1902 must have been a very good blues year. Son House is recorded to be born in March. In June, the very same year, there is track of the birth of another monument in the blues : Nehemiah James, better known later on as Skip James.
He was born in Bentonia, near Jackson, in the county of Yazoo. This is situated on the East Side of the Mississippi delta region, a good deal away from Clarksdale. Bentonia is being pigeonholed as a particular style in the blues.
Already his place of birth made him stand out of the traditional cliché of the delta blues singer. But there was more. He was an only child, and his mother was the household and babysitter of the plantation owner. This mere fact already made him socially different. De facto, it were his grandparents who took care of his education (his father left when he was a child). Perhaps, this particular social status, making him quite different from the majority of the black population, can explain his later attitude and behavior. The least one can say from reading the biographical material that I consulted, is that he was an individualist. And that is to be considered as an euphemism. I remember reading somewhere that one biographer dared to state that he even had psychopathic tendencies : introvert, but at times becoming very violent (there are indications that he once shot a guy in an argument; he was also proud of being an expert handler of a gun).
He moved places quite frequently, with his mother first, later with his first wife. This was on a personal level corresponding to a perpetual search for doing things better and always striving to prove himself, not only in relation with himself, but also with regards to other people.
He married three times. The first time his wife left him rather quickly (leaving him behind with a combination of feelings of revenge and suicidal thoughts). He waited 20 years to remarry, but then did so twice in a short period of time.
He was not too keen on hard manual labor. In fact, it is said that he never did any work on the cotton fields as his blues fellows did. Also, socially, this must have disgusted him quite deeply : at the age of around 20, he was once part of a rail road working gang, and was deeply appalled by the violent and scandalous behavior of his fellow workers.
Unlike his black compatriots in the South, he also managed to have an higher education (I couldn’t find out how this was financed – perhaps this must have come from his grandparents – his grandmother, it is told, left him also a donkey).
Music was really not of his first concern. He learned to play the guitar fairly early in life (when he was seven), and later even mastered the piano and the violin. He did do gigs, but these seem to have been in the first place to serve as an attraction pole for audience that would buy his liquor. Bootlegging and cards (and pimping according to some) made him much more considerable profit than music making.
As a musician in his early days, he even differentiated himself quite strongly from the rest. One of the characteristics of blues is that there is a pool of melodies and even sentences which are interchanged being artists who give an individual touch to it by transforming them (slightly). This was not the case for Skip James : he started writing his own songs, and made a strong point of it to stress that he was not at all influenced by other musicians. More : he even looked down on other musicians, and even on his audience.
On the other hand : he was not really imitated also. Later on, we find covers of some of his work by blue eyed blues artists (Cream transformed his ‘I’m so glad’ into a big seller), it was extremely difficult for other blues musicians to copy his work and style.
Whilst Son House had to face an inner conflict between the demons of the blues and his religious feelings, Skip James seemed to combine both quite perfectly. When in his thirties he found his father again (who had become a reverend), he intensified his religious activities without too much trouble. Some biographers point out that he used both the blues and the Baptist pulpit as a platform for a strong form of self-expression. At the center of it all was his own personality, and his conviction that he was the best and that other people had to learn from him.
It was a monologue, as one of his later interviews observed : the best thing you could do when interviewing him was just to lay back and let him do all the talking.
More about Skip James in the coming days….