Skip James was unique among blues players. He was accomplished on two instruments, guitar and piano. While many lesser musicians made pests of themselves in their attempts to be recorded, James refused his offer to be recorded and embraced his rediscovery in the 1960s only halfheartedly. Rather than the deep, rough shouts associated with many early male blues singers, James sang in a high thin wail. But his otherworldly voice, haunting guitar, and staccato piano bursts contributed to some of the greatest blues sides ever recorded.
Nehemiah Curtis James was born on June 21, 1902 in an African American hospital in Yazoo City, Mississippi. He was raised on the Woodbine plantation just outside Betonia, Mississippi. He was drawn to music from an early age. As a child he heard musicians Henry Stuckey and Rich Griffin play a frolic—a Saturday night dance party—in Betonia. Afterwards, he sang the songs he had heard constantly until his mother finally bought him a $2.50 guitar. As a teenager, he played his aunt’s organ, and his mother encouraged his interest by sending him to a couple of piano lessons. However, James was a natural musician, his talent far outstripped the educational resources available to a young African American growing up on a southern plantation. He taught himself piano after watching a rural pianist in a barrelhouse, and he developed his guitar style on his own after Henry Stuckey showed him how to tune his guitar to an open E minor chord. Both James’ guitar and piano sound are totally unique in blues.
James left Betonia around 1919 and led the life of an itinerant worker for the next few years. He worked a series of jobs, both legitimate and illegitimate, including lumberman, rail splitter, minister, sharecropper, gambler, bootlegger, and pimp. James was the product of a violent, lawless milieu where practically anything was permitted—as long as it did not erupt into the surrounding white society. He carried a gun from an early age and did not hesitate to use it. He had once emptied his weapon into a romantic rival, he told biographer Stephen Calt proudly. Calt speculated that James’ nickname may have had its roots in his criminal activities not his dancing abilities as he often claimed—James often had to “skip” town in a hurry.
Young Skip James gave little thought to becoming a professional musician. At first he was interested only in playing for himself and his friends. Throughout most of the 1920s he lacked the financial incentive to play for money; he was a successful bootlegger under the protection of a white plantation owner. He earned far more from making illegal whiskey than he could hope to earn in the dangerous world of the Southern jukehouse. In 1927, Okeh Records approached him about making some records. James refused. Calt believes James’ shadowy criminal side may have been the reason— records would simply have brought him too much unwanted publicity. James was finally persuaded to see H.C. Spier in February of 1931.
Spier was a furniture and record dealer, and a master scout who had single-handedly discovered most of the great Mississippi bluesmen of the 1920s and early 1930s, including Tommy Johnson, Ishmon Bracey, Bo Carter, and the legendary Charlie Patton. James played a little bit of “Devil Got My Woman,” and Spier was convinced. The next day he presented the singer with a contract and a train ticket to Wisconsin, where Paramount Records had a studio. In Grafton, Wisconsin, James apparently recorded 18 tunes—he would later remember doing 26. Either way, it was a sign of how he had impressed Spier and Paramount—he recorded more sides in his session than any other Paramount artist, except Charlie Patton.
Accompanying himself, James laid down pieces that were later acknowledged as classics in recorded blues: “Devil Got My Woman,” “I’m So Glad,” “Hard Time Killin’
For the Record…
Born Nehemiah Curtis (“Skip”) James, June 21, 1902, Yazoo City, MS;died October 3, 1969; learned guitar and pianoas a child; married three times: Oscella Robinson, Mabel James, Lorenzo Meeks.
Recorded for Paramount Records February 1931; rediscovered by blues enthusiasts Bill Barth, John Fahey, and Henry Vestine and played Newport Folk Festival, 1964; recorded first post-discovery record, the album Skip James: Greatest of the Delta Blues Singers in July 1965.
Awards: Voted into Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1992.
