Nehemiah Curtis "Skip" James
(June 9, 1902 – October 3, 1969) was an American Delta blues singer, guitarist, pianist and songwriter. Born in Bentonia, Mississippi, United States, he died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.He first learned to play guitar from another bluesman from the area, Henry Stuckey. His guitar playing is noted for its dark, minor sound, played in an open D-minor tuning with an intricate fingerpicking technique. James first recorded for Paramount Records in 1931, but these recordings sold poorly due to the Great Depression, and he drifted into obscurity. After a long absence from the public eye, James was "rediscovered" in 1964 by three blues enthusiasts, helping further the blues and folk music revival of the 1950s and early 1960s. During this period, James appeared at several folk and blues festivals and gave live concerts around the country, also recording several albums for various record labels.His songs have influenced several generations of musicians, being adapted or covered by Kansas Joe McCoy, Robert Johnson, Alan Wilson, Cream, Deep Purple, Chris Thomas King, Alvin Youngblood Hart, The Derek Trucks Band, Beck, Big Sugar, Eric Clapton, Lucinda Williams and Rory Block. He is hailed as "one of the seminal figures of the blues."Early yearsJames 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.He began playing guitar in open D-minor tuning
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"). 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", and the band name for the English group 22-20s), have proven similarly influential. Very few original copies of James's Paramount 78 RPMs 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 the extent of his involvement in religious activities is unknown.
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 the US. 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 Philadelphia from cancer in 1969.Although James was not initially covered as frequently as other rediscovered musicians, British rock band Cream recorded "I'm So Glad" (a studio version and a live version), providing James with the only windfall of his career. Deep Purple also covered "I'm So Glad," on Shades of Deep Purple
, and English blues rock band 22-20s named themselves after "22-20 Blues."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 onto numerous compact discs, drifting in and out of print. His influence is still felt among contemporary bluesmen. James also left a mark on 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 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 moody person. "Skip James, you never knew. Skip could be sunshine, or thunder and lightning depending on his whim of the moment" commented Dick Spottswood on James's personality.James as guitaristJames often played his guitar with an open D-minor tuning (D-A-D-F-A-D), resulting in the "deep" sound of the 1931 recordings. James purportedly 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, despite the fact that his service card shows he didn't serve overseas. Robert Johnson also recorded in this tuning, his "Hell Hound On My Trail" being based on James' "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.
The "Bentonia School"
James is sometimes associated with the Bentonia School, which is either a sub-genre of blues music or a style of playing it. 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 Jack Owens, "the 'tradition' he bore primarily consisted of musical scraps from James' table". Owens and other musicians who may have been contemporaries of James were not recorded until the 1960s revival period. As such, the extent to which the work of said musicians is indicative of any "school", and whether James originated it or was simply a "member", remains an open question.