May 1, 2003

Skip James
Studio Sessions: Rare & Unreleased
Nehemiah “Skip” James was one of the most enigmatic figures in American music. Widely viewed as a seminal exponent of the Delta country blues tradition, James’ singing and playing are in many respects, ironically, atypical of that tradition. For starters, he sang in a wispy contralto voice that danced gracefully on top of his guitar and piano playing, rather than intoning the throatier moans and low growls common to many other Delta stylists. Additionally, his guitar compositions—most of which are not technically even “blues”—were based almost exclusively on an open tuning not used by other players in the region, and he never played with a slide. James’ extremely percussive and often intentionally disjointed piano playing, too, was unusual—foreshadowing the spirit of Thelonius Monk as much as it embodied the ragtime and barrelhouse blues piano styles of the time.

Born on June 9, 1902, Skip James was raised on the Woodbine Plantation just outside of a small Mississippi town called Bentonia. Little is known about his mother, but his father was a guitar-playing Baptist minister (and bootlegger) who abandoned his calling and his family while Skip was still a child—not, however, before giving the boy a $2.50 guitar at age eight. Young Nehemiah (nicknamed “Skippy” due to his dancing skills) spent the next few years following local guitarists around and asking them to show him things. He also took a few piano lessons at age 12.

One of the guitarists James played with regularly during his youth, Henry Stuckey, showed him an open tuning he’d allegedly picked-up from some black Bahamian soldiers while serving in France during WWI. Spelled E, B, E, G, B, E (low to high), this E minor “cross-note” tuning, as James called it, became the basis for the majority of his compositions.

James spent his late teens wandering around the Delta region taking jobs in work camps and sawmills. While working as a lumber grader in Arkansas, he hooked-up with a colorful middle-aged brothel pianist named Will Crabtree, who instructed him in the popular piano styles of the day—an education that served him well when he later landed his own brothel gig in Memphis. During his mid-’20s, James attention was divided between bootlegging, gambling, and being a professional musician. He also married the 16-year-old daughter of a local preacher, but nearly had a nervous breakdown when she left him for another man. In 1924, James returned to Bentonia, where he began studying at a seminary, and rekindled his musical partnership with Stuckey. He also toured briefly with a one-armed Louisiana guitarist named “Chief,” who showed him the so-called “Spanish” tuning—D, G, D, G, B, D (low to high)—that he would use for several songs.

Eventually James settled in Jackson, where he lived and played with singer/guitarist Johnny Temple. Temple persuaded him to audition for H.C. Speir, the Mississippi talent scout for Paramount Records. James was offered a two-year recording contract and sent to the label’s studio in Grafton, Wisconsin, where he recorded as many as 26 (only 18 are extant) mostly original songs. At the request of the producer, James played a 12-string Stella with only six strings. The recordings were commercial failures, but they profoundly influenced myriad other artists, and in time became country blues classics, especially “Devil Got My Woman” and “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues.”

One of the most significant artists influenced by James’ technical virtuosity and emotional depth was Robert Johnson, who not only incorporated many aspects of James’ performance style into his own, but lifted verses from several of his songs, and basically appropriated James’ “22-20 Blues” outright, changing it only slightly to “32-20 Blues.” Eric Clapton and Cream released a somewhat bombastic cover of “I’m So Glad” in 1967, adapting the manic speed-picking and fiery intensity of the original to a more pop-friendly form. Skip James’ instrumental and vocal phrasing were also deeply absorbed and reinterpreted by Jimi Hendrix.
During the ’30s James performed sporadically for a few years, formed a quartet which sang spirituals, and after a reconciliation with his then- reformed father, became an ordained minister himself. In the early ’40s he became the leader of the Dallas Texas Jubilee Singers and traveled throughout the South and Southwest with his father. After that, he abandoned music altogether, and worked at various mining, timber, and plantation jobs.

With the advent of the “country blues revival” in the late ’50s and early ’60s, efforts were made to track down any of the original artists who might still be living. In 1964, John Fahey located Skip James in a hospital in Tunica, Mississippi, and brought him to Washington D.C. Fahey arranged for James to perform at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, where he held the audience spellbound, demonstrating that he could still summon his musical mojo. Soon afterwards, Skip James recorded new versions of some of his classic titles, along with other material, for Vanguard Records. The resulting album, Skip James Today (1965), captured some of the original magic, though it was considerably more subdued than the performances contained on the 1931 recordings. Another Vanguard session took place in 1967, and a second album, Devil Got My Woman (1968), was released. Skip James died of cancer in Philadelphia a year later, and he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1992.

The 19 songs contained on Skip James Studio Sessions Rare & Unreleased are unreleased material from the 1967 sessions, recorded at the Vanguard Records studio on 23rd Street in New York City. They are nearly all traditional songs that were arranged and performed by James, and therefore must be viewed differently than either his early recordings or the re-recorded originals contained on the other Vanguard albums. In other words, if you are seeking vintage Skip James you will not find it here.

What you will find are sensitively-rendered versions of blues and folk standards that are clearly the work of a seasoned and mature artist, and what they lack in youthful vigor and passion is compensated for in depth and subtlety. The song selection also embodies James’ sacred/profane psychological dichotomy, as he transitions from the gentle gospel yearnings of “I Want to Be More Like Jesus” to the overtly sexual posturing of “My Last Boogie.” Comedic ditties such as Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazy Bones,” and romantic ballads such as “Somebody Loves You” are also nice touches. Studio Sessions Rare &Unreleased may not send shivers up your spine like James’ 1931 recordings, but it’s certainly a pleasure to be able to hear his voice and instruments without an ocean of static and vinyl surface noise getting in the way. Vanguard.

—Barry Cleveland    

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