The Music of Skip James

Skip James in the 1960s

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The little town of Bentonia is in Yazoo County, Mississippi, near the bottom lands of the Big Black River. It lies not in the famed Mississippi delta, but above it in the Loess Plains. Henry “Son” Stuckey was born on a plantation near Bentonia in the mid-to-late 1890s. Although he never recorded, Stuckey is credited with starting the “Bentonia School” of music. His inspiration came from an indirect route, during his service near the end of the First World War.

“I was driving trucks and ambulances in France and this group of [black] soldiers were playing music at the end of their jobs,” Stuckey explained in a 1965 interview. “I had never heard any guitars sound the way they sounded. I knew it wasn’t natural so I went over and asked them to show me how it was tuned.” Stuckey is referring here to the “natural,” or standard guitar tuning. What he heard that day was an open E minor tuning, in which the instrument is tuned to the minor triad. Because there are three notes in a triad but six strings on a guitar, the tuning results in several octave harmonies.

Members of a World War I British West Indian Regiment

“I asked them where they come from and they said down there in the Caribbean,” Stuckey continued, “but I never heard of that place they told me.” Stuckey brought the tuning home to Mississippi and used it to play local dances and suppers. His life changed in 1924 when he met Skip James.

Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James was born in Yazoo City on June 21, 1902. He was given the traditional nickname “Skip,” because his given name was the same as his grandfather’s, and thus skipped a generation. Later, people said he was so-named because of his tendency to skip town when things got bad. A natural musician, James taught himself piano. His mother bought him a $2.50 guitar.

“We used to have a well,” James once said, “and every time I’d go to the well for water I’d beat a tune on the pail.” James played piano and organ in the church where his father Eddie preached.

Henry Stuckey taught James the open E minor tuning, which James lowered a whole step to the key of D. He played his guitar in a fingerpicking style usually associated with Piedmont, not Mississippi delta, blues. The result was a dark, brooding, personal style, at odds with the dance tunes usually performed in jukes. In fact, James — who by the mid-20s was making a decent living as a bootlegger, dynamite blaster, and laborer — only thought of music as a hobby and a way to seduce women. He wanted his songs, he later told his biographer, to “deaden the mind” of his female listeners.

In 1927, the Okeh label, which started the race records craze with Mamie Smith seven years before, approached James to make some recordings. He refused, possibly not wanting the resulting publicity to call attention to his illegal means of income.

James and Stuckey played locally outside Bentonia, then in nearby Yazoo City, and finally down south in the state capital of Jackson. Some people mistook them for brothers. Stuckey, admittedly never much of a singer, wrote a song called “Devil’s Dream,” which James adopted into his signature composition, “Devil Got My Woman.”

James played this song for a local record shop owner, H.C. Spier — a man already responsible for helping blues legend Charley Patton get signed — and the next day was awarded a contract with Paramount Records and given a train ticket to Grafton, Wisconsin, where the label’s studio and pressing plant were located.

The story of Paramount Records is one of triumph and tragedy. The label almost single-handedly documented the most essential acoustic blues recordings ever made, yet didn’t seem to care very much about their artists or the quality of what they produced. Paramount made records to help sell their actual product, phonograph cabinets. The record label was founded in 1917 by the Wisconsin Chair Company, which made cabinets for Edison Records. By 1922, Paramount had entered the race record business, and quickly put their resources there.

Even though Paramount was keeping the lights on with race records, its employees were aloof. “As a secretary, it wasn’t necessary for me to either talk to the artists who were constantly coming into the office, or even listen to them when they were talking among themselves,” Aletha Dickerson wrote. “To say I thought them ‘odd’ is the understatement of the ages. … I neither liked nor disliked these people. I was merely indifferent to them.”

We know of 18 songs that James recorded for Paramount. He was obviously talented enough to make more sides than other artists were usually allowed, producing almost an hour of music. What the 28-year-old James accomplished over those few days in February, 1931 changed the world.

Start with “Devil Got My Woman.” This music is not just foundational; it’s substratal. This isn’t a blues as we understand it. It’s modal, meaning no I-IV-V chord progression usually associated with the blues, or in fact any chord progression at all. Emotionally, there’s no sense of progress either: we can move around inside that D minor environment, but can’t escape it. It’s the musical analog to James’s stymied, restless lyric. He sings “I’d rather be the Devil than to be that woman’s man” in a keening falsetto, at once mournful and threatening.

I lay down last night

Lay down last night

I lay down last night, tried to take my rest

But my mind got to rambling

Like the wild geese from the west

Most of James’s guitar sides were played in this minor, modal key. It became his signature.

Advertisement for “Devil Got My Woman”

“Didn’t have but three minutes to make a record,” James recalled of the experience. “I made 26 songs, eight on guitar and the rest on piano. And I got one consideration of a royalty out of all of those records. Well, that just discouraged me. I just give up music for a long time. Give it up completely.” It would be one of the many tragedies of the history of recorded music for us to not have access to the eight more songs James claimed to have made. In any event, he accepted $40 for the session against future royalties. They would never come. Paramount, suffering along with everyone else from the Great Depression, stopped recording in 1932.

James’s best-selling record, “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” a discourse on the Depression, sold less than 650 copies. “If I ever get off of this shitass floor,” he sings, “I’ll never get down this low no more.”

To be fair, James wasn’t trying to win a popularity contest. He considered most blues recordings to be frivolous, and saw his own work as important. “It’s a great privilege and honor and courtesy at this time and at this age,” he said later in life in typically ornamented language, “to be able to confront you with something that may perhaps go down in your hearing and may be in history after I’m gone.” Most pop music performers don’t consider what they do to be confrontational.