Floor,” “Special Rider Blues” on his weird modal guitar, and “If you Haven’t Any Hay, Get On Down The Road” and “22-20 Blues” on piano that utilized abrupt pauses and explosive fills. The first record released by Paramount in the spring of 1931 was “Hard Time Killin Floor Blues” backed with “Cherry Ball Blues.” Only 650 copies were issued. No more than 300 copies of James’ other records were put out by Paramount, however, including his fifth 78 “I’m So Glad” backed with “Special Rider Blues,” which Calt has called “probably the greatest double-sided blues 78 ever issued.” But it was the height of the Depression, and the audience for blues had been hit harder than any, and Paramount was about to go out of business.
Not long after his recording session, James met his father again for the first time since his childhood. The senior James was a Baptist minister. He asked Skip to go to Dallas to attend his divinity school and study for the ministry. James accepted the invitation. The most serious implication of his new-found religion was relinquishing blues, which was considered “the Devil’s music.” Spier approached James in 1932 about recording for Victor Records, but James refused. For the next fifteen years, the only music Skip James would play would be spirituals.
However obscure his music was it did not go forgotten. Other blues artists recorded his music during the 1930s. Charlie and Joe McCoy recorded “Devil Got My Woman” for Decca in 1934, for instance. In 1943, two white jazz collectors obtained a test pressing of “Little Cow And Calf is Gonna Die Blues” and subsequently re-released it on their own label. It was the first re-issue of a blues song for the white collectors market and sold about 300 copies—as many as Paramount had pressed of its version.
In 1948 James quit a job with a mining company in Birmingham and returned to Betonia, planning to resume his blues career. But the African American population in Mississippi was dwindling. Tastes in blues had changed, as well. Electric blues, so-called “Chicago blues,” were in vogue. Time had passed Skip James and his acoustic guitar by. He was only able to play an occasional party in town. Eventually James vanished from Betonia. He apparently skipped town again after cashing in a cotton crop raised with $500 his cousin had lent him and headed to Memphis where he tried to open his own honky-tonk.
By the 1950s collectors had made Skip James records valuable commodities; by the early 1960s a blues revival was underway and three of his songs had been reissued on anthologies of early blues. Young blues aficionados set out to track down James and the other men who had made the old, exotic, scratchy records. James proved difficult to find. It was not until 1964 that guitarist John Fahey and two friends located him in Tunica, Arkansas, where he lay in a hospital suffering from cancer. Finally coaxed back to performing, his first public appearance was the Newport Folk Festival that year. He played a mere nine minute set, four songs in all, but his performance according to Calt in I’d Rather be the Devil, was “to many blues devotees, the most dramatic moment of the festival.”
In constant pain from the as yet untreated cancer, James was unable to record at first, despite interest from various record companies. In July of 1965, he received $200 for a session for Melodeon Records, which later that year resulted in an album entitled Skip James: Greatest of the Delta Blues Singers. He would later record two LPs for Vanguard, Skip James Today! and Devil Got My Woman. During the last four years of his life he occasionally played gigs at coffeehouses up and down the northeast coast. But his unrelentingly depressing music made the clubs loathe to book him. His records were not particularly successful either.
Another factor contributing to his lack of success late in life was his decline in musical quality. He had forsaken blues music at the time of his religious conversion. Calt wrote in I’d Rather be the Devil: “Before his death, James was to tell the author that he had considered blues sinful to perform. As a compromise, he had played with his ‘thinkin’ faculties’ but had deliberately refused to ‘put my heart in it.’ What James feared above all was becoming the mesmeric blues performer he had been in 1931 and thus infecting others with the sin that blues represented. ‘Feelin’ in music is electrifyin,’ he said. ‘It’ll infect people’.” Star-struck audiences were satisfied with whatever he did, hearing more what he represented than what he was actually playing.
Living in Philadelphia with his third wife, James was chronically broke during his last years. Until the group Cream recorded “I’m So Glad” and gave James the songwriter’s credit, that is. As a result, he received a royalty check for nearly $10, 000. Skip James died of cancer on October 3, 1969, in Philadelphia. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1992.
