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Skip James

Background information
Birth name Nehemiah Curtis James
Born June 9, 1902(1902-06-09)
Bentonia, Mississippi, United States
Died October 3, 1969 (aged 67)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Genres Delta blues
Occupations Musician, songwriter
Instruments Vocals, guitar, piano
Years active 1931
1964–1969
Labels Paramount, Vanguard, Biograph, Adelphi, Document, Snapper Music Group, Universe, Body & Soul, Yazoo, Genes

Nehemiah Curtis "Skip" James (June 9,[1] 1902 – October 3, 1969[2]) was an American delta blues singer, guitarist, pianist and songwriter.

Contents

Biography

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Early years

James was born near Bentonia, Mississippi.[2] His father was a converted bootlegger turned preacher.[3] 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.

1920s and 1930s

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.[3] On the strength of this audition, James traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin to record for Paramount.[3] 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"), 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.[3] 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.[3]

Disappearance, rediscovery, and legacy

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.[3] 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.[3][4]

Although James was not initially covered as frequently as other rediscovered musicians, the British rock band, Cream, of "I'm So Glad" (a studio version and a live version), providing James the only windfall of his career.[2] Despite the band's well-known musicianship, Cream based their version on James's simplified 1960s recording, instead of the faster, more intricate 1931 original. Deep Purple covered "I'm So Glad" on their first album, Shades of Deep Purple. Singer Dion DiMucci released an album in November 2007 entitled Son of Skip James.

Since his death, James's music has become more available and prevalent than during his lifetime — his 1931 recordings, along with several rediscovery recordings and concerts, have found their way on to numerous compact discs, drifting in and out of print. His influence is still felt among contemporary bluesmen. James also left a mark on 21st-century Hollywood, as well, with Chris Thomas King's cover of "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and the 1931 "Devil Got My Woman" featured prominently in the plot and soundtrack of Ghost World. In recent times, British post-rock band Hope of the States released a song partially focused on the life of Skip James entitled "Nehemiah", which charted at number 30 in the UK Singles Chart.[5 ] "He's a Mighty Good Leader" was also covered by Beck on his 1994 album One Foot in the Grave.

Personality

James was known to be an aloof and idiosyncratic artist. He seldom socialized with other bluesmen and fans. Like John Fahey, James loathed the so-called "folkie" scene of the 1960s. He held a high regard for his own work and was reluctant to share musical ideas with other performers. James epitomized the complicated personality typical of many bluesmen, living a hard and sometimes reckless life while holding austere religious beliefs. Though the lyrical content of some of his songs led to the characterization of James as a misogynist, he remained with his wife Lorenzo (niece of Mississippi John Hurt) until his death. He is buried with his wife at a private cemetery (Merion Memorial Park) just outside of Philadelphia in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

Musical style

James as guitarist

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."[2] 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."

The "Bentonia School"

James is sometimes associated with the Bentonia School, which is either a sub-genre of blues music or a style of playing it. Calt, in his 1994 biography of James, I'd Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues, maintains that there was indeed no style of blues that originated in Bentonia, and that this is simply a notion of later blues writers who overestimated the provinciality of Mississippi during the early 20th century, when railways linked small towns, and who failed to see that in the case of Jack Owens, "the 'tradition' he bore primarily consisted of musical scraps from James' table." Owens and other musicians who may have been contemporaries of James were not recorded until the 60s revival period. As such, the extent to which the work of said musicians is indicative of any "school," and whether James originated it or was simply a "member," remains an open question.

Discography

Paramount 78s: 1931

Rediscovery: 1964–1969 James, despite poor health, recorded several LPs worth of music, mostly revisiting his 1931 sides, traditional music, and spirituals; but along with these, he sang a handful of newly-penned blues meditating on his illness and convalescence. Unfortunately, these five prolific years have not been thoroughly documented: recordings, outtakes, and interviews not released on James's few proper LPs (which, themselves, have been endlessly cannibalized and reissued) are scattered among many small label compilations. Previously unreleased performances continue to be found, released, and left largely unexplained — sometimes hours' worth at a time. CD releases comprising entirely previously available material are denoted below (†).

