Blues And The Soul Of Man – An Autobiography Of Nehemiah “Skip” James
The haunting 1931 recordings for the Paramount Records label were enough to establish a place in the blues pantheon for Nehemiah “Skip” James. Classic songs like “Devil Got My Woman,” “I’m So Glad,” and “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” relate the dark corners of life, powered by James’ intricate guitar work and his raw, falsetto vocal. He was also quite adept as a piano player. Then, he quickly became dissatisfied with the music business, putting down his guitar, and disappearing into the mists of time.
Starting in the 1950 decade, a new generation of musicians and hard-core record collectors discovered 78 rpm records cut by artists like Robert Johnson, Son House, Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, and James. Soon a number of dedicated souls were venturing into the Mississippi Delta region, searching for some sign that these blues artists were still alive. One by one, they were located and giving a helping hand in reviving their careers.
In the opening essay by Eddie Dean that provides a timeline and context for the James legacy, Dean tells of the frantic search for the blues singer, one of the last to be found. A self-proclaimed “blues detective,” Gayle Dean Wardlow, was hot on the trail, already having uncovered definitive information on Charley Patton’s demise. Another group, lead by acclaimed guitarist John Fahey, drove through one small town after another in pursuit of clues that would unravel the mystery of James’ fate.
Once discovered, the news was important enough to merit an article in Newsweek magazine, that also announced the discovery of Son House the same week, stating,”These two were the only great country blues singers still lost”. James was soon playing shows for audiences of blues and folk music fans, his guitar skills somewhat dimmed by the passage of time, but his powerful voice could still able to conjure up cold chills from one of his dark tales.
The fourteen chapters at the heart of the autobiography are taken from interviews with James, done by Stephen Calt, author of the 1994 James biography, I’d Rather Be The Devil. Each one is formed around a general topic, with James expounding in his own words on his music, the meaning of the blues, racism, and some details of his life, which he often left shrouded in mystery. In the chapter titled “Blues For Sancts,” he offers this observation about his music and church people, “Sanctified. ‘Livin’ free from sin’. They pretend that they don’t like it. But they listen to it. And they’ll listen attentively, too”.
The final section offers thirty pages of guitar transcriptions of four of the James’ best-known songs, done by Tom Feldmann, who has numerous videos available for learning a variety of blues guitar styles. Interspersed throughout the book are B&W photos of James, primarily from later in life, as well as photographs from the Library of Congress collection that provide a visual for parts of his musings.
Despite the new attention he received late in life, James never quite rose to the level of acclaim that many of his peers were able to achieve. Dean sums it best, “Skip James seems to have struck deal after deal and never come out ahead. In a way, James’ story is the truest story of the blues. He led an open wound of a life, and all he got for it was minor-league, post-mortem stardom”. It is a compelling narrative will give you a whole new level of appreciation for the artistry of Skip James.