” it’s so high as to almost sound like it’s a cloud of smoke dissipating into space. That high voice is the factor that elevates this above routine traditional blues, since the songs aren’t James’ best and aren’t all that diverse. An unidentified woman sings faint duet vocals with James on “Walking the Sea,” her name being another detail that escapes the annotation on this disc.

1 Backwater Blues – Traditional – 3:06
2 Everybody Ought to Live Right – Traditional – 3:16
3 I Want to Be More Like Jesus – Traditional – 3:52
4 Jack O’Diamonds (Is a Hard Card to Play) – Traditional – 2:44
5 My Last Boogie – Traditional – 3:42
6 Lazy Bones – Traditional – 3:09
7 Let My Jesus Lead You – Traditional – 3:01
8 My Own Blues – Traditional – 4:23
9 Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep – Traditional – 1:53
10 Omaha Blues – Traditional – 2:06
11 Bumble Bee – Traditional – 4:43
12 One Dime Was All I Had – Traditional – 2:24
13 Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning – Traditional – 2:48
14 Somebody Gonna Wish They Had Religion – Traditional – 2:34
15 Somebody Loves You – Traditional – 2:46
16 Sorry for to Leave You – Traditional – 2:21
17 Sporting Life Blues – Traditional – 2:25
18 They Are Waiting for Me – Traditional – 4:49
19 Walking the Sea – Traditional – 3:43

holy hole
mp3 >256kbps vbr | w/ full scans | 110mb

Skip James – Live: Boston, 1964 & Philadelphia 1966

Year: 1994
Label: Document

Review by Tim Sheridan

These recordings, made in coffee houses during the folk boom and James’ comeback after 30 years of obscurity, find him still in remarkable control of his talents. His guitar and piano playing are agile and sensitive and his high tenor still sends a shiver down the spine. The sound is very good (save for the occasional drop out), but more importantly the performances are first rate, and with a little imagination you can put yourself right there in the room with this enormous talent.

1 Illinois Blues – James – 3:36
2 How Long Blues – Carr, Williams – 3:12
3 Drunken Spree – James – 3:31
4 4 O’Clock Blues – Durham – 3:13
5 Hard Luck Child – James – :59
6 I Don’t Want a Woman to Stay Out All Night Long – James – 4:40
7 Lorenzo Blues – James – 4:26
8 Special Rider Blues – James – 2:58
9 Cherry Ball Blues – James – 4:50
10 Washington D.C. Hospital Center Blues – James – 5:34
11 Hard Luck Child [No. 2] – James – 4:45
12 Look at the People Standing at the Judgement – James – 5:06
13 Mary Don’t You Weep – 2:22
14 Someday You Gotta Die – Traditional – 2:23
15 I’m So Glad – James – :36

more songs about death and sorrow.
mp3 224kbps | w/ full scans | 83mb

note: these are not his essential, well-known recordings. for those, see Muddy Sava Riverbank, Merlin in Rags, Un Disco al Día, and probably other blues blogs.

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5 Responses to Skip James

  1. Goofy says:

    Two Skip James albums, this great!!! Btw, that oil men link leads to an “empty box”.

  2. Kike says:

    Many thank's my friend.Skip James is one of my favorites bluesmen.Much appreciated.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Skip James`1931 recordings are the only recordings in blues that compare
    to the genius of Charlie Patton.
    He was a genius.

  4. astarte says:

    I enjoyed your writing, you definitely have a gifted pen.

    But – I don't agree with your (or rather, most people's) observations of Skip's voice sounding eery, or spooky.
    I think he has an angelic voice. It is sweet, pure and melodic. The maddening aspect of his music – alright, 'spooky' if you insist – lies in the stark contrast between that celestial voice and the subject matter of the lyrics, I think.
    A fascinating youtube flic of “Crow Jane”, for instance, shows a sad old seraphin who reports in a resigned way about the atrocities the “I” would commit; resigned, because powerless to fence off the better self against a torrent of dark impulses, in spite of many exhausting attempts 'to keep it clean'.
    Watching Skip is as if you're watching and listening to two individuals at the same time. Some kind of Jekyll & Hyde horror story.

    It's this double-sidedness to his personality that makes his music so snake-like hypnotic. Pick a beautiful flower and suddenly find the fangs of a rattle snake in your hand.

  5. Anonymous says:

    To be able to hear the music as I am reading your amazing notes on the featured musician is quite a rich experience. Thank you for sharing!

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