Can’t Find No Heaven
by Matt R. Lohr
“The bluesman is the undeciphered enigma on the American landscape…”– JULIO FINN, THE BLUESMAN (1)
There was no blues artist who deserved this ambiguous appellation more than Nehemiah Curtis James (1902-1969), better known to blues listeners and scholars of musical history as “Skip”. The Skip James discography, consisting of 18 sides cut for Yazoo Records in 1931 and several albums of new tunes and rerecorded vintage material released following James’ rediscovery during the “folk blues” revival of the mid-1960s, is frequently recognized by musical aficionados and critics as one of the most creative and distinctive in the blues canon. Not only are these works notable for their uncommon utilization of blues conventions and precise, disciplined musicianship, but they are also remarkable in the uncanny feelings they conjure within the listener, feelings of unease, foreboding, and soul-dead dread unlike that produced by anything found in the blues before or since.
My own relationship with Skip James began, inappropriately enough, on Christmas Day 1997, when I was gifted David Harrison’s photo compilation Blues: A Photographic Documentary. Though the book did not feature any photographs of James among its contents, an introduction detailing a 1960s “folk blues” revival tour described James in grim, startling language:
“[James] didn’t come across as someone with whom you could enjoy leaning on a bar; his songs are unremittingly gloomy and devil-ridden, and if his 78s were the only ones to have survived, the myth of the blues as a depressing music would have been fully justified…[the songs] hint at anger and lurking madness…If the blues can really be said to have a genius, then Skip James is the sinister contender for the title.” (2)
Gloomy…sinister…lurking madness… Worlds away from the music of Mississippi John Hurt and Bukka White, artists with whom Skip James performed during the revival tour in question (and with whom, according to most popular accounts, he did little to make himself friendly). Though I had never heard James’ music at the time I read this passage, Harrison’s words helped him to assume a dark little home in the corners of my imagination, where his mystery began to gnaw away at me.
I finally got to hear the sound for myself on an edition of Ken Batista’s “An American Sampler”, a Sunday morning folk music program on Pittsburgh’s WYEP-FM. Although I had not heard a single James recording before listening to the broadcast, I was nevertheless able to identify a song near the end of the show as James purely on the basis of Harrison’s intense descriptions (the song was the classic “Devil Got My Woman“, widely regarded as the finest work in the James oeuvre). This was music that cried. It cut. It haunted like no music save that of the man who fit Harrison’s description could. I left the program struck by the fact that an untrained ear such as my own was able to identify the song I had just heard as James’ purely on the basis of a written description. Such is his music: vivid, idiosyncratic, and unmistakably his own.
I was later able to examine a live Skip James performance captured by Alan Lomax at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival (this performance is available on the video Devil Got My Woman: Blues At Newport 1966, released by Stefan Grossman’s Vestapol), and the faces of those listening to James play and sing bear out my own reactions. This audience has been rendered disconsolate and downcast by an eerie vocal style and a guitar sound at once rough-edged and almost supernaturally delicate. Even the great Howlin’ Wolf seems to be having trouble looking into James’ piercing blue eyes, and is frequently seen with his gaze drifting around the room, as if facing a man able to cloak himself in such spiritual desolation is too much to bear even for the Wolf, whose own music dredged up its share of troublesome feelings in those who heard it. Though he occasionally permits himself the slightest of smiles, James is almost spooky in his detachment as he effortlessly conjures his musical unease. His eyes never zero in on anything within his surroundings, and he does not acknowledge the applause that follows his performances. He plays for himself alone, and the reaction of his audience seems to mean nothing whatsoever to him.
Why did this music, this wrenching, disquieting sound, come from Skip James, a man whose upbringing and experiences, at least on the surface, were not strikingly dissimilar from those of other blues artists of his time? The music, borne of skillful manipulation of the blues musical form and atypical handling of sociological and autobiographical thematic elements within the lyrical content, is a testament to the complex psychological makeup of the man who created it, bespeaking an existence predicated on the constant fear of God and the devil, both of whom James trafficked with during his tumultuous life. Through the examination of several literary and musical sources, blues musical theory, African-American social history, and cognitive-behavioral psychology, I hope to illustrate how Skip James’ tormented mind shaped the music that issued from it, delineating a raw, angry madness through sounds that will live forever in the canon of the world’s great music.
Cross-Notes and Other Musical Curiosities
In “A Brief History of the Blues”, Robert Baker explains that the standard blues musical form was the result of fundamental differences between the Western 8-note diatonic musical scale and the West African pentatonic scale, which features neither the third nor seventh tone commonly found in Western composition, and is also missing those same tones’ flat variants. Musicians looking for comparative tones to replace those absent eventually discovered pitches that fell approximately between the major and minor third, fifth, and seventh tones of the Western scale. By lowering the noted scale degrees by a half step, a sound is produced that resembles a minor scale. These highly emotional notes allowed musicans to create a distinctively powerful affect within compositions in which they were utilized, and they eventually became known as “bent” or “blue” notes; thus, the bedrock of the blues was born (3).
The majority of blues songs, whether played in a slow, pensive Mississippi style or in the fast-paced, rag-influenced Piedmont idiom, are in a 12-bar structure. The lyrics are commonly constructed in three- or four-line stanzas, with the second line customarily being a repetition of the first:
I’m goin’ get up in the mornin’, I believe I’ll dust my broom,– ROBERT JOHNSON, “I BELIEVE I’LL DUST MY BROOM”
I’m goin’ get up in the mornin’, I believe I’ll dust my broom,
Girl friend the black man you been lovin’, girl friend, can’t get my room…
Skip James hailed from Mississippi, where the blues sounds produced are commonly charcterized by a driving, insistent rhythmic approach and a visceral, wailing style of vocal delivery. It’s a raw and gritty sound, and few musical embellishments are allowed to dilute the naked emotions behind the words being sung (4).