  • Skip James Melodeon - MLP-7321, 1964
  • Greatest of the Delta Blues Singers Biograph, 1964
  • She Lyin Adelphi, 1964 (first released: Genes, 1996)
  • Skip James Today! Vanguard, 1965
  • Devil Got My Woman Vanguard, 1968
  • I'm So Glad Vanguard, 1978
  • Live: Boston, 1964 & Philadelphia, 1966 Document, 1994
  • Skip's Piano Blues, 1964 (Genes, 1998)
  • Blues From the Delta Vanguard, 1998 (two unreleased recordings)
  • The Complete Bloomington, Indiana Concert - March 30, 1968 Document, 1999
  • Skip's Guitar Blues, 1964(?) (Genes, 1999)
  • Studio Sessions: Rare and Unreleased, 1967 (Vanguard, 2003)
  • Hard Time Killing Floor Blues Biograph, 2003†
  • Heroes of the Blues: The Very Best of Skip James Shout!, 2003
  • Hard Time Universe, 2003†

References

  1. ^ Social Security Death Index
  2. ^ a b c d "Biography by Cub Koda". Allmusic.com. http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&searchlink=SKIP. Retrieved May 30, 2009.  
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues - From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books Limited. pp. 123. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.  
  4. ^ Thedeadrockstarsclub.com - accessed December 2009
  5. ^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. pp. 259. ISBN 1-904994-10-5.  

External links


Simple English

Skip James
Birth name Nehemiah Curtis James
Born June 21, 1902
Bentonia, Mississippi, USA
Died October 3, 1969 (aged 67)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Genres Delta blues
Occupations Musician, Songwriter
Instruments Vocals, Guitar, Piano
Years active 1931
1964 - 1969
Labels Paramount, Vanguard, Biograph, Adelphi, Document, Snapper Music Group, Universe, Body & Soul, Yazoo, Genes

Nehemiah Curtis "Skip" James (June 21, 1902October 3, 1969) was an American Delta blues singer, guitarist, pianist and songwriter.

Contents

Biography

Early years

James was born near Bentonia, Mississippi. He worked on road construction in the early 1920s, and wrote what his earliest song, "Illinois Blues", about his experience as a worker. He began playing guitar in open D-minor tuning with three fingers.

1920s and '30s

Skip James traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin to record for Paramount. James recorded blues and spirituals and cover versions of other songs.

The Great Depression happened just as James' records were put on the market. Not many people bought them because of this and James had to give up Blues music and worked in a church with his father.

After the depression

For the next thirty years, James did not record any songs. In July 1964, James started playing again and he recorded for the Takoma, Melodeon, and Vanguard labels and played until his death in 1969.

Discography

Paramount 78s: 1931

  • Complete 1931 Session Yazoo, 1986
  • Complete Recorded Works (1931) Document, 1990
  • The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James - 1930 Yazoo, 1994
  • Cypress Grove Blues Snapper Music Group, 2004
  • Illinois Blues Universe, 2004
  • The Complete 1931 Recordings Body & Soul, 2005
  • Hard Time Killin' Floor Yazoo, 2005

After the depression: 1964-1969

  • Greatest of the Delta Blues Singers Biograph, 1964
  • She Lyin Adelphi, 1964 (first released: Genes, 1996)
  • Skip James Today! Vanguard, 1965
  • Devil Got My Woman Vanguard, 1968
  • I'm So Glad Vanguard, 1978
  • Live: Boston, 1964 & Philadelphia, 1966 Document, 1994
  • Skip's Piano Blues, 1964 (Genes, 1998)
  • Blues From the Delta Vanguard, 1998 (two unreleased recordings)
  • The Complete Bloomington, Indiana Concert - March 30, 1968 Document, 1999
  • Skip's Guitar Blues, 1964(?) (Genes, 1999)
  • Studio Sessions: Rare and Unreleased, 1967 (Vanguard, 2003)
  • Hard Time Killing Floor Blues Biograph, 2003
  • Heroes of the Blues: The Very Best of Skip James Shout!, 2003
  • Hard Time Universe, 2003

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