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Baby, when I die, don't bury daddy at all... Well, pickle daddy's bones, baby, in alcohol - Papa Harvey Hull & Long Cleve Reed, France Blues

Author Topic: Skip James  (Read 3622 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Skip James
« on: March 11, 2006, 06:38:34 AM »
What follows was published in the Melody Maker week ending Oct 17th, 1969. The contempt that Calt had for Waterman meant that no mention was made of this in his book on James. Calt even went as far as to say that Skip's death "did not occasion any mention in non-specialist publications, save for a thumbnail New York Times obituary." One can't get more non-pspecialist than the MM which by 1969 was 95% pop music!

October 3, 1969
  Dear Max, Skip James died this morning after a very long and painful illness. One of his finest memories was going to Europe in 1967 and he made many friends there who continued to write to him.
   Mrs James and I would like to thank all the people who were so kind to Skip during his life time. We?d especially like to thank the members of The Cream for recording one of his songs ("I?m So Glad") and making it possible for him to have an income for the final year of his life.
 Sincerely Dick Waterman

THE ABOVE letter from Richard Waterman, who had latterly been managing James arrived just after we went to press last week.
  In itself, the news was not surprising. Skip was recovering from a stomach operation when a group of American blues lovers located him in ?64 and got him recorded for the first time since 1930. After his visit to this country with the Blues Festival he became a good deal worse.
  When I wrote (in the MM of April 12 this year) about the reissue of James?s album "The Greatest Of The Delta Blues Singers" (Storyville), I referred to him as being seriously ill. And Blues Unlimited mag has been running an appeal for the James?s which was acknowledged in the October issue.
    ?We want them to know . . that their help has truly made life easier in the James household. We never knew that we had so many wonderful fans. Some day, God be willing, we hope to repay each of them.? This is part of the letter over the signature of Skip and Lorenzo James.
  Little was known of him or his records until the mid Sixties, and he was seldom mentioned in print. He stayed in the South and recorded only the one batch of Paramount records, quitting music soon afterwards. The records didn?t sell well, apparently, and became extremely rare.
   The imaginative use of material is the thing in his performances, so it didn?t matter if his old songs were repeated or his new ones sounded melodically familiar. In selecting "The Greatest" as Blues LP Of The Month, I wrote:
   "In his ability to establish atmosphere ? the sombre mood of "Killin' Floor" or the despair conveyed by an almost ethereal falsetto on "Devil Got" Skip sounds even more remarkable than he did.?
   The high weird voice, the poetic feeling the sensitivity?these and the excellent vocal-instrumental balance he achieved are qualities most often praised by writers who responded favourably to his stylish and thoughtful artistry.
   How fortunate that he knew international recognition even on his last lap. Thanks are due to the organisers of the annual Folk Blues Festival, among others, and to Eric Clapton and the Cream and all the anonymous collectors who helped to sustain his last months. ? MAX JONES

Offline jharris

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Re: Skip James
« Reply #1 on: March 11, 2006, 11:29:00 AM »
I just happened to be listening to "Skip James Live Vol. 2 - Bloomington 1968 Part 1 & 2" when I came across this post. Both of these Document releases are wonderful and sound quality quite good. Skip's voice and guitar work are marvelous and his spoken comments before most songs are fascinating. I'm not sure where the below article comes from but I believe Bunker Hill sent it to me some time back.

Skip James' 1968 Bloomington concert remembered by fans
By Ryan Whirty

When Nehemiah "Skip" James took the stage at IU's Whittenberger Auditorium
March 30, 1968, the blues legend knew he had terminal cancer. It had put him
in the hospital before, and seven months after his IU concert he was
bedridden. He died Oct. 3, 1969 at the age of 67.

But that early spring night in Bloomington, nobody else in the Auditorium --
not even folklore graduate student Peter Narv?ez, who picked James up from
the Indianapolis airport and welcomed James into his house for two days --
was aware James was dying. Aside from frequent naps, James showed no sign of
ill health.

In fact, if James wasn't feeling well, he put on a very good face; in a set
of 1998 liner notes Narv?ez said he "found James to be a cheerful,
informative conversationalist and guest." (James even jammed with Narv?ez at
his house, the bluesman on guitar and the grad student on harmonica.) Such a
description is somewhat contrary to the general belief James was a gloomy,
dour man -- a belief that was fueled partially by James' rough and sometimes
violent past and a James biography by Stephen Calt that some say painted
James in an unfairly negative light.

"He was a perfect gentleman," Narv?ez said today. "He was an extremely
sophisticated person."