As Stephen Calt emphasizes in I’d Rather Be The Devil, James’ music deviated from both the formal standards of blues and the idiosyncratic style of his native state in several ways. The most overtly atypical tool utilized by James in the creation of his sound was the “Bentonia tuning”. According to Calt, James learned this tuning, which came to bear the name of his hometown, from an itinerant musician named Henry Stuckey, who had himself picked it up from black soldiers, likely from the Bahamas, whom he met while stationed in France during World War I. In “concert pitch tuning” for blues guitar, the strings are tuned in a E-A-D-G-B-E pattern, creating a natural C tonality considered “standard” by most blues musicians. When a guitar is tuned in the open-string “Bentonia” style, the resulting pattern is E-B-E-G-B-E, which, provided the G string is not raised to G sharp, creates an E minor tonality. The result of this “cross-note” tuning (a term coined by James) is an off-center sound with an unmistakably dark undercurrent, a sound that can be heard most vividly in the bottom-scraping bass notes and chilling ascending treble figures of James’ “Devil Got My Woman”. Though James used this tuning sparingly (only two songs from the 1931 sessions, “Devil” and “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues”, were performed in this minor-key tuning ), the strikingly ethereal sadness it produced is so unique within the blues repertoire that he has become inextricably associated with it. The “Bentonia tuning” is Skip’s, and Skip’s alone.
In addition to the E-minor melancholia of the “Bentonia tuning”, James created other haunting musical effects through idiosyncratic utilization of the blues musician’s more quotidian tools and techniques. In his original compositions, James forsook both the “rapping” (strumming) guitar style popular during his youth and the telltale sound of Mississippi blues, with its strangulated vocals and thumping, heavily rhythmic musical accompaniment. Instead, James developed a finger-picking style similar to that of classical guitarists, plucking the strings with his fingernails instead of thumping them with the fleshy pads of the fingers themselves (6) and thus achieving what Giles Oakley describes as an “icy precision” (7) by prominently isolating individual notes, rather than blending them into the rhythmic melange commonly found in Mississippi blues. This separation of notes had various effects on James’ tunes: in his 1960s recording of “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues”, the sparse arrangement of notes within the playing imparts a stark quality to the music that reflects the desolate lives of the characters foregrounded by the song’s lyrics, while the rapid-fire 1931 recording of “I’m So Glad” achieves its considerable tension primarily because we can hear literally every note that James is whirling through in this display of instrumental virtuosity. Interestingly, there are several songs within the James repertoire, the bulk of them recorded after the rediscovery, which adhere to a more traditional style of playing. The most notable of these is “Drunken Spree”, which James learned in his youth from Henry Stuckey and which he played in a style not far removed from the “rapping” fashion in which he had originally heard it performed (8). Rather than detracting from the power and importance of James’ stylistic diversions, these more traditional tunes are in fact crucial to appreciating the singularities of the James oeurve, for they demonstrate that James possessed considerable knowledge of and facility with the more common styles of blues and folk music, and thus illustrate that the bizarre stylistic decisions that informed the creation of James’ sound were not the result of blind luck or musical ignorance, but were consciously considered artistic choices made for reasons which will be further explored later.
James’ disturbing guitar sound was matched, and at times surpassed, by his distinctive and bizarre style on the piano. His keyboard work is distinguished by its almost avant-garde utilization of irregularly spaced breaks, helping to create within the music a gripping fits-and-starts tension, and his 1931 piano recordings possess a heavily percussive quality thanks to his complex, syncopated foot pounding, which was picked up by the primitive recording equipment and is clearly audible on the Yazoo sides. James was also skilled at using runs, fills, crescendo, and diminuendo to create musical power within his piano pieces, whether he was performing elaborate treble-to-bass runs on “Little Cow and Calf Is Gonna Die Blues” or creating the gut-shot effect of thudding rapid-fire bullet hits on “22-20 Blues” (9). Despite the obvious effects of these outre stylistics, James’ playing is nonetheless marked by a sense of classicism which lends his pieces a certain formal sophistication. He was one of the few blues multi-instrumentalists regarded as possessing equal technical facility on both of his chosen instruments (10), and whereas most bluesmen used their vocals primarily as an embellishment for their instrumental work, or vice versa, James’ songs, whether performed on guitar or piano, are unmatched in the synergy achieved by the music and vocals. This reinforces the “art music” feel of James’ work (11) and allows the songs to achieve a cohesive, concrete power.
James’ vocals strengthen the unnerving atmospheric bedrock laid down by his instrumentation. He does not sing in the growling, raw-throated style favored by such Mississippi contemporaries as Charley Patton and Son House. Instead, James’ vocals are delivered in either a pure, keening falsetto or a flat, affectless tenor, both tones almost supernatural in their melancholic detachment and both expertly complementing the chillingly pristine tone of his guitar playing. This voice, eerily ethereal even on the 1931 Yazoo sides, had become even more high-pitched and ghostly by the time of the rediscovery-era recordings; the singing on the 1960s tracks conjures nothing so much as the wailing of a tormented Deep Southern banshee. James’ vocal and instrumental affectations frequently render it difficult for the listener to become involved in the music on a direct emotional level, as one does when listening to a recording by Son House or Robert Johnson. James once stated that his music should “deaden the minds” of those who heard it (12), and indeed, the spiky instrumental techniques and frigid, disembodied voice displayed on his recordings create in the listener feelings of disquiet that linger like unsavory thoughts long after the music has come to a close.
