Videos by Skip James
All Night Long
Devil Got My Woman
Happy Birthday Skip James
I'm So Glad
Nehemiah Curtis "Skip" James (June 9, 1902 – October 3, 1969) was an American delta blues singer, guitarist, pianist and songwriter.
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 the three-finger picking technique heard in his recordings. In addition, he began to practice piano-playing, drawing inspiration from the Mississippi blues pianist Little Brother Montgomery.
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 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 the extent of his involvement in religious activities is unknown.
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 Philadelphia from cancer in 1969.
James often played his guitar with an open D-minor tuning (DADFAD), 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. 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.
One of James' favored techniques in this tuning 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 can be heard using this in many of his songs, including "Devil Got My Woman."
Wikipedia contributors. "Skip James." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 7 Sep. 2010. Web. 27 Sep. 2010.