June 9: The Legendary Skip James was born in 1902

skip james

Hard time’s is here
An ev’rywhere you go
Times are harder
Than th’ever been befo’
~Skip James – Hard Time Killing Floor Blues

Coupling an oddball guitar tuning set against eerie, falsetto vocals, James’ early recordings could make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
~Cub Koda (allmusic.com)

From Wikipedia:

Birth name Nehemiah Curtis James
Born June 9, 1902
Bentonia, Mississippi, United States
Died October 3, 1969 (aged 67)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Genres Delta blues
Occupations Musician, songwriter, preacher
Instruments Vocals, guitar, piano
Years active 1931
Labels Paramount, Vanguard,Biograph, Adelphi, Document, Snapper Music Group, Universe, Body & Soul, Yazoo, Genes

Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James (June 9, 1902 – October 3, 1969) was an American Delta blues singer, guitarist, pianist and songwriter. Born in Bentonia, Mississippi, he died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

skip james

He first learned to play guitar from another bluesman from the area, Henry Stuckey. His guitar playing is noted for its dark, minor sound, played in an open D-minor tuning with an intricate fingerpicking technique. James first recorded for Paramount Records in 1931, but these recordings sold poorly due to the Great Depression, and he drifted into obscurity. After a long absence from the public eye, James was “rediscovered” in 1964 by three blues enthusiasts, helping further the blues and folk music revival of the 1950s and early 60s. During this period, James appeared at several folk and blues festivals and gave live concerts around the country, also recording several albums for various record labels.

His songs have influenced several generations of musicians, being adapted or covered by Kansas Joe McCoy, Robert Johnson, Cream, Deep Purple, Chris Thomas King, Alvin Youngblood Hart, The Derek Trucks Band, Beck, Big Sugar, and Rory Block. He is hailed as “one of the seminal figures of the blues.”

Crow Jane:

James as guitarist:

James often played his guitar with an open D-minor tuning (DADFAD), resulting in the “deep” sound of the 1931 recordings. James purportedly learned this tuning from his musical mentor, the unrecorded bluesman Henry Stuckey. Stuckey in turn was said to have acquired it from Bahamanian soldiers during the First World War, despite the fact that his service card shows he didn’t serve overseas. Robert Johnson also recorded in this tuning, his “Hell Hound On My Trail” being based on James’ “Devil Got My Woman.” James’ classically-informed, finger-picking style was fast and clean, using the entire register of the guitar with heavy, hypnotic bass lines. James’ style of playing had more in common with the Piedmont blues of the East Coast than with the Delta blues of his native Mississippi.


Album of the day

I’d Rather Be the Devil: The Legendary 1931 Session (2007)

skip james rather be the devil


…. The music remains some of the most revered pre-World War II country blues, both for the quality of James’ guitar work (though he occasionally backs himself on piano) and his haunting high vocals. “I’m So Glad” and, to a lesser degree, “Devil Got My Woman” remain the only songs familiar to a non-blues specialist audience, but many of the other tunes have similar qualities that will find favor with those who like those two classics.
~Richie Unterberger (allmusic.com)


– Egil & Hallgeir