Some critics and historians have stated that Skip James’ sound emerged from a “Bentonia school” of blues performers noted for falsetto vocal delivery, elaborate finger picking on the guitar, and dark lyrical thematics, creating what David Evans described as “…some of the eeriest, loneliest, and deepest blues sounds ever recorded” (13). James’ musical development was indeed influenced by the presence of blues artists in and around his hometown, and the styles of other Bentonia musicians, notably Jack Owens, are quite similar to that of James in terms of vocal delivery and instrumental technique. However, the idea of region as a overriding force in the creation of blues musical styles, while doubtlessly accountable for certain instrumental and musical consistencies within individual areas of the country, can nonetheless be at least partially discounted by the reality of the early twentieth-century bluesman’s lifestyle. As Stephen Calt describes him, the bluesman of the period was often only a semi-professional performer, playing for a few extra dollars (or sometimes just a hot meal) at juke joints and plantation parties after long days as a sharecropper, timber cutter, or levee worker. Steady jobs were scarce in the South at this time, and men were often forced to travel to wherever work was available, their music accompanying them on their journeys. Therefore, even an isolated “plantation town” like Bentonia was sometimes host to performers from all across the South, and this mobility allowed different blues styles to travel to and influence musicians throughout the region (14). This puts the idea of a wholly unique “Bentonia sound” within the domain of reasonable doubt, and thus the “Bentonian” elements within the music of Owens and others from the region can be regarded not as the manifestation of a regional stylistic phenomenon, but as a conscious emulation of the music of Skip James, which is the only music from the “Bentonia tradition” that has truly endured and which was itself influenced both by the work of migratory musicians like Henry Stuckey and Rich Griffin, and by the influential recordings of performers like Leroy Carr (James himself recorded a memorable version of Carr’s “How Long Blues”). It was James’ unique utilization of the stylistic properties of blues music, rather than the influences of a particular regional style, which gave his work its unparalleled formal distinction, and which made it unmistakably his own.
Outside Looking In: Skip James and the World of the Blues
During the first half of the 20th century, the lyrical and thematic content of blues music was heavily influenced by the socioeconomic realities of the rural South where the music was born. As Giles Oakley explains in the brief social history which commences The Devil’s Music, the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, both intended to finally elevate blacks to equal status within American social and legislative systems, had actually done little to change said status. As the twentieth century dawned, Jim Crow laws were in effect throughout the South, preventing blacks from using numerous public facilities and even from walking the streets after dark. Lynchings were still frighteningly commonplace, and racial hatred, fomented by the Ku Klux Klan, was a harsh reality. As previously mentioned, the demand for cheap manual labor in the unruly turpentine and logging camps, on river levees and on white-owned plantations was erratic, and forced a rootless lifestyle upon many men, who had to travel to find work through which to support their grindingly poor families (15). This drifter’s lifestyle, thrust upon black men by a culture which left them few other opportunities to better themselves, created in many what Alan Lomax described as an “orphaned status”, a feeling that society had left them to fend for themselves in a world ready to reject them (16). Sometimes the frustrations this feeling created within these men were released in bursts of aggression and violence, resulting in the large number of blacks mired within the abysmal Southern prison system and in the frequent murders which occurred at plantation parties and social gatherings when competition for women or “doing the dozens” (an insult game popular among blacks in the early 20th century) went too far. Some indulged in excessive drink, drugs or sex in an effort to forget their troubles. Others, instead of trying to blot out their problems, told the world about them…through music.
The thousands of blues sides recorded during this period of hard times and worse luck are perhaps the single most illuminating extant chronicle of the sociology of postbellum southern blacks. While few recorded blues specifically address the racial hatred of the Klan and white lynch mobs, the institutionally sanctioned persecution of southern blacks is well chronicled within the blues canon, many songs reflecting a world where politicians are hostile, jail time frequent, and the legal and judicial chips stacked against the black man, often implacably:
Now I’m in prison, but I’ve almost did my time,– BIG MACEO, “COUNTY JAIL BLUES” (17)
Now I’m in prison, but I’ve almost did my time,
They give me six months, but I had to work out nine.
The harsh jobs which uneducated blacks were largely confined to also influenced the music in both lyrical content and style. Songs such as Son House’s “Levee Camp Moan”, Mance Lipscomb’s “Captain Captain”, and many others testified to the tough conditions, low pay, and cruel bosses symptomatic of these occupations (18), and the pleading sound of the hollers and work songs used to pass long labor hours are likewise reflected in the vocal styles of many blues singers.