“Hard Time Killin Floor Blues,” Paramount.
“22-20 Blues,” Paramount.
“Illinois Blues,” Paramount.
“How Long ‘Buck,” Paramount.
“Devil Got My Woman,” Paramount.
“I’m So Glad,” Paramount.
“Four O’Clock Blues,” Paramount.
“Jesus is a Mighty Good Leader/Paramount.
“Drunken Spree,” Paramount.
Skip James Today!, Vanguard, 1966.
The Devil Got my Woman, Vanguard, 1968.
The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James —1930, Ya-zoo 2009.
Devil Got My Woman: Blues At Newport 1966, Vestapol 13049.
Calt, Stephen, I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues, Da Capo, 1994.
Guralinick, Peter. The Listener’s Guide to the Blues, Facts on File, 1982.
—Gerald E. Brennan
James, Skip 1902–1969
Skip James 1902–1969
Blues singer, guitarist, pianist
Perhaps the most stylistically original of the blues performers from that music’s original homeland in the Mississippi River Delta region, Skip James left a small legacy of almost experimental blues recordings marked by unusual guitar tunings, haunting falsetto vocals, and an intense, variable marriage of music and text. James made only a few recordings during that music’s classic era, and for many years he gave up the blues altogether. James was rediscovered during the folk-music revival of the 1960s and his performances at the festivals of that decade were considered to be true gems.
Nehemiah Curtis James was born in Bentonia, Mississippi, on June 9, 1902, and was raised on a local plantation called Woodbine. His life stood out in some ways from the lives of other blues artists: his father, Eddie James, a minister, later headed two small religious colleges, and James attended Yazoo City High School, where he took some piano lessons. He played piano and organ in a local church as a young man. From the beginning, James’s family noticed how musical he was. He was quoted by author and blues historian Peter Guralnick in Guralnick’s book Feel Like Going Home: “We used to have a well, and every time I’d go to the well for water I’d beat a tune on the pail.” His father encouraged his efforts by providing him with a $2.50 guitar.
The surviving music of blues performers from Bentonia has a distinct style of its own, and some historians have suggested that the influence of Bentonia guitarist Henry Stuckey, who never made recordings, was important in creating that style. James heard Stuckey play at parties and probably studied the guitar with him. He also taught himself to play the piano by watching barroom players. On both guitar and piano, to judge by his later recordings and performances, he developed a unique style of his own. He also played the kazoo on occasion.
Before making his first recordings, James left Bentonia and spent much of the 1920s working at a series of odd and sometimes illicit jobs—he was a lumberman, sharecropper, gambler and, at the height of the Prohibition era, a bootlegger operating under the protection of a white plantation owner. James claimed that he had once repeatedly shot a romantic rival. He also continued to play the blues, and word of his talent began to spread. Scouts from the OKeh label hoped to record him in 1927, but James refused, possibly because he felt he had to keep a low profile due to his illegal activities. His nickname “Skip” may have been given to him in childhood, but it also may have resulted from his frequent decisions to “skip” town or ramble from place to place in early adulthood.
In 1930 or 1931, James finally auditioned for Paramount Records’ talent scout H. C. Speir, who immediately recognized James for the unique figure he was. He gave James a train ticket to the label’s studios in Grafton, Wisconsin, where James recorded 18 sides. The resulting 78 rpm records became prized rarities among blues collectors and, in the opinion of All Music Guide’s Cub Koda, the recordings “could make the
At a Glance…
Born on June 9, 1902, in Bentonia, MS; died on October 3, 1969, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Eddie james (a minister); three marriages. Education: Attended Yazoo City Divinity School, Yazoo City, MS. Religion: Missionary Baptist.
