Great Vintage Blues #2: Skip James

Great Vintage Blues #2: Skip James

This is the second in what I hope will be a fairly extensive series highlighting some of the terrific performances by old-school blues musicians that can be found online, begun last week with Sister Rosetta. This week, here's a few songs by Nehemiah "Skip" James, whose high-pitched, haunting vocals are one of the most distinctive in the genre.

Born in 1902 in Bentonia, Mississippi, James' recording career is remarkably sparse even for such an often poorly documented genre as Delta blues. He recorded just a handful of songs in 1931, of which only 18 have survived; with the Great Depression at its height, none sold well, and James quit the blues to join his minister father (who, like his son, was a former bootlegger) in the church. Three decades later, he was rediscovered as the folk/blues revival of the early 1960s was beginning, and was among the 1930s-era musicians to perform at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966, which is where this performance of his classic "Devil Got My Woman" was filmed:



Because I'm trying to focus on live performance video clips of the artists, that sets certain limits on this project: Musicians who died before being filmed, like Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, will have to be skipped, and sometimes an artist's most definitive songs won't have a corresponding YouTube clip. Also, since many of these musicians weren't filmed until the rediscovery of the genre by white audiences in the 1960s, many of them are old enough to collect Social Security in the clips we'll be seeing. In this case, James was around 65 when the following performances were recorded, and in poor health. (He died of cancer in 1969.) Still, he's got plenty of the eerie power that makes his 1931 recordings so compelling. Here he is in 1967 playing "Crow Jane":



Here's a clip from O Brother Where Art Thou of Chris Thomas King playing James' "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues."



Update: I can't believe I forgot about the following scene from Terry Zwigoff and Dan Clowes' Ghost World, in which Enid hears Skip James for the first time:

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