Skip James

(1902 – 1969)

One of the most influential of the Delta Blues players, Mississippi-bred Skip James' intricate, unconventional guitar technique and high, haunting vocals made him one of the genre's most distinctive and expressive performers. In his 1930s heyday, James – who played piano as well as guitar, a rarity for Country Blues singers — was notably an influence on Robert Johnson, who reworked James’ "Devil Got My Woman" and "22-20 Blues" as "Hellhound on My Trail" and "32-20 Blues, respectively.

In his early life, James worked as a manual laborer on road-construction and levee-building crews, as well as a sharecropper and maker of moonshine whiskey. He first recordings were made in 1931, when James was invited to a recording session in Wisconsin after auditioning in Mississippi for Paramount Records, who were seeking performers to make “race records.” While these recordings would later be revered by Blues fans, they failed to attract notice at the time, and James soon retired from playing. He settled initially in Dallas and then lived in various southern locales, working various menial jobs; he also was ordained as a minister.

James was living in rural Mississippi in 1964 when he was tracked down by a trio of young white Blues fans from the north, who found James in a local hospital and brought him back with them to Washington, DC. James' rediscovery resulted in a 1964 comeback performance at the Newport Folk Festival, and from then he continued to perform – and also make some recordings — until his death five years later. Although he had seen little monetary reward for his music over the years, Cream's version of his "I'm So Glad" gave James a financial windfall late in life.