Disillusioned, James dismissed the music business as a “barrel of crabs,” parted ways with Stuckey, skipped town and moved to Dallas. H.C. Spier approached him in 1932 to record for Victor, but James refused. He was pursuing a divinity degree.

Paramount Records went out of business in 1935. Many of its metal masters — possibly including the eight unreleased recordings by James — were sold for scrap. A rumor went around claiming unhappy employees threw other masters into the Milwaukee River, but a dive team searching in 2006 found nothing.

The Paramount Records building, Grafton WI

Skip James may have vanished from public life, but his influence was beginning to ripple out. On Thursday, November 26, 1936, Don Law, a producer for the American Record Corporation, recorded a young Mississippi blues musician. When asked in 1961 for a description of the man, Law wrote: “medium height, wiry, slender, nice looking boy, beautiful hands.” The artist’s name was Robert Johnson. The one song he cut that day was a Skip James cover.

James recorded “22–20” for Paramount in 1931. It was one of his idiosyncratic piano performances. The phrasing is broken, and the song is littered with strange pauses, rapid-fire barrelhouse triplets, skittering runs, and unnerving foot stomps. The lyric is disturbing.

And if she gets unruly, and gets so she don’t want do

My baby gets unruly, and she don’t want do

I’ll take my 22–20, I cut her half in two

Although Johnson’s “32–20” is a faithful cover, he’s given writer’s credit. After all, who had access to James records in 1936? Johnson altered the title, insinuating a relationship to another “32–20 Blues,” recorded in 1930 by Roosevelt Sykes, but there are no other similarities.

It’s instructive to note the rhythmic difference in the two men’s performances: James sounds like he’s trying to stop people from dancing and pay attention to him, while Johnson beats out a steady groove, which better masks the menace.

This wasn’t James’s only influence on the Blues’ most famous performer. Johnson neatly lifted the melody of James’s “Yola My Blues Away” for his seminal “Hellhound On My Trail,” although his song is in a major key and has a chord progression.

Johnson also seems to have adopted James as a role model. James embodied a dark empowerment. He identified with the Devil, and influenced many subsequent Devil-based blues recordings. He saw himself as the author of serious art, and so invested himself with value in a society which allowed him none. Johnson wasn’t above recording “one or two semi-pop numbers in the style that Leroy Carr had done,” but they didn’t sell as well. He’s remembered for his more serious material. Given that, after arriving in Texas, Johnson had been beaten up by police and jailed on a false vagrancy charge, appropriating the swaggering persona of “22–20” would likely have proved a consolation.

On August 16, 1938, 18 months after his second and final recording session, Robert Johnson died. He was 27. Record producer John Hammond wanted Johnson to play his “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall that December. Without access to the man, Hammond played Johnson records and mythologized him from the stage. That enhanced narrative has never ended.

In 1964, a 62-year-old Skip James languished in a Tunica City Hospital bed. An untreated tumorous growth had just been removed from his penis. He hadn’t played music professionally in decades, and his records were largely forgotten. Nineteen fifty-two’s epochal three-volume Anthology of American Folk Music included none of his recordings, probably because of their vanishing scarcity.

Three young, white blues enthusiasts entered the room. They’d been searching for James for weeks, and told him how important his music was. James wasn’t fazed.

“You must be pretty stupid,” he told them after some small talk. “Took you a long time to get here.”

James appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and 1966, his voice now pitched in an unearthly register after surgical castration. With his rediscovery, the new cadre of white blues fans had gotten as close to Robert Johnson as they were going to get. “I don’t know if any notes can convey the awful tension,” Peter Guralnick wrote of seeing James for the first time at Newport in 1964.

We wanted Skip James to recapture the beauty and the eeriness of his early recordings. Yet it seemed almost wrong that we should be able to hear this strange taunting sound, which had existed only as a dub from a scratched 78, repossessed on a summer’s day at Newport. As the voice soared over us, the piercing falsetto set against the harsh cross-tuning of the guitar, there was an audible sigh of relief from the audience and, I think, a sense of triumph.

British Invasion guitar hero Eric Clapton covered James’s “I’m So Glad” on his band Cream’s 1966 debut album, and made sure James got paid. The royalties mostly went to offset hospital bills.

James’s 1931 version of “I’m So Glad” is remarkable. His guitar playing is as fast as thought and a model of precision. His song is a kind of cover, loosely based on the Tin Pan Alley throwaway “I’m So Tired.” A comparison of the two demonstrates how thoroughly James could effect his own gravitational pull on whatever came into his orbit. “I’m so glad,” James sings.

I am glad

I’m glad, I’m glad, I’m glad

I don’t know what to do

Don’t know what to do

I don’t know what to do

“I never have copycatted,” James told the crowd at Newport. “That’s what I have and what I play is personal experience. And then I goes by that. I have ideas about different other styles of music. If there is something that is of interest I may catch an idea that I will reverse it and rearrange it. But other than that I play nothin’ but Skip.”

James succumbed to cancer on October 3, 1969. “I’ve got a long trip and I’m just too weak to ride,” he sings in in the ethereal “Sick Bed Blues,” initially recorded in December, 1964 — his first session since 1931.

Now it’s a thousand people standin’ at my bedside

You take a stone and you can bruise my bone

But you sure gonna miss me when I’m dead and gone

Tom‘s work has appeared in Longreads, The Oxford American, Bitter Southerner, Slate, Salon, and Southern Cultures, among others. He usually writes about music.

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