Hard Time Killing Floor

Tom Maxwell
10 min readAug 12, 2020

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.”…

Tom Maxwell

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