Regardless of personality, James' place in the history of American folk and
popular music is secure. In the 1920s, he began to play professionally, and
in the early '30s, he made some of the most crucial and influential blues
recordings ever, highlighted by the haunting, immortal classic, "Devil Got
My Woman." In doing so, James influenced countless blues, folk and rock
artists, and became a guiding light for subsequent blues greats, including
Robert Johnson.

"Coupling an oddball guitar tuning set against eerie, falsetto vocals,"
writes musician Cub Koda, "James's early recordings could make the hair
stand up on the back of your neck."

Despite his age, James had, by early 1968, performed numerous times in front
of largely white audiences that were just beginning to open their minds to
the blues and to the frequently-punishing life of the average Southern black
person that the blues laid bare with painstaking detail. In the early 1960s,
white folkies started to get hip to rural country blues, a trend that led to
a renaissance of sorts for artists like James, Son House and John Hurt. By
the late '60s, rock groups -- especially British ones like the Rolling
Stones, Cream and Led Zeppelin -- were electrifying the blues and blasting
it at top volume.

But while that particular black-white cultural amalgamation proceeded fairly
smoothly, other encounters between the races in the late '60s didn't go so
well. On college campuses across the country, increasingly militant young
black students were becoming frustrated by what they perceived as
foot-dragging by white student leaders and campus administrators who were
hesitant to enact many of the civil rights and equality demands put forth by
black (and sympathetic white) protesters.

IU was no exception. Scheduled for March 30, 1968 -- the same day as James'
concert -- was a debate between Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon William Chaney and
IU graduate student Kas Kovalchek. The event, sponsored by the IU Department
of Speech and Theater, was canceled at the request of IU President Elvis
Stahr, who told the Indiana Daily Student Chaney's presence would have been
a "direct affront to many members of the Bloomington and University
communities, especially the Negro community." Stahr added the administration
"has been working to eliminate all semblance of discrimination within the

Wise words, considering at the same time, a group of about 200 black
students were meeting to plan a non-violent protest in front of Stahr's home
and to draw up a list of demands to present to the president. The group
eventually arranged a meeting with Stahr April 2 -- the purpose of the
meeting, according to the IDS, was "to take concrete action concerning
discriminatory practices on the campus."

It was into this background that Skip James, a 66-year-old black man from
Bentonia, Miss., who for his whole life suffered through the indignities of
Jim Crow -- arrived in Bloomington.

Nav?ez said the night of the concert, the auditorium in the school union was
almost filled to capacity. Except for a few international students, the
crowd was entirely white. There was a mixing of undergrads, grad students
and Bloomington residents, many of whom were folkies who Narv?ez said had
little knowledge of the blues but were eager "to hear somebody who was an
authentic, older African American from Mississippi. They were polite," he
added of the crowd, "but they were also fascinated."

The Auditorium was dimmed for the show, but, thanks to a non-smoking
regulation, the room lacked the smoky haze of the clubs at which many
bluesmen played for their new white disciples. With bright spotlights on the
stage, Narv?ez stood at the microphones to introduce the man of the hour.

"We have one of the greatest stylists and blues singers with us today," he
told the crowd, then ceded the spotlight to the aging bluesman as the crowd
clapped and cheered.

The applause heightened when James walked out in front of the crowd -- alone
and armed with his guitar -- and sat in a chair on an otherwise bare stage.
A somewhat diminutive man, James was dressed in a gray suit -- his graying
hair betraying his age. Two microphones were positioned in front of him, one
set up by Narv?ez, who was recording the show on a reel-to-reel with James'

"Thank you, and good evening everyone," he told the audience before tuning
his guitar for a minute or so and warming up to the crowd. "As a rule," he
said, "I always usually open my program with a spiritual. I always like to
put him in first place, because without him, it's a failure to start with.
An honest man can hit a straight lick with a cooked stick. That's how we're

Neither sickness nor age nor alcohol seemed to affect his performance, and
the auditorium's acoustics augmented the sparse but riveting playing of a
man who had played such an instrumental role in the development of American
folk and pop music.

"The sound was fabulous," Narv?ez said. "There was a really big sound. You
could hear every one of his licks very nicely."

With his dulcet falsetto and guitar tuned in his famous Bentonia style,
James rendered 21 songs, including many of his classic compositions -- "I'm
So Glad," "Cherry Ball Blues," "Hard Luck Child and "Drunken Spree," among
others. In simple terms, James was on that night. Narv?ez said James' voice
was "very, very good" and "his playing was great. He hadn't lost his chops
at all."

