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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Saturday, October 03, 2009


Skip James died in Philadelphia PA 40 years ago today. One of the very greatest of the pre-war blues musicians, and among those who survived to be 'rediscovered' in the early 1960s, this is the entry on him (and of course how Bob Dylan's work connects to him) in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

James, Skip [1902 - 1969]
Nehemiah James was born on a plantation at Bentonia, Mississippi on June 9, 1902. He was unusual in playing guitar and piano, and unique among pre-war blues musicians in regarding himself as an artist, indeed as a great one, without being told that he was by white blues-revival enthusiasts. And he was right. Had he never survived to be ‘rediscovered’, his reputation would be secure from his sole pre-war recording session, made in about February 1931 in Grafton, Wisconsin: a session that was at least prolific as well as of astonishing virtuosity.

One of the big cats of the genre, the unique Skip James made the crucial recording of a ‘Special Rider Blues’, after which Dylan named his primary music-publishing company. (Unlike the common blues term ‘rider’, the phrase ‘special rider’ is more special: it seems to occur in only four pre-war songs and by implication in a fifth. One of these is Skip James’.) James is also one of those whose old records saw early vinyl release on the pioneering blues label Biograph, the name Dylan chooses for his 1985 retrospective box set. But Dylan’s inwardness with the blues is such that he cannot help but have imbibed things from this highly distinctive figure, and we can glimpse them all over the place in Dylan’s work.

The only appealing thing about the Hearts Of Fire filler-song ‘Had A Dream About You Baby’ is the comic yet stylishly lazy ‘Late last night you come rollin’ across my mind,’ with its pleasant evocation of someone feeling this image move across from one side of their head to the other: an image that recurs between Dylan’s unmemorable verses, so that it enacts the in-between of ‘in one ear and out the other’ (it’s a self-reflexive text, even) - but it’s at least as pleasurable hearing the same main phrase in Skip James’ ‘4 O’Clock Blues’, in which: ‘Brownskin girl, she rollin’ across my mind.’

On Dylan’s nigh-perfect Blonde On Blonde performance of ‘Pledging My Time’, the melody, the gulping movement of the melodic phrases and Dylan’s mysteriously ominous line ‘Somebody got lucky, but it was an accident’ may all echo ‘Come On In My Kitchen’ by ROBERT JOHNSON, from 30 years earlier, but while the restless melodic phrasing is Johnson’s, the melody that inspires it is the same as ‘Sittin’ On Top Of The World’, and the Johnson line that Dylan’s echoes - ‘Some joker got lucky, stole her back again’ - is itself an echo of a line from Skip James’ brilliant 1931 début recording, ‘Devil Got My Woman’.

This is not the whole story: BLIND WILLIE McTELL’s ‘Stole Rider Blues’, recorded at his first session (1927) includes ‘I stole my good gal from my bosom friend / That fool got lucky, he stole her back again’, which anticipates Skip James’ 1931 ‘Devil Got My Woman’ and Robert Johnson’s 1936 ‘Come On In My Kitchen’, and it would be hard to say from whom Dylan picked up the line - as Dylan sings his matching line, his ‘accident’ rhymes neatly with the ‘back again’ offered by McTell, James and Johnson - except that James’ line, ‘Somebody got lucky, stoled her back again’, is the closest to Dylan’s. And certainly Robert Johnson’s line comes down from Skip James rather than from McTell (who may have picked his up from listening to Ida Cox’s ‘Worried Mama Blues’, which predates all of them with its ‘I stole my man from my best friend / But she got lucky and stole him back again’, from 1923). ‘Devil Got My Woman’ is also the musical basis of another Robert Johnson song, ‘Hellhound On My Trail’, while Johnson’s ‘32-20’ is an almost verbatim reworking of Skip James’ ‘22-20 Blues’.

These songs came to Johnson via his Jackson Mississippi contemporary Johnny Temple, an ex-protégé of Skip James, whereas for Dylan, James was accessible more or less directly; that is, he was both a figure of legend from the 1930s and one of the most important of the ‘rediscovered’ bluesmen in the couple of years immediately before Blonde On Blonde was recorded.

