Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James (June 21, 1902 – October 3, 1969) was an American blues singer, guitarist, pianist, and songwriter that lived the life of a bluesman and he is the embodiment of the fizzled enchantment and other stories of ruin. James was a natural musician, teaching himself piano after watching a rural pianist in a barrelhouse, and he learned his distinct finger-picking guitar style from Henry Stuckey after he returned from the war in 1917. A barrelhouse is a disreputable old-time saloon or house of prostitution that served cheap drinks and usually featured dancing. Skip James had a high-pitched voice that featured eerie vocalizations.
James recorded for Paramount Records in 1931, but, like several other bluesmen of his era, he dropped out of the music business because poor sales popped his bubble and this led to Skip giving up the Blues for 30 years until his rediscovery in the early 1960s. He burst onto the blues-revival scene at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and became a popular performer at folk venues until his death in 1969. The British rock group Cream covered his song ‘I’m So Glad’ on their second album Disraeli Gears in 1966, and this provided him with his one hit record and it brought in more money in royalties than Skip had earned in his entire career. Skip had little time to spend it, as his life was taken by cancer in 1969.
James was brought up in a religious family with his father being a Baptist minister. By 1932, Skip was ordained as a Baptist minister and he had moved to Dallas where he formed the Dallas Texas Jubilee Singers to back his father’s preaching. He travelled around the South on religious business, and then moved back to Mississippi in the mid-40’s and in 1946 he was ordained as a Methodist minister. Saint John of the Cross a 17th century Spanish mystic said, “In the Dark Night of the Soul, bright flows the river of God” and this describes a point in a pious Christian’s life when they are unable to reconcile their relationship to God, maybe because the devil had entered their life.
The first song that Skip James recorded in 1931 for Paramount Records, and also the first song he sang at his historic Newport Folk Festival also became the last record he made before his death ‘Devil Got My Woman’ which was released in 1968. The Skip James song ‘Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues’ was revived in the escaped convict movie, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, with George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson and John Goodman, but ‘Devil Got My Woman’ remains the quintessential Skip James song, as he wrote this after his first wife left him for another man.
Robert Johnson was a contemporary of Skip James, and he was considered to be a novice guitar player in early 1930s Mississippi, until he suddenly disappeared without a trace. A year later, he reappeared without explanation as an absolute blues prodigy, outplaying legends like Son House in juke joints around the Delta. The suspicious speed of Johnson’s improvement, mixed with the superstition that blues was the “Devil’s music”, led to the famous legend that Johnson had gone down to a crossroads at midnight and sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for miraculous talent.
Written for October Writing Prompts – The fizzled enchantment and other stories of ruin and for OctPoWriMo 2019 – Dark Night of the Soul.