Undoubtedly the most stylistically original and idiosyncratic of all the early Delta blues performers, Skip James accompanied his haunting falsetto vocals with a dazzling guitar picking style, creating his own brand of blues which was acutely distressing yet at the same time sublimely beautiful. With his use of the unorthodox open E minor (cross-note) tuning, James laid down tracks such as ‘I’m So Glad’, ‘Devil Got My Woman’ and ‘Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues’ which are seminal recordings in the history of the blues.
In the words of guitarist John Fahey, who helped rediscover James in an Arkansas hospital in the 1960s, he was “The strangest, most complex and bizarre of all blues artists,” and it’s a common belief that had he disappeared in the 1930s rather than living on, his deep, dark blues would be as revered as those of Robert Johnson. In fact, the gun themed and spontaneous piano playing on James’ ‘22-20 Blues’, provided the model for Robert Johnson's ‘32-20 Blues’ and it’s also likely that his haunting masterpiece ‘Devil Got My Woman’ was the likely inspiration for Johnson's doom-laden ‘Hellhound On My Trail’.
Born near Bentonia, Mississippi in 1902, Nehemiah Curtis James may have acquired the nickname “Skippy” on account of his dancing to the tunes of local fiddle-based dance musicians during his plantation childhood. Drawn to music from an early age, his mother bought him his first guitar in 1912, and it was from the local guitarist Henry Stuckey that he learnt how to play in what became his trademark open E-minor guitar tuning which both mesmerizes and creates a real sense of psychological unrest on his early recordings. James also dabbled with the piano in his youth, and after leaving Bentonia around 1918 he became associated with a barrelhouse pianist who inspired him to become an accomplished player. The fact that he was proficient on both the guitar and piano was a unique characteristic for a Delta bluesman, and although there is little surface similarity in his approach to both instruments, his facility as a pianist undoubtedly contributed to his creativeness on the guitar.
During the early 1920s, James led the life of an itinerant worker, hoboing around Mississippi working a series of jobs, both illegitimate and legitimate, from gambler and bootlegger to rail splitter and lumberman, an experience which is documented in his ‘Illinois Blues’. Like so many of his Delta blues brethren he had to forge a livelihood in a violent and unjust society, however playing music for money was never his priority or sole means of income, as he could earn far more from the making of illegal whiskey than he could ever hope to earn in the dangerous world of the Southern juke joint.
All these tracks are taken from his sole pre-war recording session for Paramount Records in February 1931, after he was recommended to them by the famous "talent broker" and record store owner H.C. Speir, who helped launch the recording careers of other legendary Delta bluesmen including Tommy Johnson, Charley Patton and Robert Johnson. Laying down a possible 26 tracks, of which eighteen sides were issued at the time, these are amongst the most sought-after discs with blues collectors. Unfortunately, the sales of these recordings were hit hard by the Depression and he was never fully paid for his work, so he didn’t record again for over thirty years. Two of the featured tracks ‘Jesus Is A Mighty Good Leader’ and ‘Be Ready When He Comes’ show the spiritual side of his repertoire, and following his own advice, he became a Baptist minister after moving to Dallas in 1931, later switching to the Methodists during the 1940s. After being rediscovered in 1964, James was persuaded to start playing again, and duly performed at the Newport Folk festival and other concerts and clubs. With the folk revival in full swing, there was a renewed appreciation for his music and he recorded several albums on the back of his new-found renown.
The almost impossible complexity and speed of his original 1931 recording of ‘I’m So Glad’ makes it one of the absolute masterpieces of country blues guitar, and this song gave James his first significant income when legendary 60s band Cream gave the song a rock makeover. Unfortunately, he died in 1969 after a long battle with cancer, too soon to benefit from the upturn in his financial circumstances, however his towering influence was cemented almost 40 years earlier on these otherworldly and bluer than blue masterpieces.