Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Skip James

Skip James was born Nehemiah Curtis James, on 1902 near Bentonia, Mississippi. As a youth he heard local musicians such as Henry Stuckey and the 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, "Ilinois 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 and developed a three-finger picking technique that he would use to great effect on his recordings. In addition, he began to practice piano-playing, drawing inspiration from the Mississippi blues pianist Little Brother Montgomery.

In early 1931 James auditioned for the Jackson, Mississippi record-shop owner and talent scout H. C. Speir. On the strength of this audition, Skip James traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin to record for Paramount. These recordings are among the most famous ever made in the blues. "I'm So Glad" was derived from a 1927 song by Art Sizemore and George A. Little entitled "So Tired," which had been recorded by both Gene Austin and, as "I'm Tired of Livin' All Alone," by Lonnie Johnson. The other pieces recorded at Grafton, such as "Devil Got My Woman," "Special Rider Blues," and "22-20," were of similarly high quality both vocally and instrumentally, and are the recordings upon which James' subsequent reputation lay.

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 Harry Vestine found him in Tunica, Mississippi. According to Calt, the "rediscovery" of both Skip 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 blues performers, appeared at the Newport Folk Festival. he died in 1969. MP3: Illinois Blues


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