His guitar playing is noted for its dark, minor-key sound, played in an open D-minor tuning with an intricate fingerpicking technique. James first recorded for Paramount Records in 1931, but these recordings sold poorly, having been released during the Great Depression, and he drifted into obscurity.
After a long absence from the public eye, James was "rediscovered" in 1964 by blues enthusiasts, helping further the blues and folk music revival of the 1950s and early 1960s. During this period, James appeared at folk and blues festivals, gave concerts around the country and recorded several albums for various record labels. His songs have influenced generations of musicians and have been adapted by numerous artists. He has been hailed as "one of the seminal figures of the blues."
James was born near Bentonia, Mississippi. His father was a bootlegger who reformed and became a preacher. As a youth, James heard local musicians, such as Henry Stuckey, from whom he learned to play the guitar, and the brothers Charlie and Jesse Sims. James began playing the organ in his teens. He worked on road construction and levee-building crews in Mississippi in the early 1920s and wrote what is perhaps his earliest song, "Illinois Blues", about his experiences as a laborer. He began playing the guitar in open D-minor tuning.
In early 1931, James auditioned for the record shop owner and talent scout H. C. Speir in Jackson, Mississippi. Speir placed blues performers with various record labels, including Paramount Records. On the strength of this audition, James traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin, to record for Paramount. His 1931 records are considered idiosyncratic among prewar blues recordings and formed the basis of his reputation as a musician.
As was typical of his era, James recorded various styles of music - blues, spirituals, cover versions and original compositions - frequently blurring the lines between genres and sources. For example, "I'm So Glad" was derived from a 1927 song, "So Tired", by Art Sizemore and George A. Little, recorded in 1928 by Gene Austin and by Lonnie Johnson (Johnson's version was entitled "I'm So Tired of Livin' All Alone"). James's biographer Stephen Calt, echoing the opinion of several music critics, considered the finished product totally original, "one of the most extraordinary examples of fingerpicking found in guitar music". Several other recordings from the Grafton session, such as "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues", "Devil Got My Woman", "Jesus Is a Mighty Good Leader", and "22-20 Blues" (the basis of Robert Johnson's better-known "32-20 Blues"), have been similarly influential. Very few original copies of James's Paramount 78 rpm records have survived.
The Great Depression struck just as James's recordings were hitting the market. Sales were poor as a result, and he gave up performing the blues to become the choir director in his father's church. James was later an ordained minister in Baptist and Methodist churches, but the extent of his involvement in religious activities is unknown.
For the next thirty years, James recorded nothing and performed sporadically. He was virtually unknown to listeners until about 1960. In 1964, blues enthusiasts John Fahey, Bill Barth, and Henry Vestine found him in a hospital in Tunica, Mississippi. According to Calt, the "rediscovery" of both James and Son House at virtually the same time was the start of the blues revival in the United States. In July 1964 James and other rediscovered musicians appeared at the Newport Folk Festival. Several photographs by the blues promoter Dick Waterman captured this performance, James's first in over 30 years. After that James recorded for Takoma Records, Melodeon Records, and Vanguard Records and performed at various engagements until his death in 1969.
More of James's recordings have been available since his death than were available during his lifetime. His 1931 recordings and several of his recordings and concerts from the 1960s have been reissued on numerous compact discs, in and out of print. His songs were not initially recorded as frequently as those of other rediscovered blues musicians. However, the British rock band Cream recorded "I'm So Glad", providing James with the only windfall of his career. Subsequently, Cream's adaptation was recorded by other groups. James' "22-20" inspired for the name for the English group 22-20s and the British post-rock band Hope of the States released a song partially about the life of James, entitled "Nehemiah", which reached number 30 on the UK Singles Chart.
In 2004, Wim Wenders directed the film The Soul of a Man (the second part of The Blues, a series produced by Martin Scorsese), focusing on the music of Blind Willie Johnson, J.B. Lenoir and James. Because James had not been not filmed before the 1960s, Keith B. Brown played the part of the young James in the documentary.
James was described as aloof and moody. The musicologist Dick Spottswood commented, "Skip James, you never knew. Skip could be sunshine, or thunder and lightning depending on his whim of the moment".
James often played guitar with an open D-minor tuning (D-A-D-F-A-D), resulting in the "deep" sound of the 1931 recordings. He reportedly learned this tuning from his musical mentor, the unrecorded bluesman Henry Stuckey, who in turn was said to have acquired it from Bahamian soldiers during the First World War, despite the fact that his service card shows he did not serve overseas. Robert Johnson also recorded in this tuning, his "Hell Hound on My Trail" being based on James's "Devil Got My Woman." James's classically informed fingerpicking style was fast and clean, using the entire register of the guitar, with heavy, hypnotic bass lines. His style of playing had more in common with the Piedmont blues of the East Coast than with the Delta blues of his native Mississippi.
James is sometimes associated with the Bentonia School, which is either a subgenre of blues music or a style of playing it. Calt, in his 1994 biography of James, I'd Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues, maintained that no style of blues originated in Bentonia and that the "Bentonia School" is simply a notion of later blues writers who overestimated the provinciality of Mississippi during the early 20th century, when railways linked small towns, and who failed to see that in the case of Jack Owens, "the 'tradition' he bore primarily consisted of musical scraps from James' table". Owens and other musicians who may have been contemporaries of James were not recorded until the revival of interest in blues music in the 1960s. Whether the work of these musicians constituted a "school" and whether James originated it or was a member of it remain open questions.
|"Cherry Ball Blues"||"Hard Time Killing Floor Blues"|
|"22-20 Blues"||"If You Haven't Any Hay Get on Down the Road"|
|"Illinois Blues"||"Yola My Blues Away"|
|"How Long 'Buck'"||"Little Cow and Calf Is Gonna Die Blues"|
|"Devil Got My Woman"||"Cypress Grove Blues"|
|"I'm So Glad"||"Special Rider Blues"|
|"Four O'Clock Blues"||"Hard Luck Child"|
|"Jesus Is a Mighty Good Leader"||"Be Ready When He Comes"|
|"Drunken Spree"||"What Am I to Do"|
Despite poor health, James recorded several LPs from 1964 to 1969, mostly revisiting his 1931 sides, traditional music, and spirituals, but also including a handful of newly written blues meditating on his illness and convalescence. These five prolific years have not been thoroughly documented: recordings, outtakes, and interviews not released on James's LPs (which have been repeatedly cannibalized and reissued) are scattered among many compilations released by small labels. Previously unreleased performances continue to be found and released but have been left largely unexplained--sometimes hours' worth at a time. Original recordings and reissues are listed below.