Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Blues and the Soul of a Man - A Blues Blog about Skip James

By Jeff Harris, February 23, 2020

Jeff Harris's radio show on February 23, 2020 focused on the music of Skip James, and the inspiration came from a new book issued by Stefan Grossman titled Blues and the Soul of Man: An Autobiography of Nehemiah “Skip” James. 

The book is James's story in his own words culled from interviews done between 1964 and 1969 by Stephen Calt, who spent countless hours with the Bentonia native, with the intent of compiling an autobiography; instead, Calt published the flawed and controversial, I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues. What Stefan Grossman did is take the raw interviews and shaped it into a compelling narrative, stripping away much of the subjective embellishments, and outright false story Calt pushes forward. On his radio program, Harris spins a batch of James's legendary 1931 recordings as well as some fine performances from the 1960s. In addition, he airs his interview with Grossman,.

Skip James grew up at the Woodbine Plantation in Bentonia, Mississippi and as a youth learned to play both guitar and piano. The music of Skip James and fellow Bentonia guitarists such as Henry Stuckey and Jack Owens is often characterized as a genre unto itself. Notable for its ethereal sounds, open minor guitar tunings, gloomy themes, falsetto vocals, and songs that bemoan the work of the devil. Stuckey learned one of the tunings from Caribbean soldiers while serving in France during World War I, and said that he taught it to James, who went on to become the most famous of Bentonia’s musicians. Inspired by Stuckey, James began playing guitar as a child, and later learned to play organ.

In his teens James began working on construction and logging projects across the mid-South, and sharpened his piano skills playing at work camp barrelhouses. In 1924 James returned to Bentonia, where he earned his living as a sharecropper, gambler and bootlegger, in addition to performing locally with Stuckey. James traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin, for his historic 1931 session for Paramount Records, which included thirteen songs on guitar and five on piano. He was sent to Paramount by talent scout H.C. Speir who was impressed by James’ audition. “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” alluded to the Great Depression, while the gun-themed “22-20 Blues” provided the model for Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues,” and the haunting “Devil Got My Woman” was the likely inspiration for Johnson’s “Hell Hound on My Trail.” According to Calt, James received only $40 for his 1931 recordings, and he soon quit the music business, bitterly declaring it a “barrel of crabs.”

As far as Skip James Paramounts, collector John Tefteller told me: “There are about 20-25 that have survived, if you include the Champion release and 15 or less if you leave that one out. They are some of the rarest and most desirable 78 rpm records of all time. There are a couple of them for which only one or two copies in playable condition exist.” James’s records sold poorly, and later in 1931 he moved to Dallas, where he served as a minister and led a gospel group. He later stayed in Birmingham, Alabama, and in Hattiesburg and Meridian, Mississippi, occasionally returning to Bentonia. He returned to Bentonia in 1948 and sometimes played for locals at the newly opened Blue Front Cafe, although he did not earn his living as a musician.

The first resissue of Skip James was in the 40’s when John Steiner pressed a 78 from from Paramount test-pressings. One Side was Skip’s “Little Cow And Calf Is Gonna Die Blues” (Paramount 13085) and the other side was “Fat Mamma Blues” by Jabo Williams. (Paramount 13130). This is the first country blues to be reissued for the white collector’s market. In 1962 Skip’s “Devil Got My Woman” was reissued on the compilation Really! The Country Blues. Regarding Skip, the notes contained the following: “No details. Said to have been from Louisiana. Was proficient on both guitar and piano. Present whereabouts unknown.” The idea that he came from Louisiana came from his song “If You Haven’t Got Any Hay, Get On Down The Road”: “If I go to Louisiana mama Lord they’ll, hang me for sure.” It was Gayle Dean Wardlow who first found concrete information on James from Johnny Temple. “Yeah, I knew Skippy,” Temple said, “I learned guitar from him.” He also learned that James was from Bentonia, halfway between Jackson and Yazoo City. Wardlow headed down there and picked up a few scraps of information but no one had seen him for ten years. Temple had last seen him in 1960 or 1961 in West Memphis.

In later years skip lived in Memphis and Tunica County, where he was located in 1964 by blues enthusiasts who persuaded him to begin performing again. In 1964, blues fans John Fahey, Bill Barth, and Henry Vestine found him in a hospital in Tunica, Mississippi. On that same day Son House was located in Rochester, New York. On the same day as James and House were re-discovered civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan and local police. Newsweek covered both rediscoveries in one story, rhapsodizing, “These two were the only great country blues singers still lost. No one knew whether they were alive or dead….The search for these old-time bluesmen has always had a note of urgency about it. Theirs was our finest and oldest native-born music, the blues, country-style, pure and personal, always one Negro and a guitar lamenting misery, injustice, but still saying yes to life.” 

In the introduction to Blues and the Soul of Man, Eddie Dean writes: “The bedridden James seemed to expect the sudden appearance of these fans; in fact, he seemed perturbed that they hadn’t come sooner to pay him homage. …A few days later, the hospital discharged him, after the pilgrims had paid not only James’ medical bills, but also the money he owed his landlord. At his sharecropper’s shack, James picked up the borrowed guitar and began playing his old songs, which he hadn’t performed in years. He was rusty, but he still clearly retained his talent.”

After his rediscovery James relocated to Washington, D. C., and then to Philadelphia to play folk and blues festivals and clubs. In Washington he stayed for a time with Dick Spotswood. “He really stood out from the mass of humanity,” says Spottswood. “If he had been raised in different circumstances and had some level of academic training, he could have been an original thinker in any number of fields. He had that brooding, inquisitive intellect that was never content to leave things unchallenged. I could have easily seen him teaching physics or philosophy. …I don’t think he had a lot more use for git-along Southern blacks than he did for the white oppressors,” says Spottswood. “He didn’t suffer fools or take no kind of shit.”

A few days after arriving in Washington, James went further north, this time to the Newport Folk Festival, for his first major performance since his rediscovery. Of his performance, Peter Gurnalack wrote: “Skip James appeared, looking gaunt and a little hesitant, his eyes unfocused and wearing a black suit and a wide-brimmed flat-topped preacher’s hat that gave him as unearthly an appearance as his records had led us to suspect he had….As the first notes floated across the field, as the voice soared over us, the piercing falsetto set against the harsh cross-tuning of the guitar, there was a note of almost breathless expectation in the air. It seemed inappropriate somehow that this strange haunting sound which had existed ’til now only as a barely audible dub from a scratched 78 should be reclaimed so casually on an overcast summer’s day at Newport. …As the song came to an end, the field exploded with cheers and whistles.” James would go on to recorded several albums and gained new renown and royalties from the rock group Cream’s 1966 cover of his song “I’m So Glad,” but the somber quality of much of his music and his insistence on artistic integrity over entertainment value limited his popular appeal. “We had expected that we had another John Hurt on our hands,” recalls Ed Denson, another member of the Washington blues circle. “And in terms of public acceptance, that was not true, and that was too bad.” James died in Philadelphia on October 3, 1969.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

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