The Music of Skip James

Skip James’ music stands alone as some of the most haunting and melancholy blues you will ever hear.

James was born near Bentonia, Mississippi, the son of a converted bootlegger turned preacher, who left home to become a Baptist preacher when Skip was 5 years old. He dropped out of school in 1919 and worked at various times as a bootlegger, sharecropper and construction worker. It is said that his experiences as a laborer working on the roads and levees around Mississippi inspired one of his earliest songs, the classic "Illinois Blues".

His big musical influences were the unrecorded Henry Stuckey and the Sims brothers, Charlie and Jesse. Stuckey played in Open D minor and Open E minor tunings, from which James adopted Open Dm and created his own unique sound with the addition of a falsetto singing style. He is widely considered to be a very gifted musician with a clean and precise finger.jpgcking style, and often played a hypnotic, droning bass anchor.

He auditioned for the legendary talent scout, H.C.Speir, in 1931 and was whisked off to Paramount’s Grafton, WI studios almost immediately. There, on a borrowed Stella guitar, he recorded an estimated 26 tracks, 18 of which were released including “.22-20” blues, that Robert Johnson borrowed heavily from for his “.32-20” blues, “Hard Time Killing Floor”, “Devil Got My Woman” and “I’m So Glad”. However, like for so many others, the great depression killed the music market and James abandoned performing in an effort to survive, by helping direct his father’s choir and later becoming ordained as a minister in both the Baptist and Methodist churches.

It was more than 30 years until he resurfaced, when he was found in a Tunica, MS hospital suffering from testicular cancer, which was ultimately to take his life some 5 years later. In the meantime, John Fahey, Bill Barth and John Vestine helped to re-introduce him to the world in the midst of the folk / blues revival and he made his first appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 where he was a resounding success.

Due to a combination of poor health, bad management and lack of rapport with his audience, James never managed to build a following and ride the revival wave in the way that Son House, Mississippi John Hurt and many others did. It was possibly too late when he realized this and retained Dick Waterman to represent him.

His big financial break came when Cream released their version of “I’m So Glad”, which enabled him to pay for much needed surgery. However, most of his fame has come posthumously with many of his songs being covered by other artists since his death, most famously perhaps being Chris Thomas King’s rendition of "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" in the movie ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’. In addition, the crooner Dion, released a 2007 album titled “Son of Skip James” and British post-rock band Hope of the States released a song partially focused on his life entitled "Nehemiah", which charted at number 30 in the UK charts. 2004.

There is, thankfully, good quality footage of Skip James available both on and on several DVD’s.

[Video of Skip James]

Better yet, if you get the chance to see John Cephas perform, he is without doubt the world’s premier exponent of Skip James music.  Mr Cephas is scheduled to teach and perform once again this year at Centrum’s Country Blues Workshop and Festival at the end of July in Port Townsend.

[John Cephas teaches "Sick Bed Blues", Centrum August 2007]

Skip James was married to Mississippi John Hurt’s daughter, Lorenzo, and they are buried together in a private cemetery, Merion Memorial Park, just outside Philadelphia.