The Complete 1931 Paramount Recordings
Featuring the recordings of:
Skip James, vocal guitar.
Genre: Mississippi Blues, Country Blues, Country Blues Guitar,
Abridged from this album’s original booklet notes. Skip James became interested in music around 1909, after hearing Green McCloud playing Drunken Spree on the fiddle, backed by guitarists Henry Stuckey and Rich Griffith. Skip followed Stuckey and other musicians, like the Pied Piper, all over town.
After World War I, Henry Stuckey and Skip James, together with Jack Owens, developed the Bentonia Style. In France, Stuckey had learned an open E minor tuning from some black soldiers (who he believed were Bahamians), and this tuning, picked with three fingers in complex patterns, became the basis of the guitar pieces Skip James was to record in 1931. Only Drunken Spree, pattern picked in A, and Special Rider Blues, in open G, are exceptions, and for all its charm, there is a great gulf between Drunken Spree, basically a vocal tune plus accompaniment, and the tightly knit pieces, for voice and guitar as equal expressive partners, that James composed in the newer style. In 1931, James auditioned for H.C. Speir, Paramount’s Mississippi talent scout, and was dispatched to Grafton, Wisconsin on a two year contract which he hoped would eventually free him from manual work. (Paramount shortly went broke in the Depression, and Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues, composed at the session, became personal as well as topical).
Seldom can there have been a more impressive start to a recording career than Devil Got My Woman, a seamless pattern of counter-tenor voice and eerie, hollow guitar, each taking up and embellishing the other, to form perhaps the single most poignant blues about failed relationships between men and women. On Devil Got My Woman, as on most of his songs, James achieves an unrivaled unity between the content of the words and the sound of the music to which they are set. The generally dour, pessimistic mood was at one with James’?s own misanthropic philosophy; even the spirituals don’?t seem very consolatory, and the blues seem intended rather to display and justify James’ sorrow and anger than to provide a purgation of them. His guitar playing, always remarkable, reaches a summit of musicianship on I’?m So Glad, a lyrically insignificant song used as the basis for a display of sensationally fast and accurate finger picking; his thumb work on the bass strings is especially noteworthy.
Just as sensational and even more individual, is Skip James‘s piano playing, which is like no other on record. Staccato and percussive, it functions, like his guitar work, as a response to and elaboration of his vocal lines. Sometimes he contributes additional percussion by stomping on a board placed in front of the piano; the frequent independence of this rhythm from that laid down on the keys will repay attention, and is another indicator of James’? mastery, alike of musical ideas and of their execution. 22-20 Blues, made up in the studio, contains one of the most remarkable piano breaks in blues, with spectacular glissandi, and his transformation of Leroy Carr’?s How Long How Long into a manic buck-dance is almost as extraordinary It’?s not surprising that a musician as individual as Skip James had little stylistic influence on others. Skip James was simply too much of an individual, too much a genius, to be easily copied.
Chris Smith Copyright 1990, 2008 Document Records