Friday, November 29, 2013

Blues Legends - Skip James

Skip James (photo by Dick Waterman)
I actually read about Skip James before I heard him.  I was reading Peter Guralnick’s book, Feel Like Going Home, which devotes a chapter to the Mississippi blues man.  Let’s face it; if Peter Guralnick writes about any musician, if you’re a music fan at all, you are going to want to find out more about his subject.  The best thing about Guralnick’s writing is that he shows his subjects as they are or were, warts and all, and allows the reader to make his own determination about them.   His chapter on James was a classic example of this, so I was eager to hear his music.

Finding Skip James recordings was quite a challenge in the late 80’s, so it took me a while to track them down.  The first recording I was able to find was from his 60’s “rediscovery,” the Vanguard recording, Today!  Upon listening, I was amazed because, quite honestly, I had never heard anything like him.  James sang in a haunting, almost eerie falsetto, and his guitar work was unique as well.....delicate finger-picking coupled with heavy, hypnotic bass lines, which gave it a deep, resonant sound.  The Vanguard recording was almost crystal clear, too, so it really stood out.  James also played piano (his first instrument) on several tracks, though it was less compelling than his guitar….sort of scattershot, sometimes chaotic, at times.

Skip James was born Nehemiah Curtis James on June 9, 1902, in Yazoo City, Mississippi, about 45 minutes northeast of Jackson, but was raised near Bentonia,  about fifteen miles south of Yazoo City.  His mother worked as a cook and nanny for some wealthy landowners, and his father was a bootlegger-turned-preacher who left the family when James was around five.  Due to his circumstances, with his mother working for an influential family, his upbringing was probably a little better than most of his peers at the time and he had an opportunity to get a better education than many. 

When James was ten, his mother bought him his first guitar, for $2.50.  He was able to hear several local musicians in the Bentonia area, including Henry Stuckey, Rich Griffith, and the Sims brothers, Charlie and Jesse.  James reportedly taught himself to play guitar and piano, but Stuckey reportedly taught him how to play some songs, including “Drunken Spree,” a popular tune at the time.  Stuckey had served in France during World War I, and had encountered some black Bahamian soldiers playing guitar with an odd tuning, which he learned and brought back to Bentonia with him, teaching the style to James and others in the area. That style came to be known as the “Bentonia School” of Delta Blues.  James also took piano lessons from a cousin in order to play the organ in church.

A young Skip James
In the 1920’s, James left Bentonia and lived and worked at a road construction camp near Ruleville, MS and worked in various locations in the Mississippi Delta with road- and levee-building crews.  During this time, he wrote one of his earliest songs, “Illinois Blues,” about his experiences as a laborer.  While working in Arkansas, he met a piano player, Will Crabtree, who was an influence on his style.  James eventually settled In Memphis, where he worked as a piano player in a brothel until around 1924, when he moved back to Bentonia, likely due to the passage of Prohibition.

James stayed in Bentonia for six years, sharecropping and bootlegging whiskey, (he also attended a theological seminary in Yazoo City during this time).  He started playing his guitar more and began performing with Stuckey at dances and fish fries in Bentonia, Sidon, Yazoo City, and Jackson, where he attracted the attention of H.C. Spier, who owned a music and mercantile store in Jackson, but doubled as a talent scout for Paramount Records.  In February, 1931, James traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin and recorded 26 tracks at the Paramount studios (18 of which were released), some of his own originals and a few spirituals. 

During the Paramount session, James recorded several future classic songs, such as “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” (as vivid a picture of the Great Depression as there possibly can be), “I’m So Glad,” “Devil Got My Woman,” “Special Rider Blues,” and “22-20 Blues.”  He had been known as “Skippy” up until these recordings (because of his habit of “skipping” from town to town), but Paramount mistakenly labeled him as “Skip” on his records, so the new name stuck.

These are some of the finest pre-war blues recordings.  James’ falsetto vocals would make the hair stand up on the back of your neck on these early recordings.  Robert Johnson, in particular, was influenced by these tracks.  He later reworked “22-20 Blues” into his own “32-20 Blues,” and “Devil Got My Woman” inspired his classic “Hellhound On My Trail.” 

Very few copies of James' recordings exist today and the ones that do are typical of surviving Paramount recordings…..very bad sound due to inferior production materials.  Paramount was a division of a furniture company and sold records only so people who bought their phonographs would have something to play on them, so they pressed their records on cheap shellac and sold them at low prices 

Unfortunately, James’ records did not sell very well, due in part to the Depression, but also probably due to their dark and moody subject matter.  In addition, Paramount only paid James $40 plus the train ticket for his efforts (most labels paid $20 or so per side), so James declined further recording opportunities and, after a reunion with his father, who had become a minister, he moved to Texas and began attending seminary classes, and he also formed a gospel singing group to back his father’s sermons. 

Over the next ten years, James became an ordained Methodist minister (in 1932) and an ordained Baptist minister (in 1942), though he never led his own church.  He remained with his father until he returned to Bentonia in the mid 50’s, following his mother’s death.  He remained in that area for the rest of the decade in obscurity, driving a tractor, cutting timber, and supervising plantation workers, only play music occasionally during that time.