Violence is prevalent in blues just as it was in the lives of those who sang it; the narrators of blues songs frequently carry pistols or razors, the better to properly deal with the men attempting to steal their women, or the women who tempted the men in the first place:
Now I’m going out this morning, forty-five in my hand,– LEROY CARR, “TAKE A WALK AROUND THE CORNER” (19)
Now I’m going out this morning, forty-five in my hand,
Now I’m gonna kill my woman for loving another man…
The necessarily transitory nature of interpersonal relationships in a society of itinerant laborers is reflected both by the dearth of clear-cut “love songs” within the blues canon and by the countless songs about sex, which was often the most involved interaction men and women were able to instigate within such a society. The sexual content within these songs is frequently handled through the usage of clever euphemisms which are simultaneously explicit and abstract, further illustrating the essential unknowability of the opposite sex to many of the blues performers of the period:
Now I ain’t no plumber, no plumber’s son,– BO CARTER, “ALL AROUND MAN” (20)
I can do your screwing till the plumber man comes…
One aspect of sexual relations the bluesmen knew all too well was the danger inherent in such intimacies; many of these men had painful first-hand knowledge not only of the violence wrought by vengeful lovers but also of venereal diseases such as syphilis, which heavily affected the black community at the time (21). Songs about drink and drugs are frequent as well, and the blues narrator can often be found drinking to forget his troubles or the lover who abandoned him:
I’m so glad good whiskey have come back in time– PEETIE WHEATSTRAW, “MORE GOOD WHISKEY BLUES” (22)
Well now I’m so glad good whiskey have come back in time
Because now I drink so much hooch, Ooo well well, I’m bound to lose my mind…
As a result of their origins in the South, which was at the time still heavily dependent on agriculture for its economic livelihood, the blues songs from this period have a distinctly rural cast, with many tunes about farming, animals, and the wide-open qualities of a rural lifestyle. The songs also address subjects unique to the early 1900s South, such as the government relief and work programs designed to aid the poor during the Depression, sung about in Peetie Wheatstraw’s “Working on the Project” and others, and also some of the problems unique to an agricultural lifestyle, such as the floods which plagued the economically vital southern riverways (Charlie Patton sang about a particularly devastating 1927 flood in the two-part “High Water Everywhere” ). Finally, and most notably, the blues offer stinging testimony of the solitude and hopelessness which was often a fact of life for an uneducated black man forced to live life on the move, looking for unsteady jobs, leaving behind families or lovers and drifting through towns full of strangers like a ghost, leaving behind nothing tangible to mark his passage. The language of the blues is the language of worry, fear, and lost or forsaken love, perfectly illustrating the socially estranged situation the southern black found himself trapped in during the early twentieth century:
I’m a stranger here, just blowed in your town,– BLIND BOY FULLER, “I’M A STRANGER HERE”
Yeah, I’m a stranger here, just blowed in your town,
But just because I’m a stranger, Ever’body wants to dog me ’round…
The frequently solitary nature of this itinerant lifestyle drove many blues performers of the period to look inward for compositional inspiration, and as a result, their lyrics are often heavily autobiographical. The hardscrabble laborer’s life sung about in countless blues had usually been experienced firsthand by the musicians, who performed primarily on camps and plantations where they worked during the day. Leadbelly and Bukka White, among many others, had done time in prisons throughout the South for various crimes, and they lamented these experiences in songs like White’s “Parchman Farm Blues” (24) and Leadbelly’s “Governor Pat Neff,” a song which actually helped the performer receive a pardon from prison in Texas. Many bluesmen celebrated their hometowns in songs such as Mississippi John Hurt’s “Avalon Blues” (25), and these “home songs” are often tinged with a forlorn sense of yearning, being sung by men who had abandoned these towns for the migratory life of the worker, and who missed their homes and families. More often than not, the lost loves hailed or eulogized in blues lyrics were real people rather than mere poetic devices, and some lyricists even used real names within their songs, perhaps intending them as last-ditch attempts to regain these loves. Many of the tales of financial woe, disease, persecution, and violence found throughout early Southern blues lyrics are drawn from actual events in the performers’ lives as well. The autobiographical quality of blues lyrics betrays the inherent anonymity of the folk ballad, but it is this very specificity, with each blues song providing a piercing X-ray glimpse into the personality of the individual who wrote and performed it, that allows blues music to achieve much of its power and distinction.
The lyrics of Skip James are unique in that they deal with sociology and autobiography from a frame of mind that can best be characterized, in relation to other blues music of the period, as atypically ambivalent. Like many bluesmen, James had traveled the South looking for work, and spent time as a sharecropper, road worker, and timber cutter. However, these experiences, so richly prevalent within the music of other performers, are seldom referenced within the James discography. One exception is “Illinois Blues,” a song about a Pelahatchee lumber camp where James once worked (26) which, in addition to speaking about James’ lumber-cutting days, also features an offhand reference to his experiences as a sharecropper:
Gin my cotton and sell my seed,(27)
Gonna give my baby everything she need…
However, “Illinois Blues” does not dwell on the specifics of labor conditions either on the camp or the plantation as many other performers were wont to do, instead alluding to camp life and cotton picking in such an oblique fashion that one who did not know otherwise could conclude that James may have never actually worked on a camp or plantation himself. The cotton-ginning reference in “Illinois Blues” notwithstanding, James’ music is also notable for its lack of specifically rural thematic elements. There are a few James songs that reflect roots in an agricultural milieu, principally “If You Haven’t Any Hay Get On Down the Road” and “Little Cow and Calf Is Gonna Die Blues,” which also includes a mention of the river levees on which James had worked in New Albany, Mississippi:
I walked the levees from end to end,(28)
I was just tryin’ to find my calf again…
However, even when James gets rural as he does on these two songs, he defuses any feeling of down-home authenticity his lyrics are able to conjure by performing the songs on piano, an instrument not usually associated with the country blues sound.
There is also little within James’ lyrics that connotes a specifically black milieu of origin. “What Am I To Do Blues”, “Four O’Clock Blues,” and a small number of other tunes mention “brownskin women” in various contexts, and there is some usage within the lyrics of slang terms common among southern blacks of the period. James is also unafraid to draw on the lyrical traditions of black music by utilizing phrases and verses from the “storehouse” of black musical phraseology; “I’m gonna sing this verse, ain’t gonna sing no more”, “shoot my baby just to see her fall”, and other common pieces of blues terminology pop up frequently throughout James’ music (the usage of these phrases, in fact, constitutes perhaps the most concrete link between James and the rest of the early twentieth-century blues musical tradition). “If You Haven’t Any Hay” even contains a reference to lynching (“If I go to Louisiana, mama, lord God / they’ll hang me sure”), a commonly held and frequently justified fear of blacks who found themselves in unfamiliar Southern communities (29). However, these elements seem more like token adornments than like essential cornerstones of the songs’ emotional or thematic construction.