Exuding an infectious charm, James also interacted with the audience after
almost every song. He took a request for "Illinois Blues," and he frequently
coaxed the audience into laughter. When introducing "Devil Got My Woman,"
James explained he wrote the song after his first wife, who had an
ingratiating ability to exasperate him.

"So I decided to give her to a man that could handle her," he said as the
audience tittered with laughter, "and that was the devil."

Revealing his storytelling abilities, James also offered background to
several of his songs. He found inspiration for "Hard Time Killin' Floor
Blues," for example, in the economic bleakness of the late 1920s and early

"I was in Dallas, Texas, at that time, in the soup line," he said
matter-of-factly, recalling a period in his life -- and the lives of
millions of other Americans -- that was smothered by with abject poverty. "I
couldn't get no work to do, couldn't get nothin' to eat hardly but that. I
got some good ideas from that experience."

After roughly two hours, he brought the concert full circle by closing with
another sacred song, "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning." He plucked the
last chord, then said a quiet "thank you" as the crowd offered up a rousing
ovation. About a year and a half later, the blues lost him to cancer.

Narv?ez eventually offered his tapes to Document Records, a European label
that was trying to collect and release live recordings of several early
bluesmen. "Skip James: The Complete Bloomington Concert" was released on two
CDs in 1998. Today Narv?ez holds a Ph.D. in folklore from IU and works as a
professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada. He also remains
a fierce Skip James fan who's proud of the concert and of the CDs that
resulted from it.

"It turned out to be the best, well-recorded concert Skip James ever made,"
Narv?ez said.

The fact that such a pristine, powerful recording could be made by a man
knocking on death's door is essentially astounding. The Bloomington concert
only enhanced James' legend and showed how brilliant and driven James was as
an artist -- and as a person.

"That's why I know how to compose a song as I do or as I did," he said
proudly, "because I had gone through that experience, and quite naturally I
could talk about it."

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Skip James
« Reply #2 on: March 11, 2006, 11:42:28 AM »
I just happened to be listening to "Skip James Live Vol. 2 - Bloomington 1968 Part 1 & 2" when I came across this post. Both of these Document releases are wonderful and sound quality quite good. Skip's voice and guitar work are marvelous and his spoken comments before most songs are fascinating. I'm not sure where the below article comes from but I believe Bunker Hill sent it to me some time back.

Skip James' 1968 Bloomington concert remembered by fans
By Ryan Whirty <cut lengthy article>
Wasn't I, though I think it's an extract of something he wrote for Blues Revue last year which had a typical BR tabloid headline like "Skip Straight Lick 18 Months Before Death". But there again, it might note.  ;D

Offline MTJ3

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Re: Skip James
« Reply #3 on: March 13, 2006, 02:39:46 PM »
This may have surfaced elsewhere in these pages, but here is a link to a book review of sorts that some of the above comments call to mind:

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Skip James
« Reply #4 on: March 14, 2006, 08:19:47 AM »
Thanks for these BH and Jeff. I haven't heard the Bloomington concert, and now need to seek it out.

Offline jharris

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Re: Skip James
« Reply #5 on: March 14, 2006, 11:44:45 AM »
Also quite good is "Skip James Live Volume 1- Boston 1964 & Philadelphia 1966" also on Document. Skip was such a captivating performer you can't go wrong with any three of these CD's. Here's some more info with MP3 samples:

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Skip James
« Reply #6 on: October 03, 2009, 12:31:02 PM »
Skip James died forty years ago today. In light of that I thought I'd bump this topic which might seem appropriate given the opening piece.

Offline Blue in VT

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Re: Skip James
« Reply #7 on: October 05, 2009, 07:26:10 AM »
A tragic loss....I find it ironic that I have been reduced to 4 fingers (temporarily) on my left hand which has led me back to playing a bunch of open tuning songs....and the current favorite is Skip's Special Rider in Open G....his spirit lives on.


Blue in VT

Offline jostber

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Re: Skip James
« Reply #8 on: October 05, 2009, 08:06:36 AM »
"Special Rider Blues" is an incredible song, and "What Am I To Do Blues" is as well.

Offline Stuart

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Offline RobBob

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Re: Skip James
« Reply #10 on: December 17, 2009, 01:28:28 PM »
I heard Skip play one time.  It was the Philly Folk Fest.  I was home on leave from the USAF. It was incredibly hot and humid and when he sang Devil Got My Woman I was transformed.  I had his Vanguard recordings then and had spent a lot of time listening to them.  But nothing prepared me for what I heard that day.  One of the musical highlights of my life.



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