Though Skip James himself was below the radar, his recordings were most definitely not.  During the blues revival of the early 60’s, those Paramount sides resurfaced and were held in high regard by blues scholars and enthusiasts.  Three such people, musicians John Fahey, Bill Barth, and Harry Vestine (later of Canned Heat) began searching for James in 1964 and found him in a Tunica, Mississippi hospital, where they tried to persuade him to appear at that year’s Newport Folk Festival.

Skip James at Newport, 1964 (photo by Lawrence Shustack)
James was skeptical, understandably, of getting back into the “music racket,” as he called it, but he finally agreed to play at Newport in July.  While he was a bit rusty on guitar, his amazing voice was as solid as ever and he set the place on fire during his fifteen minute set, and was called back for a later performance that was equally electrifying.

While there, he bonded with another recent “rediscovery,” Mississippi John Hurt, whose gentle brand of blues was the complete antithesis of James’ dark work.  Despite their musical differences, the two toured together frequently for awhile.

Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James at Newport, 1964 (photo by Dick Waterman)

However, this may have worked against James' comeback, in that his management only had him opening for Hurt, which earned him little money and probably delayed his opportunity to get a recording contract.  Had he recorded an album immediately after that Newport appearance, his fortunes might have been much greater.  Eventually, he hired Dick Waterman, who took many of these great Newport pictures, as his manager, but the opportunity had been squandered for bigger success, and when James appeared at the next Newport festival, the buzz had disappeared and he was just one of the crowd looking for a record deal.

James eventually recorded several albums during this period, a pair of wonderful releases on Vanguard that mixed remakes of his old songs with stunning new material, plus equally fine albums on labels like Takoma and Melodeon.  Eric Clapton recorded a rock version of James’ “I’m So Glad,” with the band Cream, which enabled James to enjoy some royalties as composer (though he reportedly hated the Clapton version).  He was also able to tour overseas, appearing at the American Folk Blues Festival in Germany in 1967,

Unfortunately, the good times didn’t last very long.  When Fahey, Barth, and Vestine had found him in that Tunica hospital, he was in the beginning stages of a battle with cancer, which ultimately claimed his life in October of 1969, at the age of 67, after he had relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  He is buried in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, next to his wife.  James seemed to realize his time was short, and indicated so in one of his newer songs, "Sick Bed Blues," which contains the devastating line, "He may get better, but he won't get well no more."

Skip James was an interesting character, to say the least.  His entire life was a struggle between the church and the blues…..he moved back and forth between the two, sometimes straddling the fence.  As a youth, he reportedly worked as a pimp while in Arkansas and Memphis.  He also claimed to have killed a man during his rambling days in the early 20’s.  Yet, he also spent many years traveling, preaching, and leading his Dallas Texas Jubilee Singers. 

An intensely proud man, he held his own work in high esteem, but often disdained the work of other blues artists, and often refused to share musical ideas with others.  He was suspicious of others, very introverted, and difficult to even get along with, at times even seeming to view his own adoring fans with contempt if they tried to get too close to him.  Waterman told of one such incident in his book, Between Midnight and Day:

Skip, having more than his share of vanity, reveled when a fan rained compliments upon him.  He would listen with great interest, nodding his head at particularly lavish offerings.  But he could be curt when his privacy was invaded.  One night at a club a young man walked into a small dressing room uninvited and committed a cardinal sin against any professional musician:  he took Skip's guitar out of its case and began to play one of Skip's songs.  The young man played with little talent but great enthusiasm.  At the end of the song, he smiled at Skip, "Hey, man, do I have you down or do I have you down?"  Skip took the guitar from him and put it back in the case.  Then he turned and spoke without emotion, "Skip has come and gone from places that you will never get to."

Despite all of these issues, he has been cited by many blues and rock artists as an influence.  In addition to Cream, Deep Purple also covered “I’m So Glad.”  As we noted a few months back, Canned Heat singer/harmonica player Alan Wilson cited James as his biggest influence as a vocalist.  James' recordings, pre-war and post-war, have been issued and reissued multiple times.  In the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, viewers got to see blues man Chris Thomas King perform James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” (even though he was portraying Crystal Springs blues man Tommy Johnson), and the 1931 version of “Devil Got My Woman” was featured in the movie, Ghost World.

Though James (and contemporary Jack Owens, who died in 1997) were seen as the only two purveyors of the “Bentonia School” of Delta Blues for many years, the tradition does lives on today with Bentonia resident Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, who records for Broke & Hungry Records, and sings many James favorites while adding his own new material to the tradition as well.

Recommended Listening

The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James (Yazoo Records):  This is where I first heard these wonderful recordings, but they are available from other labels.  Wherever you pick these recordings up, the sound quality is about the same, which can make for a difficult listening experience.  Some tracks sound better than others, but on nearly all of them, you get a real feel for the emotion and depth of James' performances.  It's just an amazing performance that overcomes the shoddy production values from Paramount.  However, if you're new to Skip James and want to experience his music, the best move may be to listen to his 60's recordings first, then back up to the original source material.

Blues From The Delta (Vanguard):  Both of James' original Vanguard releases (Today! and Devil Got My Woman) are worth having.  The sound on them is pristine and James had lost very little off his fast ball, despite going over thirty years between recordings.  This set collects the best tunes from both of the earlier releases, plus a few bonus tracks.  James recreated many of his 1931 recordings here and added a few new songs that were equally compelling (particularly the songs about his medical adventures).  This is where I would start listening to Skip James, but I would definitely go back to the Paramount recordings from here.

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