Of course, James did experience the hardships of the Depression as he traveled, witnessing the abject poverty which people were being subjected to by the country’s economic free-fall, and he sang of the hopelessness that such hardship had inspired in “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues,” perhaps the only overt piece of social commentary in the James musical repertoire (30):
Well the people are driftin’ from door to door
Can’t find no heaven, I don’t care where they go…
Many James songs also feature references to “ramblin'” and the rootless lifestyle which many black men were forced to adopt in order to survive, and which played the primary role in the creation of the southern black’s “honorary orphan” status:
I’ve been to the Indian nation, and I’ve been to the territo’– “HARD LUCK CHILD” (31)
I’ve been to the nation, I’ve been to the territo’
And I’m a hard luck child, catch the devil everywhere I go…
However, the very complexities of James’ music, which is generally more intricate than that of his contemporaries, casts suspicion on the validity of the social commentary present within the songs by making them feel more like the intellectually approached and crafted work of a skilled composer than like pieces of unpolished, sincere social comment ripped straight from the songwriter’s soul. James always regarded himself as something of an outcast, both in the musical sphere and the world at large, and his songs’ detached presentation of the social issues of the period illustrates his outsider’s attitude, the despair and harshness of the lives of southern blacks as commonly expressed in the blues being muted by James’ ambivalent perspective on his own cultural and racial milieu.
The autobiographical content of Skip James’ music is also limited, at least insofar as the specific events of James’ life are concerned. Bentonia is never mentioned in his songs, and little is said about other places in which he had lived, “Illinois Blues” being a rare exception. The vagueness of the songs’ geographical sense reinforces the idea of James as an outsider, and makes the aimless drifting common of the blues song’s narrator even more direct and vivid within the music. Most of James’ lyrics are oddly generic, seeming like they could be drawn from the experiences of virtually any bluesman (the heavy usage of lyrics from the “storehouse” also helps to account for this). James’ songs discuss sexual and violent activities with a detached impersonality reinforced by his austere, almost inhuman vocals, and there is no usage of the names of real people, save for his own name, “Nehemiah,” which shows up in “What Am I To Do Blues” and “Special Rider Blues,” and that of his second wife Lorenzo, who is described in most unflattering terms in the otherwise commonplace “Lorenzo Blues”. Nonetheless, there are a few songs in the James repertoire which draw inspiration from his personal experiences. As previously mentioned, “Illinois Blues” was occasioned by James’ stint at a lumber camp. It was while James was working on this camp that he first shot a man, an event which was to resonate throughout both his life and his music (32). “Washington D.C. Hospital Center Blues” is a post-rediscovery James tune inspired by his stints in various hospitals when he was sick with cancer (James was in Tunica County Hospital when he was rediscovered in 1964), and the song drips with the pain and loneliness of illness, something James was quite familiar with during the last years of his life (33):
In a hospital, Lord, in Washington, D.C.,
I didn’t have nobody to see about me…
“Devil Got My Woman,” the first song James ever recorded, also possesses autobiographical connotations, though admittedly of a somewhat more tangential nature. Early in his life, James had been married to a minister’s daughter named Oscella Robinson, who eventually left him for a close friend of his. This loss devastated James, who toyed with thoughts of suicide, and it contributed to the misogyny that pervaded his life and infests his lyrics. Although James wrote “Devil” before his entanglement with Robinson, both he and his fellow Bentonians came to associate the song with Robinson, whom James later described as “…so contentious, unruly, and hard to get along with, I compared her to the devil, one of his agencies” (34). These references notwithstanding, the bulk of James’ lyrical work is curiously anonymous in construction, idiom and theme, much of the songs’ distinctiveness instead being provided by the artist’s particular instrumental style and vocal delivery.
However, this description of James’ lyrics does not do adequate justice to one of the most idiosyncratic discographies in the blues, a repertoire unique not just in style, but in attitude as well. The qualities that make the music of Skip James stand out within the rich lode of early twentieth-century blues recordings were not merely the result of musical iconoclasm or sociological ambivalence, but were in fact largely derived from James’ singular and bizarre personality. Here was a man driven by elitism and deep-seated resentments, who worshipped the power of both the gun and the cross, and who feared nothing but death. Skip James was never analyzed by a certified psychologist, and it is therefore unknown whether or not he actually suffered from some form of mental illness, but his peculiar behavior and grim personal philosophy marked him as a profoundly troubled individual, and stand as reasonable indication of a possible psychological disorder. These mental difficulties may have created impairments in Skip James’ abilities to deal reasonably with the world around him, but they became the bedrock of the music that has made his name endure.
“Messiah of the Doomed”: The Psychology of Skip James (35)
In numerous ways, James’ life and music were influenced, and in many instances dictated, by his cancerous paranoia, virulent mistrusts that extended to virtually all of humanity. James’ deepest misgivings were directed against women, whom he believed were “insidious creatures against whom it was necessary to protect oneself by cauterizing feeling” (36). James felt it was his responsibility to “educate” men about the dangers of female companionship (in addition to the Oscella Robinson situation, there was also James’ shooting, at the lumber camp referred to in “Illinois Blues,” which had been the result of a dispute over a woman), and his lyrics are full of misogynistic language and homicidal impulses directed toward women. In addition to “Devil Got My Woman,” there are several James songs alluding to the heartlessness of the female sex, including “Cypress Grove Blues,” in which James states “I would rather be buried in some cypress grove / than to have some woman, Lord, that I can’t control” (37) and “D.C. Hospital Center,” featuring a “damsel” who “couldn’t understand,” and who forsakes the narrator in his darkest hour of illness. Although there are no known acts of violence against women on James’ personal record, several of his songs foreground the shooting of women, the killings described notable largely for the lack of remorse they elicit in the murderers. “22-20 Blues” is about a firearm the narrator is planning to use on his woman, to “cut her half in two”, and also present within the James discography is a version of “Crow Jane”, a traditional blues in which the narrator shoots the title character “just to see her fall”. While part of the music’s misogyny stems from James’ own experiences, and from the general detachment from the opposite sex experienced by all black itinerant workers of the period, there was likely a hatred of women, rooted in James’ off-kilter psychology, which accounts for these lyrics.
