Nehemiah "Skip James" was born in 1902 and raised on the Woodbine Plantation, near Bentonia, Mississippi. He became interested in music around 1909, after hearing Green McCloud playing "Drunken Spree" on the fiddle, backed by guitarists Henry Stuckey and Rich Griffith. With a $2.50 guitar bought by his father, Skip followed Stuckey and other musicians, "like the pied piper, all over town."
After World War I, Stuckey and 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 the "Drunken Spree," pattern picked in A, and "Special Rider" 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 the early '20s, he took up a hobo's life, meeting a whorehouse piano player named Will Crabtree in Arkansas and learning a good deal of piano technique from him. 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. (Shortly after, Paramount went broke in the Depression, and "Hard Time Killing 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 countertenor voice and eerie, hollow guitar, each taking up and embellishing the other, which is perhaps the single most poignant blues song about failed relationships between men and women. On "Devil," 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' 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 purge 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 thumbwork on the bass strings is especially noteworthy.
Just as sensational, and even more individual, is Skip James' 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 of musical ideas and 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 buckdance is almost extraordinary.
It's not surprising that a musician as individual as Skip James had little stylistic influence on others. Robert Johnson increased the 22-20's caliber to a 32-20, and Johnny Temple and Joe McCoy also covered his songs, but their versions owe little to the originals beyond the words. Skip James was simply too much of an individual, too much of a genius, to be copied. Relocated in the '60s after years of preaching, strip mining and farmwork, he made a short comeback, dying in 1969. He still retained much of his talent and all of his suspicion, both of mankind and of what he called "the music racket," but he never equaled the astonishing performances he had recorded in 1931.