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Skip James

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Biography

Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James (June 21, 1902 – October 3, 1969) was an American blues singer, guitarist, pianist and songwriter.

Early years

James was born near Bentonia, Mississippi. As a youth, he heard local musicians such as Henry Stuckey and brothers Charlie and Jesse Sims and began playing the organ in his teens. He worked on road construction and levee-building crews in his native Mississippi in the early 1920s, and wrote what is perhaps his earliest song, “Illinois Blues”, about his experiences as a laborer. Later in the ’20s he sharecropped and made bootleg whiskey in the Bentonia area. He began playing guitar in open D-minor tuning and developed a three-finger picking technique that he would use to great effect on his recordings. In addition, he began to practice piano-playing, drawing inspiration from the Mississippi blues pianist Little Brother Montgomery.


1920s and ’30s

In early 1931 James auditioned for the Jackson, Mississippi record shop owner and talent scout H. C. Speir, who placed blues performers with a variety of record labels including Paramount Records. On the strength of this audition, Skip James traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin to record for Paramount. These recordings are among the most famous and idiosyncratic ever made in the blues idiom.

“I’m So Glad” was derived from a 1927 song by Art Sizemore and George A. Little entitled “So Tired”, which had been recorded by both Gene Austin and, as “I’m Tired of Livin’ All Alone”, by Lonnie Johnson. But as James’ biographer, Stephen Calt, maintains, the finished product was totally original, “one of the most extraordinary examples of fingerpicking found in guitar music.

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