Career: Learned to play guitar, piano, and organ as a young man; worked as bootlegger, saloon pianist, and gambler in 1920s; made first recordings, 1931, for Paramount label; moved to Dallas, Texas, and joined gospel group, Dallas Texas Jubilee Singers, 1931; ordained Missionary Baptist minister, 1932; ordained Methodist minister, 1946; largely stopped performing blues, 1940s and 1950s, working as minister, farmer, and miner; rediscovered while a patient in a Tunica, MS, hospital, 1964; recorded for Vanguard label and made festival appearances, 1960s.
Awards: Inducted into Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, 1992.
hair stand up on the back of your neck.” James played both guitar and piano at these sessions, and his piano pieces, according to author Guralnick, “resemble nothing so much as a bravura display of anarchic impulses, combining blues, barrelhouse, and private inspiration in a blend which threatens at times to destroy any semblance of order … It is a style characterized by nervous rhythms, inexplicable pauses, and tumbling cascades of notes.”
Scarcely less unusual was James’s guitar style, which haunted listeners with its uncanny alterations of the seemingly stable language of the blues in order to express a specific text. Several James numbers went on to become blues standards. The rock band Cream recorded “I’m So Glad” on its first album, giving James a measure of financial stability in his final years. James’s younger contemporary Robert Johnson adapted James’s compositions in two of his most famous recordings: Johnson’s “32-20 Blues” was based on James’s “22-20 Blues,” and there are links between James’s signature number, “Devil Got My Woman,” and Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail.”
More generally, James may have inspired Johnson and others to regard the blues less as a communal expression of feeling and more as an individualistic art form. Guralnick quoted James, who had a way of speaking that was almost academic in its convolutions, as saying, “It’s a great privilege and an honor and a courtesy at this time and at this age to be able to confront you with something that may perhaps go down in your hearing and may be in history after I’m gone.” James could also discuss theoretical matters such as tunings and modes at great length.
Parallel to James’s dissolute lifestyle in the 1920s ran another set of activities that became more and more important to him as time went by. He took classes at a Yazoo City Divinity School in the 1920s, and for a time he came to regard the blues as sinful. In 1931, the year he made his classic recordings, James moved to Dallas and founded a gospel group, the Dallas Texas Jubilee Singers. He toured Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and neighboring states with this group, visiting churches and preaching along the way. In 1932 James was ordained a Missionary Baptist minister. He preached in Birmingham until the early 1940s and was then ordained in the Methodist church in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1946. He also did farm and mining work and was later active as a preacher in the Hattiesburg and Tunica, Mississippi, areas.
It was in 1964, in a Tunica hospital, that James was rediscovered by folk guitarist John Fahey. He was suffering from the early stages of the cancer that would eventually kill him. James enjoyed a brief revival of his blues career in the 1960s; his nine-minute appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 was among the most powerful musical moments of that landmark event, and he recorded several albums of new material. He lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with his third wife, and performed at folk coffeehouses in the Northeast, but his health declined in the late 1960s. One of his last appearances was at the Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C., in 1968. Skip James died in Philadelphia on October 3, 1969.
Today!, Vanguard, 1964.
She Lyiri, Vanguard, 1964.
Skip James Today!, Vanguard, 1965.
Devil Got My Woman, Vanguard, 1968.
Complete Recorded Works (1931), Document, 1990.
The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James, Yazoo, 1994.
Blues from the Delta, Vanguard, 1998.
Calt, Stephen, I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues, Da Capo, 1994.
Contemporary Musicians, Volume 24, Gale, 1999.
Guralnick, Peter, Feel Like Going Home, Outerbridge &Dienstfrey, 1971.
Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who’s Who, repr. ed., Da Capo, 1991.
Herzhaft, Gérard, Encyclopedia of the Blues, translated by Brigitte Debord, University of Arkansas Press, 1992.
Obrecht, Jas, ed., Blues Guitar: The Men Who Made the Music, GPI Books, 1990.
Down Beat, August 1995, p. 55.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com
Eyeneer Music Archives, http://www.eyeneer.com/America/Genre/Blues/Profiles/skip.james.html
—James M. Manheim