Skip James

Apr 29, 2021

Skip James
Credit The Blues Highway

Muddy Bottom Blues

Program #242 (April 30 at 8:00pm and May 1 at 3:00pm)

Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James possessed one of the most hauntingly distinctive styles in the blues, and, according to some who knew him, one of the most disturbed and complex personalities as well.

His vocals, guitar work, and song constructions raise the blues to a level of high art and rare beauty, yet his subject matter and presentation were of such a heavy, cheerless nature that Mississippi bluesman Johnnie Temple, a contemporary of Skip’s, told an interviewer that James’ music was so sad that people would pay him not to perform. Listeners can be entranced and fascinated by Skip James’ music, but they are not likely to find in it the entertainment value and uplifting power to soothe a troubled mind that is characteristic of other blues greats.

James was born on June 9, 1902, on the Woodbine Plantation in Bentonia, Mississippi, and counted local guitarist Henry Stuckey as his greatest influence.

Over the years several other Bentonia guitarists have played the same type of songs in a style similar to James’, giving rise to controversial discussions about the existence of a “Bentonia school” of blues. Some historians dismiss the notion of a folk style based on local elements and assert that the other guitarists, such as Jack Owens, were simply following the lead of Skip James – or was it Henry Stuckey?

The music is often eerie, somber, and played in a minor key, and the repertoire always includes a song or two about the devil and the trouble he has caused. Guitarist Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, owner of the Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia, is the current torch carrier of the tradition. The Holmes family remembers James playing piano on the front porch of the Blue Front, probably not long after it opened in 1948. James’ percussive piano style was equally conventional, but completely different from his approach to guitar.

James made a lasting mark – but one that brought him very little money due to poor sales during the Depression – at a historic session for Paramount Records in 1931. Devil Got My Woman, Cherry Ball Blues, 22-20 Blues, Hard Time Killing Floor Blues, and I’m So Glad were among his most influential works, inspiring covers or re-workings not only from prewar blues artists such as Robert Johnson, Joe McCoy, and Johnnie Temple but also in the rock era from Eric Clapton and Cream, who transformed I’m So Glad into a blues-rock anthem in 1966.

After spending a lifetime working as a laborer, minister and off and on as a blues player or gospel singer, settling here and there around the South in between returns to Bentonia, James was enticed (on the strength of his 1931 recordings) to start performing again during the blues revival of the 1960s. He made some important appearances and added to his recorded legacy with several albums after relocating to Washington, D.C., and then to Philadelphia, where he spent his final days. He died on Oct. 3, 1969.

During his lifetime, James achieved only limited fame, and no fortune, from his music, but his stature as one of the great blues artists in history only grows as the years go by.

(provided by The Blues Foundation)