Skip James: A Most Hard Man
"The people are drifting from door to door. Can't find no heaven, I don't care where they go."
With these lyrics from his song "Hard Time KiIlin' Floor Blues," Skip James summed up the arc of his life's journey. From his birth on a Mississippi plantation; his travels as an itinerant musician, gambler, and levee camp worker; his 1931 Paramount recording session; disillusionment with the music industry; and conversion to preacher to his rediscovery in the 1960s, James's life was marked by hard times and opportunities lost or denied. Even when he had a brief career resurgence in the '60s, he had to deal with severe health problems that made it difficult for him to exploit his newfound notoriety. In spite of this, the singular quality of his music shone through. His unusual guitar tuning and eerie falsetto vocals set him apart from other artists of the blues revival like Mississippi John Hurt and Son House. One musician who was inspired by his approach was the late Piedmont blues guitarist John Cephas. A 34-year-old carpenter and amateur musician when he met James in 1964, Cephas says, "I was so enchanted and fascinated with his sound that I practiced and listened to him for hours on end, just trying to figure out what he was doing."
James's mother gave him a guitar when he was around eight and he took to it quickly, learning his signature ?-minor tuning (E B E G B E) from a local musician, Henry Stuckey. Stuckey picked up the tuning while in France during World War I, from some soldiers who were said to be from the Bahamas. When he returned from the war he showed it to James and possibly to Jack Owens, another Bentonia musician whose guitar style is similar to James's. James called the tuning "cross note," and he used it on many of the songs he would record at his Paramount recording session in 1931. He also developed a unique piano style that sounded more like his contrapuntal guitar picking than the common left-hand-bass, right-hand-melody technique.
In 1931, James auditioned for furniture store owner and talent scout H.C. Speir, of Jackson, Mississippi. Speir's business included selling phonograph players and records to play on them. He had a disc cutter at his store and was able to make demo recordings and refer musicians to record companies. He eventually became a well-known broker and sent many artists, including Robert Johnson, Son House, Bo Carter, and Charley Patton, off to be recorded by major labels, which kept his store supplied with a steady stream of what were then called "race records" to sell to the African-American community. Speir liked James's music and referred him to one of the prominent race record labels, Paramount. James cut 26 songs at the Paramount Records studio in Grafton, Wisconsin, 18 of which were released.
He accepted a royalty deal rather than a per-song payment for his records, confident that they would sell, but the Great Depression had a bad effect on record sales in general and James's were no exception. Speir wanted him to return to Paramount for another session later that year, but by then James had "gotten religion" and bitterly refused the offer, deciding to follow his father's footsteps into preaching and turn his back on music. He referred to the music business as a "barrel of crabs" and didn't return to the recording studio until the '60s.
James was one of a small group of musicians who were "rediscovered" in the '60s by a handful of blues aficionados, including John Fahey, Bill Barth, Tom Hoskins, and Dick Spottswood. But James's dark, eerie, introspective brand of blues didn't prove as popular as Mississippi John Hurt's sunny, bouncy tunes and, consequently, James had a tougher time getting gigs. He was also ill during these years, and eventually died of cancer in 1969. He did, however, get to make some more recordings and perform at a few high-profile festivals, influencing players like Al Wilson and Henry Vestine, who went on to form Canned Heat, and he had a brief financial windfall with royalties from Cream's version of his song "I'm So Glad," recorded on Fresh Cream.
James's haunting vocals, complex picking style, dark and devil-ridden themes, and unique song forms set him apart as a one-ofa-kind artist who doesn't fit neatly into any of the blues categories that have developed over the years. In this lesson exploring his guitar style, we'll take a look at the tuning that gave most of his guitar songs the singular major/ minor tonality that was his fingerprint, his contrapuntal picking style, and his adventurous harmonic sense.
The tuning that James learned from Henry Stuckey (E B E G B E) is usually called E minor but James didn't generally use it to play in minor keys. He would usually fret the third string at the first fret to give the song a major tonality and then use the open string (the minor third) in conjunction with slides and pull-offs for bluesy melodic runs.
On his Paramount session, however, he pitched the tuning lower, to D minor. On his 1960s cuts he was closer to F minor.