Skip James died in 1969, he was 67 years old, at long cancer. He was already suffering from long cancer when he was (re)discovered in 1964, just before Waterman and friends knocked on House’s apartment door in Rochester. Skip James resided in a hospital, and it was not certain at all whether he was still in physical shape to re perform. His work in the period 1964-1969 is not considered as his best compared to the 18 tracks he recorded in 1931 in Grafton, but give a pretty good idea of the genius of the man.
He was proud to consider himself as a self-made artist who composed his own songs, and taught himself guitar, piano and violin. At one point in time, he even was a music teacher, not just to the younger generation but also to full fledged musicians.
Researchers point out however that he was influenced by other musicians. It has been found that he could have been influenced by a fellow guitarist, who himself had learned some particular guitar techniques from black soldiers during the World War, soldiers coming from the Bahamas. His piano style is said to be influenced in a significant way by a certain Little Brother Montgomery.
Whatever : Skip James developed a vocal and instrumental style (guitar and piano) that can be seen as very distinctive and unique. He has a high pitched voice, bringing a high falsetto. His finger picking guitar playing testified of genuine innovation, and it was said that in his piano playing the notes he didn’t play in the rhythm were as important as the ones he did play.
One can easily say that he was a perfectionist, persuaded of his own talent. In this perspective, we can interprete why he refused an offer made by an OKey talent scout for a recording session already in 1927. This was at the time that Blind Lemon Jefferson was recognized by record companies as a new source of income. It is said that he didn’t consider his musical talent enough mature already in 1927 to go into the studio (others point to the fact that was in hospital at that time, or (and this sounds plausible) : he didn’t agree with the contractual aspects of the offer. Unlike other blues artists, Skip James did pay attention to what a musical performance would deliver him in terms of cash; after all, he had his bootlegging activities which were much more lucrative than his musical activities.
Another four years went by before the famous 18 tracks were recorded in Grafton. This was after the Wall Street crash and the beginning of the economic depression, which made the record industry collapse. H.C. Speirs, the talent scout for Paramount, must have had a very good nose for talent, because he succeeded in arranging the recording session. The record sales were very small then, and Paramount was prepared to ‘invest’ in him. Commercially, the investment did not bring much, and I guess that Skip James must have been hard hit in his self esteem to be confronted with a poor record sale.
In the same year, he met his father again who had become a reverend, and Skip James turned his back at the blues to concentrate on religious preaching. He even joined a gospel group.
In 1940 he remarried and relocated to Birmingham to take up manual work. Once in a while he took up the guitar.
Just like Son House, Skip James was not aware at all of the blues revival that was going on at the time 3 young white aficionados traced him in a hospital in the South. He certainly had not read Samual Charters ‘The Country Blues’, published in 1959, and which was – as the author put in a foreword in a later edition – an attempt to show the Americans this essential part of their cultural heritage.
His musical output between 1964 and 1969 is not really structured. There are some live recordings (for instance “The Bloomington Indiano Concert (1968)), and some splendid studio work (also on piano), but it is rather difficult to get some straight line into it. Most of his songs he recorded after 1964 are moreover a revisiting of his earlier work in the twenties and during the Grafton recording session.
Perhaps, one of the elements that explain this fragmentation is that it is after all very difficult to put Skip James’ work into a particular category. For marketing reasons, it is often pigeonholed in the Betonia music style characterized by a haunting, dreamy singing and playing. Fact is that James’ deep melancholy and sadness and his ‘private’ musical performance, that can make you shiver, is hard to categorize. Skip James was an individualist in everything he did and this is cleary reflected in his (poetic) work, which didn’t allow for much collaboration by other musicians. It must have been disliked also by the blues purist of the sixties that his record output also contained a fair amount of religiously inspired songs, and clear cut spirituals.
Skip James sang about pain, and perhaps this was too a large part autobiographical. He probably really felt pain. After my reading of his life, he appears to me as being a man that was constantly looking for the greener grass, never satisfied of himself, combined with a a high degree of social isolation.
Make sure that when you put on his music to close all the windows and ban all the sounds of your surrounding : just let his pain flow into you.