Blues musician Nehemiah “Skip” James was born on 9 June 1902 on the Whitehead Plantation near Bentonia, Mississippi, on the edge of the Delta. His mother was the plantation’s main cook; his father, a blues guitarist and bootlegger, soon left the family, eventually becoming a respected Baptist minister. An only child, James received his childhood nickname, Skippy, because of his penchant for dancing at social gatherings. He was musically inclined from an early age, and when he was twelve, his mother arranged for him to study piano at a local school, the only formal music lessons of his career. Accompanying church services on piano and listening to secular music at juke joints, James began learning guitar in 1917 by observing local musician Henry Stuckey.
James initially played guitar in a traditional African American style. Modified from banjo playing and known as rapping or frailing, this technique involved sounding individual guitar strings or groups of strings with fingernails. He later developed a more complex three-finger picking style, with the strings often keyed down in an open D-minor tuning. This style combined with his high-pitched, often falsetto voice to give James’s music its distinctive sound, which many blues music fans have described as “haunting” and “eerie.”
After graduating from high school, James left Bentonia and worked as a laborer in, among other places, Marked Tree, Arkansas, where he also played piano in dance halls for both black and white audiences. He moved to Memphis and performed regularly in a barrelhouse. By playing piano in such diverse settings, secular as well as sacred, James developed a sophisticated if at times seemingly anarchic piano style that was as unique as his guitar style. His early blues music repertoire included many of the traditional blues songs then circulating around the Delta. By the mid-1920s James was listening to commercial blues records, and he endeavored to learn and personalize a number of the popular songs of that era. He also began to compose his own blues, including such renowned compositions as “I’m So Glad,” “Cypress Grove Blues,” and “Hard Times Killin’ Floor Blues.”
In 1931 James traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin, to record for the Paramount label. While many blues scholars have lauded these recordings for their individuality and emotional power, James viewed the experience as a failure because the records sold poorly. Disillusioned with his prospects of making a living as a bluesman during the Great Depression, James remained primarily in Mississippi and Alabama and spent the next three decades serving as a Baptist preacher and working various manual labor jobs. During this period, his only musical activity consisted of occasionally singing in a black gospel group.
“Rediscovered” in June 1964 by John Fahey, Bill Barth, and Henry Vestine, white blues aficionados who were familiar with his Paramount recordings, James enjoyed a successful career as a bluesman for the rest of his life. James moved from Mississippi to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and performed at the Newport Folk Festival and other major festivals, toured in Europe, and recorded two critically acclaimed albums for the Vanguard label (Today! and Devil Got My Woman). His commercially released Paramount records influenced several significant blues performers during the 1930s (most famously Robert Johnson), while the Vanguard recordings inspired cover versions of his songs by more recent musical luminaries, including the British rock group Cream, blues performer Rory Block, and the acoustic blues duo Cephas and Wiggins. James died of cancer on 3 October 1969.
- Stephen Calt, I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues (1994)
- Ted Olson, Living Blues (May–June 1992)