Another part of the same Skip James lyric becomes entwined in a different Dylan song, ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ - which was recorded, coincidentally or not, within a year of the first release on vinyl of the original 1931 James recording of ‘Devil Got My Woman’. The ‘wild geese’ Dylan recalls himself following on a hilltop in ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ fly straight out of a number of old blues songs, in which they feature as a common-stock formulation. Whenever you hear the line ‘I lay down last night, tried to take my rest’ you can more or less bet that the next line will be ‘My mind got to ramblin’ like the wild geese in the west.’ It occurs, for example, in BLIND BOY FULLER’s ‘Weeping Willow’, which Dylan performed at the Supper Club in New York in 1993.

Sometimes the ‘wild geese’, with engaging grammatic license, is singular (‘my mind got to rambling like a wild geese in the west’). There are also several songs called ‘Wild Geese Blues’, as for instance recorded by Barbecue Bob, Alberta Jones and the theatrically masculine Gladys Bentley. Yet because of Skip James’ vocal intensity, and because of a tiny one-word change he makes to the couplet, these wild geese fly most vividly and particularly out of ‘Devil Got My Woman’, so that the image works as a most poignant lunge of the imagination suddenly arising out of his beautifully evoked restless yearning. James sings: ‘I lay down last night, tried to take my rest / My mind got to ramblin’ like the wild geese from the west.’ The more common ‘in the west’ is less moving, in both senses, than James’ ‘from the west’: ‘in the west’ abolishes movement, leaving these birds, and the image, hanging motionless. Skip James’ tiny change sets them flying across the sky, wild geese indeed, making the image one of visitational loveliness.

James was taught guitar by the unrecorded singer Henry Stuckey, born in the 1890s. James first saw him play in a Bentonia, Mississippi juke joint in about 1908, and learnt guitar from him after Stuckey’s 1917 return from World War I, using pieces like ‘Salty Dog’ and ‘Stack O’Lee’. James’ own wonderful piano-accompanied recording ‘If You Haven’t Any Hay Get On Down The Road’ is based on a ragtime number Stuckey played on guitar as ‘All Night Long’, fused with the traditional ‘Alabama Bound’, learnt in James’ youth from local fiddle-player Green McCloud. Stuckey, tracked down in 1965 by the blues collector and critic Gayle Wardlow, still refused to record, and died in 1966.

Skip James concentrated primarily on his own compositions, and continued to make many of them out of songs that were not really blues at all, but which he alchemised into blues by the sheer ingenuity of his wayward style. He also found his own eccentric, intelligent ways of enriching his guitarwork from his experience as a pianist, and vice versa. The brilliant, distinctive delivery James uses at the end of his vocal lines - an ostentatious yet felicitous filigreeing around the note - finds a pale echo in Bob Dylan’s delivery on ‘North Country Blues’. In full, skittering flight, as achieved by Skip James, it prefigures, among other things, Robin Williamson’s Incredible String Band vocals. There is just one occasion when the radiant wondrousness of Mr. James crashes badly. His 1931 performance of ‘4 O’Clock Blues’ holds a disquieting moment for those familiar with 1950s-60s British culture. There you are, entranced by his precarious, eerie genius when all at once the phrase his perilous falsetto offers is ‘Goodbye my darling---’, and he sounds exactly like Charlie Drake.

James returned to Bentonia in the late 1940s, went on the road again with his wife in the early 1950s but wearied of travelling and retired. The drama of his recording career lies in the fact that he had only ever done one recording session, the substantial one from 1931 that had yielded so much. Then, 33 years later, ‘rediscovered’, he appeared like a ghost at the 1964 NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL, and was recorded there by Vanguard Records. The first of his four Newport songs was ‘Devil Got My Woman’ (and of the three others, two were also revisits to songs he had cut at his recording session of three decades earlier).

Peter Guralnick’s 1971 book Feel Like Going Home is good on Skip James’ ‘rediscovery’, and appears to give an eye-witness account of his triumphant performance at Newport. It is an account that recognises the agitation most of us can fall prey to in coping with the emergence of the much-loved, obscure artefact into clear accessibility:

‘As the first notes floated across the field, as the voice soared over us, the piercing falsetto set against the harsh cross-tuning of the guitar, there was a note of almost breathless expectation in the air. It seemed inappropriate somehow that this strange haunting sound which had existed till now only as a barely audible dub from a scratched 78 should be reclaimed so casually on an overcast summer’s day at Newport. As the song came to an end...the field exploded with cheers and whistles and some of the awful tension was dissipated.’