Oddly, although James’ songs feature few acts of violence directed toward men, in life he was unafraid of violence, frequently armed, and willing to “pop” anyone who got in his way. The shootings James committed during his lifetime (details on these shootings are sketchy at best, though it is known that more than one did occur) were marked by a frightening coldness and pragmatism, as he never let his intentions be known to his adversaries until the lead was flying (38). James believed violence was essential equipment for survival, and he often spoke of how it should be used to discipline women and children. In his later years, the increasingly paranoid James entertained fantasies about his own death, which usually involved a cataclysmic shoot-out with the police. “If you kill somebody,” James once said, “you know you got to keep on killin’ till you get killed” (39). This resigned, fatalistic attitude about the necessity and inevitability of violence is writ large within James’ grim, near-nihilistic music.
Another paranoia which affected James’ work was his mistrust of other blues musicians, who he once referred to as a “barrel of crabs,” pulling anyone who reached the top of the barrel back down, rather than let him get free to achieve success without them. When other bluesmen watched James perform, he would alter his playing style to keep the secrets of his unique sound concealed from their eyes (40), and this may have resulted in the speed and frenetic quality of some of his pieces, such as the lightning-fast “I’m So Glad” and the jagged “22-20 Blues.” He was never forthcoming with information about other musicians, and when he did speak of them, he seldom had a kind word to say, instead using the opportunity to praise himself at their expense. James also felt contempt for fans of the “folk movement” who attended his late-period performances. As previously stated, James hoped his music would “deaden the minds” of his listeners, and this is reflected in the pitch-dark feel of his best tunes, a combination of vocals and music so oppressively sad that once during the Depression, James was paid by several people on a public street to stop playing, because he was depressing them even more than the Depression already had (41). James’ ambivalence about the emotional reactions of his audience was clear during the folk-circuit days. Unlike the other performers on these tours, James would not associate with his fellow musicians or with the fans, instead keeping himself remote and aloof. This condescending attitude is reflected both in the notably basic repertoire of his later years, which implies that he felt his audience deserved no better than the most rudimentary and tradition-bound music, and in the simplification of his piano style, which bears none of its early fire and imagination. James’ paranoia and fear of relationships, which did not fade with time or personal familiarity, is concomitant with the social anxieties that strike many people afflicted with mental disorders, notably those affected by schizotypal personality disorder (42), a disease which James manifested several symptoms of during his lifetime. Knowledge of James’ alienations makes the loneliness and hatred of others that permeate his music much more authentic to the listener, and thus that much more disturbing.
In addition to his self-imposed isolation from interpersonal relationships, James also alienated himself on an intra-racial level, cutting himself off from the strong kinship fostered by American blacks. After the Civil War, many blacks attempted to assimilate into white culture, forsaking their African and African-American heritage, which they openly disparaged as primitive. In the eyes of many blacks, it became shameful to be black, and this denouncement of negritude contributed to the country’s already intense racism (43). James’ separation of himself from the fellowship of his race thus has cultural roots, but the bulk of these sentiments seemed to have been born from James’ own iconoclastic, mistrustful mindset. James had experienced racial prejudice throughout his life, but to him, this was never due to his color, but to personal animosities which his persecutors held against him. Since the majority of James’ enemies had been black, he harbored intense anger toward other members of his own race. To James, the word “nigger” was not a signifier of color, but of personality, of “mean disposition and dirty ideas,” and because of his integrity (James’ own word), he actually saw himself as an honorary white man, trapped in a black skin and defending himself against “niggers” out to get him (44). This self-imposed racial alienation has roots in James’ paranoia and is reflected in the dearth of specific racial identity markers within the lyrical content of his music.
James’ life was clearly a marked study in contrasts, and the most notable by far was the relentless clash between his fundamentalist religious faith and the amoralities which frequently plagued the lifestyle of the typical blues performer of the period. James was a man attracted to fast living, and he, like many other bluesmen of his day, spent time as a pimp and bootlegger. These vocations naturally drew him into violent situations, as his shootings attest to. However, buried within this raucous, devil-may-care petty criminality were intensely religious sentiments that caused James much anxiety when he weighed them against the circumstances of his life. James was not unique in suffering this crisis of conscience, as the religion / amorality dichotomy was one that affected many blues musicians. The early African-American church actively preached against blues, calling it the “devil’s music” and citing the violence, promiscuity, and drunkenness common at juke joints and house frolics where the music was performed as evidence of its corrupting influence. By providing the impetus for sinfulness and encouraging people to dance (another act viewed by the early church as evil), bluesmen were branded as children of the devil who had forsaken God for the evanescent allure of earthly pleasure (45). James once stated a belief that before God cast Lucifer into Hell, he sent him and several other angels to earth with the explicit purpose of bringing sin to mankind (46). James therefore saw sin as an inescapable facet of human nature ordained by God, and thus seldom expressed remorse for specific acts of cruelty or violence he committed during his life, as within his philosophy, these actions were merely ways of acting upon the nature of man. Despite a belief system that all but condoned sinful activities as the work of God, James was nonetheless torn between the faith and his music, and for a time, faith won out. James’ father, himself a bootlegger and guitarist in his early life, later became a minister, and James sought him out after his abortive attempt at recorded musical success in the early ’30s. For a time, James, like fellow musicians Ishmon Bracey and Thomas Dorsey, became an ordained minister, and he did not perform blues professionally for thirty years, instead putting his musical gifts to service as the leader of a gospel quartet in his father’s church (47).
