Skip James

Skip James “Hard Time Killing Floor”

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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. 

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“I never was in anything too long or deep: that’s why I reckon they called me Skip.” Skip James was a tortured man, a genius of many contradictions. As his biographer Stephen Calt wrote in “I’d Rather Be the Devil,” “One was tempted to think that music appealed to him because it reflected the alienation of a man in perpetual combat with the world.”

Nehemiah Curtis James was born on June 21, 1902 in hospital near Bentonia, Mississippi. He was an only child, raised on a plantation. True to form, Skip was both disdainful and nostalgic regarding his plantation upbringing. Though he held his mother in high esteem, he’d never forgive his father—a bootlegging guitarist who left the family to flee the law in 1907. Skip’s sense of abandonment would follow him for the rest of his life. His songs portray a victim who’s done wrong by nearly everyone he meets. Dick Spottswood commented on his character “Skip could be sunshine, or thunder and lightning, depending on the whim of the moment.”

Skip-James (1)He was both an egomaniac and wildly self-conscious. Bitter that he had been short-changed a formal education, he developed a vocabulary of big words and considered himself “a walking encyclopedia.” Especially when it came to music, Skip believed in his greatness. He was too egotistical to work with other musicians and never played a song the same way twice—especially if a fellow player was present. “Keep him graspin’ at it all the time,” he’d say.

Skip James went into the studio for the first time in 1930 with the belief that his recordings would make him famous. He was right—but it would take decades of obscurity before his recognition. Those Grafton sessions yielded some of the greatest Delta blues songs ever—many of them improvisations. Skip took just minutes to compose 22-20, a rollicking piano number that would be taken to the guitar by Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan, when requested to write a song about a gun. Unfortunately, the wax from his first sessions didn’t sell too well. The depression hit, Paramount soon went under and Skip, who’d opted for rights to a cut of record sales instead of upfront payment, was left broke and unknown.

So Skip went unheard from for thirty years—until 1964 when he was “rediscovered” by John Fahey in a hospital in Mississippi. According to Calt, it was the rediscovery of Son House and Skip in ’64 that launched the blues revival. Unlike Son, however, whose playing had deteriorated in the interim, Skip had spent two decades as a choir director, honing his craft. He returned to the studio with a mass of new material, and some beautiful reprises of his old songs. Despite poor health, Skip performed until his death from cancer in 1969.