JON PANKAKE’s colleague PAUL NELSON, reviewing Skip James’ performance as issued on one of the festival LPs, wrote that ‘the rediscovered Skip James contributes four of the greatest blues performances...of recent years, his high, emotional falsetto singing and carefully considered guitar-playing setting a nearly impossible standard.’

James continued to record and perform after Newport - and not at all as a shadow of his former self, though it’s expected that you should say so. To listen, for example, to his 1966 recordings for Vanguard’s album Skip James Today! is to be astonished by the man’s genius and chutzpah. He sounds like no-one else on the planet; he sounds ageless and in his prime; his singing is still eerily beautiful and his acoustic guitar-work is inventive and precise. Play Skip James Today! up against Bob Dylan’s 1993 album World Gone Wrong and much as you might love the latter, the former rebuffs with shining energy the notion that blurred guitar-work or last-gasp vocalising is all you can expect from the over-50s; and the Skip James of 1966 was 15 years older than the Dylan of 1993. (James’ album is also, you won’t be surprised to learn, immensely better recorded than Dylan’s.) Still, while one of these artists was recording Skip James Today!, the other was recording Blonde On Blonde. Can’t complain.

His impact was felt widely in the blues-revivial and ‘rediscovery’ period. Cream’s 1966 début LP Fresh Cream included a version, albeit barely recognisable, of James’ ‘I’m So Glad’ (said to have earned him only $6000). Further James recording sessions followed in the 1960s, including a live concert recording from Bloomington as late as 1968, never released until it appeared on two separately issued CDs in 2002.

Skip James died of cancer in Philadelphia in early October [the 3rd], 1969.

[Skip James: ‘Special Rider Blues’, Grafton WI, c.Feb 1931, Mississippi Blues 1927-1941, Yazoo L-1001, NY, 1968 & Skip James: King of the Delta Blues Singers 1928-1964, Biograph BLP-12029, Canaan NY, 1970; ‘4 O’Clock Blues’, Grafton WI, c.Feb 1931, Skip James: The Complete 1931 Session, Yazoo 1072, Newton NJ, 1988; ‘Devil Got My Woman’, ‘Special Rider Blues’ and ‘22-20’, Grafton c.Feb 1931, all on Biograph BLP-12029 (James’ only pre-war recordings were c.Feb 1931; the Biograph album boasts the dates ‘1928-1964’ because it includes a 1928 Chicago test pressing by someone else, wrongly attributed to James, and because it draws on a Falls Church VA session, 16 Dec 1964, at which James cut 22 sides. BLP-12029 uses just two: ‘I’m So Glad’ & ‘Special Rider Blues’); ‘Devil Got My Woman’, ‘Cherry Ball Blues’, ‘Sick Bed Blues’ & ‘Cypress Grove Blues’, Newport RI 23-26 Jul 1964, The Blues At Newport 1964, Part Two, Vanguard VRS-9181 (mono) & VSD-79181, NY, 1965; Skip James Today!, NY, Jan 1966, Vanguard VLP 9219, NY, c.1967; Skip James: The Complete Bloomington Indiana Concert March 30, 1968, Part 1 & Part 2, Document DOCD 5633 & 5634, Austria, 2002.
Blind Willie McTell: ‘Stole Rider Blues’, Atlanta, 18 Oct 1927; Blind Willie McTell 1927-1935, Yazoo L-1037, NY, 1973 (issued in stereo!). Ida Cox: ‘Worried Mama Blues’, Chicago, Dec 1923. Robert Johnson: ‘Hellhound On My Trail’ (2 takes), Dallas, 20 Jun 1937; one issued Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers, Columbia CL-1654, NY, 1961; ‘32-20 Blues’ (2 takes), San Antonio TX, 26 Nov 1936, ditto. (Another significant influence on Johnson, Kokomo Arnold, recorded ‘Front Door Blues (32 20 Blues)’, Chicago, 15 Jan 1935.) Blind Boy Fuller: ‘Weeping Willow’, NY, 14 Jul 1937; Blind Boy Fuller On Down - Vol.1, Saydisc SDR143, Badminton UK, c.1967. Bob Dylan: Weeping Willow’, NY, 17 Jul 1993. Cream: ‘I’m So Glad’, Fresh Cream, Reaction, UK, 1966.
Peter Guralnick, Feel Like Going Home, New York: Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, 1971 (reissued London: Penguin, 1992). Paul Nelson, Sing Out! Vol.15, no.5, NY, Nov 1965.]


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