It was the winter of 1931 when a light-skinned black man with piercing blue eyes boarded a train in Jackson, Mississippi. Nothing but a loaner guitar on his back and $13 in his pocket. He was on his way to Grafton, Wisconsin to record for Paramount Records.
In the studio, on the second floor of a deserted factory, he tuned up the guitar. Cleared his throat with a glass of whiskey, and began to play a strange and haunting melody.
His name was Skip James. That first song he played was the bone-chilling Devil Got My Woman. And he kept churning them out. I’m So Glad, 22-20, Cherry Ball Blues, all from that first run.
But it was the depression. No one had money to buy records. And Skip James faded into obscurity.
Then, thirty-three years later, those recordings from the Grafton Paramount Session helped launch the folk blues revival. Skip was coaxed back into the studio, and despite poor health, played a few choice engagements until his death in 1969.
Everyone from Robert Johnson to Cream to Jack White has taken on his material. But no one did it like Skip. And that’s the way he wanted it. He claimed to never play a song the same way twice, so no one could steal his style.
Here’s a song so mournful it’s been said he was once paid to stop playing it. Skip James in 1931 with Hard Time Killing Floor.