However, various factors served to keep James’ moral conflicts alive. He still found himself drawn to alcohol, women, and blues during his time with the church, and though he seldom played blues during this period, the music’s influence was still present in his life due to the stylistic idioms of the gospel songs he performed. Gospel, sometimes called “the stepchild of blues,” had evolved from the same slave spirituals that had spawned blues music, and though the church officially denounced blues, its syntax was nonetheless present in the call-and-response style and dramatic vocal inflections of the gospel songs performed during African-American worship services (48), thus allowing James to retain his familiarity with blues stylistic modes throughout his conversion period.
Another factor contributing to James’ moral ambiguity was his continuing belief in folk religions and the power of magic (odd or socially unacceptable beliefs are another symptom of schizotypal disorder ). James once said, ” I learned to sit under the feets of people who are styled as gazers” (50), and he always harbored a belief in voodoo, a religion which contained roots of the African-American church that later preached against it, and which appealed to blues musicians in its promise of power and invulnerability to those who practiced it (51). Also unusual was James’ preaching, relying as it did on the stern proclamations of the Old Testament. This style was out of step with the more uplifting, New Testament-derived preaching that was popular at the time, but it was certainly a more accurate reflection of James’ doom-laden philosophy of life. Eventually, the lure of the blues became too strong, and James returned to music. The constant battle within James between religion and the blues, and by implication between God and the devil, is present within his music, particularly the post-rediscovery recordings, in several ways. James’ hiatus from blues did adversely affect his playing, and the post-rediscovery work, while competent and often commanding, lacks the rough intensity James musters in the early recordings (this can also, of course, be considered a by-product of James’ illness and advancing age). Also, while James uses his given name, “Nehemiah,” in numerous early songs, he does not refer to himself as “Skip” within his music until after the rediscovery (the line “You can go home now, Skip / you a sound well man” appears in the late-period “D.C. Hospital Center Blues”), signifying the victory of “Skip” the bluesman over “Nehemiah” the preacher of God. The faith was never totally gone from James’ heart, however; after his rediscovery, he began all of his performances with a spiritual, and he always performed this style of song with striking sincerity, even at his 1931 recording session. Perhaps the most telling musical illustration of James’ secular-religious conflict is 1931’s “Be Ready When He Comes.” The song is a warning to people who stray from God, dancing, reveling, and “raisin’ up judgment,” that Jesus will one day come to save men’s souls. James was no stranger to the lifestyle spoken of in this song, and these lyrics can be interpreted as a warning to himself as much as to the song’s listeners.
These secular-religious conflicts informed as well on the other central contradiction present within the life of Skip James. Skip was a man full of hubris and bravado. He was fond of describing himself as “one of the best men who ever walked” (52), and often praised his own music while running other blues performers into the ground. He believed his music was “absolutely gonna stand” the test of time, and even went as far as to wear a tuxedo to performances at ramshackle coffeehouses in the 1960s (53). However, these kind of bold, arrogant attitudes often speak of deep insecurities within those who express them. James, a man who had spent most of his life as an itinerant worker and who had almost nothing tangible to show for his labor, was no exception. His music notwithstanding, he was a person of extremely limited accomplishment, and this likely accounts for his excessive building up of himself. The refrain of “D.C. Hospital Center” states “I’m a good man, but I’m a poor man, you understand”. These words seem intended more to convince James than his listeners of his worth, and can be read as a desperate, searching question posed to anyone who will listen. James’ insecurities, intense as they were, were not wholly unwarranted. Indeed, had it not been for his 1931 recordings, he would likely have faded into complete obscurity, with nothing left behind upon his death to indicate he had even been alive.
As his numerous violent encounters and generally contentious personality indicate, Skip James did not harbor much fear of others. With a cold, unthinkingly ambivalent attitude, he mistreated women, shot men who crossed him, and stood up to whites who called him “nigger,” a suicidal action in the Jim Crow South (54). James also possessed pitiless confidence in his musical ability and knowledge, disparaging the work of other musicians and smugly lecturing audiences at his later performances about musical styles and mechanics. These actions indicate a man who lived life according to his own callous, selfish design, and who utterly disregarded the desires of others or the standards of society. However, the music of Skip James also blatantly reflects the one great fear that marked his existence: the possibility of dying before receiving the opportunity to make peace with God. While on his deathbed, James denounced his past, acknowledging the “sinful” nature of blues music and announcing that he would perform only spirituals if God would let him live (55). It was a last-ditch attempt for James to reconcile his past with his faith, and to enter the afterlife with a clean conscience. This fear of damnation creates an undertow of anxiety that is manifested throughout James’ music, from the plaintive vocals of “Devil Got My Woman” (“I laid down last night, tried to take my rest / My mind got to ramblin’, like the wild geese from the West”) to the dirge-like melody of “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” to “Be Ready When He Comes,” a song which directly addresses the necessity of making peace with the Lord. Although few of these songs are directly connected to ideas of death, the grim melancholia of James’ music reflects a dark knowledge that sin, be it through promiscuity, violence, or performance of “the devil’s music,” will lead to eternal suffering unless one reconciles with God before death. James was never able to entirely resolve his own moral conflicts, and therefore he may have felt that the vengeance he so desperately feared and which was so incisively reflected in his music was to be visited upon him in the afterlife by a displeased God. However, in a way, this very vengeance would prove that James’ musical message had not been delivered in vain, and would therefore validate his life as a blues singer, which had provided this message to the world. James himself was likely aware of this, and therefore his statement that his music was “absolutely gonna stand” and his absolute confidence in the quality of his compositions may have been based less on bravado and more on a belief that by sharing his personal conflicts and the importance of spiritual equilibrium with others through his music, James was performing a sort of holy work, a valuable service that would outweigh the sins of his past and earn him the seat in heaven that he so desperately coveted.
