This is The Turnaround with Rev. Zach Chandler, where, every week, we’ll be breaking down a different aspect of the blues for a deeper understanding of the music, culture, and people that are the blues. For the next several weeks, we’ll be examining some of the most influential bluesmen of the last century to try to understand where the blues comes from. As an art form centered around expression, the personalities around it are part of what makes this music so special
Last week, we spent some time going over the life and death of Robert Johnson, one of the blues’ earliest stars and a major influence on a staggering number of musicians, blues and otherwise, over the last 80 years.
This week, we’ll look at a man whose rise from obscurity took a little longer: Skip James. Slow record sales due to the Great Depression hitting at the same time as his records stopped his career from ever taking off as a professional blues musician. Until 1964, few people outside of friends and family even knew he had recorded on a professional level. Living humbly as a church choir director and minister, there is much we will never know about this forgotten artist.
Here’s what we do know: Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James was born on June 9, 1902 outside of Bentonia, Mississippi. His father was a bootlegger-turned-preacher. James worked on road and levee construction crews through most of the 1920’s.
Skip James’ musicianship was molded by his surroundings. Bentonia, MS lies just outside of the Mississippi Delta, a hotbed for early blues music. This proximity to, but distinction from, the Delta is mirrored in the music of local artists like Skip James, Jack Owens, and Duck Holmes. While very near Delta blues, the “Bentonia School”, as it’s called, has its own unique flavor. One such idiosyncrasy exhibited in the music of Skip James is the use of open D-minor tuning for his guitar, which he had learned, supposedly, from Henry Stuckey, a local bluesman. This uncommon tuning leads to a noticeably darker sound to James’ playing.
While his influence on the music scene can been found in the music of contemporaries such as Robert Johnson, Skip James never made it big. His recorded eighteen songs for Paramount Records in 1931. However, as much as his musical stylings were a product of his environment, his failure to establish a career as a professional bluesman was a product of the times. With the Depression hitting just as his music being released, record sales were impacted dramatically. James gave up on his career as a professional recording musician and took a job as choir director for the church his father pastored.
Skip James lived quietly for the next three decades until John Fahey discovered him in a hospital in Tunica, MS, just five years before his passing, in 1964. The discovery of James, as well as other musicians from the 1930’s and ‘40s like Bukka White, Son House, and Mississippi John Hurt all at once led to a renewed interest in American folk and blues music in the 1960’s. This revival of American folk music led to older folk artists like Pete Seeger and blues musicians like Skip James being given a second chance at stardom and even spread interest in American folk music across the Pond to be seen in acts like Simon and Garfunkle and Cream.
While, understandably, a little bitter over it taking thirty years for his career to take off, Skip James was a part of something bigger than he could have realized cutting those recordings back in 1931. “I’m So Glad” that Skip James was found during this American folk revival. Now, pour yourself a drink, get somewhere quiet, and listen to the haunting sounds of an artist almost lost to time.
Listen below to "Hard Time, Killin' Floor Blues" by Skip James: