Skip James – Crow Jane
Skip James – Crow Jane
Born Nehemiah Curtis (“Skip”) James, June 21, 1902, Yazoo City, Mississippi; died October 3, 1969; married three times: Oscella Robinson, Mabel James, Lorenzo Meeks.
Skip James was unique among blues players. He was accomplished on two instruments, guitar and piano. While many lesser musicians made pests of themselves in their attempts to be recorded, James refused his offer to be recorded and embraced his rediscovery in the 1960s only halfheartedly. Rather than the deep, rough shouts associated with many early male blues singers, James sang in a high thin wail. But his otherworldly voice, haunting guitar, and staccato piano bursts contributed to some of the greatest blues sides ever recorded.
Accompanying himself, James laid down pieces that were later acknowledged as classics in recorded blues: “Devil Got My Woman,” “I’m So Glad,” “Hard Time Killin’ Floor,” “Special Rider Blues” on his weird modal guitar, and “If you Haven’t Any Hay, Get On Down The Road” and “22-20 Blues” on piano that utilized abrupt pauses and explosive fills. The first record released by Paramount in the spring of 1931 was “Hard Time Killin Floor Blues” backed with “Cherry Ball Blues.” Only 650 copies were issued. No more than 300 copies of James’ other records were put out by Paramount, however, including his fifth 78 “I’m So Glad” backed with “Special Rider Blues,” which Calt has called “probably the greatest double-sided blues 78 ever issued.” But it was the height of the Depression, and the audience for blues had been hit harder than any, and Paramount was about to go out of business.
Not long after his recording session, James met his father again for the first time since his childhood. The senior James was a Baptist minister. He asked Skip to go to Dallas, to attend his divinity school, and study for the ministry. James accepted the invitation. The most serious implication of his new-found religion was relinquishing blues, which was considered “the Devil’s music.” Spier approached James in 1932 about recording for Victor Records, but James refused. For the next fifteen years, the only music Skip James would play would be spirituals.
However obscure his music was it did not go forgotten. Other blues artists recorded his music during the 1930s. Charlie and Joe McCoy recorded “Devil Got My Woman” for Decca in 1934, for instance. In 1943, two white jazz collectors obtained a test pressing of “Little Cow And Calf is Gonna Die Blues” and subsequently re-released it on their own label. It was the first re-issue of a blues song for the white collectors market and sold about 300 copies-as many as Paramount had pressed of its version.
In 1948 James quit a job with a mining company in Birmingham and returned to Betonia, planning to resume his blues career. But the African American population in Mississippi was dwindling. Tastes in blues had changed, as well. Electric blues, so-called “Chicago blues,” were in vogue. Time had passed Skip James and his acoustic guitar by. He was only able to play an occasional party in town. Eventually James vanished from Betonia. He apparently skipped town again after cashing in a cotton crop raised with $500 his cousin had lent him and headed to Memphis where he tried to open his own honky-tonk.
Living in Philadelphia with his third wife, James was chronically broke during his last years. Until the group Cream recorded “I’m So Glad” and gave James the songwriter’s credit, that is. As a result, he received a royalty check for nearly $10,000.Skip James died of cancer on October 3, 1969, in Philadelphia. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1992.