Skip James’ strikingly singular music was a product of his surroundings, musical iconoclasm, and bizarre psychology. The standard 12-bar blues format and rough Mississippi rhythms were forsaken by James, who, despite the influence of local musicians and blues tradition, created a haunting style that made his music unique. James also rejected many of the sociological and personal themes of typical blues lyrics, instead presenting an ambivalent view of society and his own life which attested to his detachment and outsider status. All of these influences were themselves affected by the damaged psychology of James, a man whose paranoia and misogyny spawned edgy, violent songs that rejected society, race, and gender roles, and whose life was a constant battle between the influence of the church and the dangerous blues lifestyle, a battle which James never resolved and which lent his music its distinctive anxiety and fearful pleading for peace in the next world. The life of Skip James was not a happy one, but the sadnesses and angers that fueled his existence were distilled into his music, allowing him to create accomplished, emotionally deveastating work that will let his name live on, even if his life, in his own eyes, was something of a failure.
“It’s just Skip’s music…I don’t sing other people’s songs. I don’t sing other people’s voices. I can’t.”– SKIP JAMES (56)
In preparation for writing this essay, three individuals provided assistance which was crucial to the development of the final product. Prof. Philip Smith was kind enough to record for me a large number of Skip James’ songs, which are generally hard to come by in your average neighborhood record store, and which were instrumental to the development of the paper’s perspective. Singer / guitarist Ernie Hawkins demonstrated the “Bentonia tuning” for me, and thus gave me an invaluable first-hand idea of the sound of Skip James, and the effect it can create in a listener. And my sister, Shannon Malone, B.S. Psychology, University of Pittsburgh, provided much insight into the psychology of Skip James, and, based on information provided by me, helped me to arrive at the “diagnosis” reached in the essay. My thanks go out to all three of them for their assistance.
1. Julio Finn. The Bluesman. New York: Interlink Books, 1986, p. 192.
2. David Harrison. Blues: A Photographic Documentary. New York: Crescent Books, 1997, p. 13-14.
3. Robert M. Baker. “A Brief History of the Blues”. Available on the Blue Highway website at www.thebluehighway.com/history.html
4. Keith Shadwick. The Illustrated Story of Jazz. New York: Crescent Books, 1991, p. 61.
5. Stephen Calt. I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994, p. 89.
6. Ibid, p. 88-90.
7. Giles Oakley, The Devil’s Music: A History of the Blues. New York: Da Capo Press, 1997, p. 142.
8. Calt, p. 30.
9. Ibid, p. 144-145.
10. Ibid, p. 100.
11. Mark Humphrey. Devil Got My Woman: Blues at Newport 1966. Booklet accompanying video of the same title, released by Vestapol Productions, a division of Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, Inc. 1996.
12. Stephen Calt. Liner notes accompanying The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James. Released by Yazoo Records, circa 1994.
13. Robert Palmer. Deep Blues. New York: Penguin Books, 1987, p. 117.
14. Calt, Da Capo, p. 210-211.
15. Oakley, p. 9-11.
16. Alan Lomax. The Land Where the Blues Began. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993, p. 362.
17. Paul Oliver. Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues. London: Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 202.
18. Eric Sackheim. The Blues Line. Hopewell, N.J.: The Ecco Press, 1993, p. 135.
19. Ibid, p. 384.
20. Ibid, p. 170.
21. Oliver, p. 175.
22. Sackheim, p. 394.
23. Bekker, Peter O.E. The Story of the Blues. New York: Friedman/Fairfax Publishers, 1994, p. 28.
24. Humphrey, p. 17-18.
25. Bekker, p. 28.
26. Calt, Da Capo, p. 57-58.
27. Robert Macleod. Yazoo 21-83. Edinburgh: Pat Publications, 1990, p. 416.
28. Ibid, p. 409.
29. Ibid, p. 407.
30. Calt, Da Capo, p. 118.
31. MacLeod, p. 408.
32. Calt, Da Capo, p. 59.
33. Humphrey, p. 14.
34. Calt, Da Capo, p. 109-111.
35. Harrison, p. 31.
36. Calt, Da Capo, p. 53.
37. Sackheim, p. 177.
38. Calt, Da Capo, p. 49, 60.
39. Ibid, p. 335.
40. Ibid, p. 18.
41. Ibid, p. 17.
42. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fourth Edition). Edited by the members of the American Psychiatric Association. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1994, p. 645.
43. Finn, p. 122.
44. Calt, Da Capo, p. 28.
45. Finn, p. 144-145.
46. Jon Michael Spencer. Blues and Evil. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993, p. 18.
47. Calt, Da Capo, p. 189, 191-193.
48. Bekker, p. 15, 17.
49. DSM-IV, p. 645.
50. Calt, Da Capo, 284.
51. Finn, p. 117, 145.
52. Calt, Da Capo, p. 157.
53. Bruce Cook. Listen to the Blues. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973, p. 80.
54. Calt, Da Capo, p. 49-50.
55. Ibid, p. 345.
56. Sackheim, p. 466.
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Robert Johnson. The Complete Recordings. Released by Columbia/Legacy, Roots ‘N’ Blues Series. 1990.
Devil Got My Woman: Blues at Newport, 1966. Released by Vestapol Productions, a division of Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, Inc. 1996.