It seems fitting that with the spooky holiday approaching, Skip James is today’s blues man. His music
has an eerie quality that is unlike anything I’ve ever heard before, and even though it was covered by Robert Johnson (next week’s subject), no one, not even “sold his soul to the devil Johnson” had that same quality and downright, well evilish sound of Skip James. And that’s not even taking into consideration his subject matter.
“I’d rather be the devil, than be that woman’s man.”
Skip James was a strange man to say the least. He was cantankerous, opinionated, a mean drunk. He thought highly of himself. Unlike fellow Delta musicians, he looked on music as a competition. He didn’t like to share the stage. He would play louder than his accompanist in order to drown the other player out. He would give fellow blues man Mississippi John Hurt advice on playing as if he were an inferior player. He, from what I read, could be an asshole. But he was still a genius.
Skip James was a master of both guitar and piano. This song was written during the Milwaukee recording session when the producer asked him if he had a song about a gun. He wrote this one on the spot. Listen for his feet stomping at the end!
The subtitle to an old Washington City Paper headline about Skip James reads: Robert Johnson died young and became a blues legend. Skip James lived to a ripe old age. It was a bad career move. Truer words were never spoken.
When James was 27, he got what he thought would be his big break. He won the chance to be recorded in Milwaukee and headed north to record for Paramount Records. Instead of taking a straight fee, he opted for royalties. In the end, he made $40.00. The Depression didn’t help record sales. Fast forward to the blues revival of the 1960’s and three Washington D. C. fans who had discovered his records in a used record shop and took off to Mississippi in search of James. They found him in a hospital, paid his hospital bill and back rent on his shack and moved him to D.C.
James was convinced that his illness was brought on by a voodoo curse from an old girlfriend. She was jealous because he had been seeing another woman, and she cursed him. He had a tumor removed from his penis.
But Skip James didn’t have the personality of other Delta players. He didn’t tell stories to the college kids. His songs were dark and boding. And his health was soon failing again. When he went to the hospital in Washington, he was told the tumor that had been removed in Mississippi had returned and was cancerous. He would have to have his penis removed. Eventually, he would loose his testicles to the disease, too.
There are few recordings by Skip James, but those that remain are haunting and weird and wonderful. The definitive biography entitled I’d Rather Be the Devil by Stephen Calt can be found here. I highly recommend it.
The Washington City Paper story by Eddie Dean is an awesome read. I’m linking to it because I can’t tell it better than this story does, so please read it if you want to read a truly remarkable piece about Skip James.