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Nehemiah Curtis "Skip" James (June 9, 1902 October 3, 1969) was an American Delta blues singer, guitarist, pianist and songwriter.

Biography

skipjames.jpg Skip James image by dlgibson9788Early years
James was born near Bentonia, Mississippi. His father was a converted bootlegger turned preacher. As a youth, James heard local musicians such as Henry Stuckey and 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, "Illinois 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 in open D-minor tuning 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.

1920s and '30s
In early 1931, James auditioned for Jackson, Mississippi record shop owner and talent scout H. C. Speir, who placed blues performers with a variety of record labels including Paramount Records. On the strength of this audition, Skip James traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin to record for Paramount. James's 1931 work is considered idiosyncratic among pre-war blues recordings, and forms the basis of his reputation as a musician.

As is typical of his era, James recorded a variety of material blues and spirituals, cover versions and original compositions frequently blurring the lines between genres and sources. For example, "I'm So Glad" was derived from a 1927 song by Art Sizemore and George A. Little entitled "So Tired", which had been recorded in 1928 by both Gene Austin and Lonnie Johnson (the latter under the title "I'm So Tired of Livin' All Alone"). James changed the song's lyrics, transforming it with his virtuoso technique, moaning delivery, and keen sense of tone. Biographer Stephen Calt, echoing the opinion of several critics, considered the finished product totally original, "one of the most extraordinary examples of fingerpicking found in guitar music."

Several of the Grafton recordings, such as "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues", "Devil Got My Woman", "Jesus Is A Mighty Good Leader", and "22-20 Blues" (the basis for Robert Johnson's better-known "32-20 Blues"), have proven similarly influential. Very few original copies of James's Paramount 78s have survived.

The Great Depression struck just as James' recordings were hitting the market. Sales were poor as a result, and James gave up performing the blues to become the choir director in his father's church. Skip James himself was later ordained as a minister in both the Baptist and Methodist denominations, but his involvement in religious activities was sketchy.

Disappearance, rediscovery, and legacy
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 Henry Vestine found him in a hospital 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 rediscovered performers, appeared at the Newport Folk Festival. Several photographs by Dick Waterman captured this first performance in over 30 years. Throughout the remainder of the decade, he recorded for the Takoma, Melodeon, and Vanguard labels and played various engagements until his death in 1969.

Although James was not initially covered as frequently as other rediscovered musicians, British rock band Cream recorded two versions of "I'm So Glad" (a studio version and a live version), providing James the only windfall of his career. Despite the band's well-known musicianship, Cream based their version on James's simplified '60s recording, instead of the faster, more intricate 1931 original. Deep Purple covered "I'm So Glad" on their first record, Shades of Deep Purple. Singer Dion DiMucci released an album in November 2007 entitled Son of Skip James.

Since his death, James's music has become more available and prevalent than during his lifetime his 1931 recordings, along with several rediscovery recordings and concerts, have found their way on to numerous compact discs, drifting in and out of print. His influence is still felt among contemporary bluesmen. James also left a mark on 21st-century Hollywood, as well, with Chris Thomas King's cover of "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" on O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the 1931 "Devil Got My Woman" featured prominently in the plot and soundtrack of Ghost World. In recent times, British post-rock band Hope of the States released a song partially focused on the life of Skip James entitled "Nehemiah", which charted at number 30 in the UK charts. "He's a Mighty Good Leader" was also covered by Beck on his 1994 album One Foot in the Grave.

Personality
Skip James was known to be an aloof and idiosyncratic artist. He seldom socialized with other bluesmen and fans. Like John Fahey, James loathed the so-called "folkie" scene of the 1960s. He held a high regard for his own work and was reluctant to share musical ideas with other performers. James epitomized the complicated personality typical of many bluesmen, living a hard and sometimes reckless life while holding austere religious beliefs. Though the lyrical content of some of his songs led to the characterization of James as a misogynist, he remained with his wife Lorenzo (niece of Mississippi John Hurt) until his death. He is buried with his wife at a private cemetery ("Merion Memorial Park") just outside of Philadelphia in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

Musical style
Skip James' sound was unique to the blues genre and although he influenced other blues musicians, such as Robert Johnson, few have been able to recreate his style. His high pitched voice seems otherworldly and frail, even in his early recordings. He is said to have had a 'preaching' style of singing and was known to also sing spirituals. James is regarded as a gifted and distinctive guitarist. He often used an open D-minor tuning (DADFAD) which gave his instrument a dark and desolate tone. James reportedly 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. The famed Robert Johnson also recorded in this "Bentonia" tuning (see Below), his "Hell Hound On My Trail" being based on the James opus "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.

Skip James' signature lick in open D-minor involves a fingered slide of the third string from the second to the fourth fret; a slide on the same string from the fourth back to the second fret; striking the fourth string open; then hammering the third string in the first fret. James used this simple but effective lick in many of his songs, especially "Devil Got My Woman."

"Bentonia School"
Skip James has often been called one of the exponents of the Bentonia School of blues playing, which was later carried on by guitarist and singer Jack Owens. Calt, in his 1994 biography of James, I'd Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues, maintains that there was indeed no style of blues that originated in Bentonia, and that this is simply a notion of later blues writers who overestimated the provinciality of Mississippi during the early 20th century, when railways linked small towns, and who failed to see that in the case of Owens, "the 'tradition' he bore primarily consisted of musical scraps from James' table." Whatever the truth is regarding the origins of James' style, or of the "Bentonia School," he certainly stands as one of the most original of all blues performers.