Skip James’ Illinois Blues

By Mike Greenblatt

There’s a reason why the records of the legendary Skip James are so rare. His output for Paramount didn’t sell so the label stopped releasing them. The songs that were already on record have been ravaged by the insidious nature of time itself so that should one actually be found, it probably wouldn’t be in any condition to be played. Still, this is a man who lived long enough to enjoy the fruits of success and adulation during the 1960s folk and blues boom on college campuses nationwide and on the festival circuit.

Then in 2015, Tennessee record researcher Mark Carlton stumbled upon a huge discovery:  the fourth known existing copy of Paramount #13072, a 78 rpm single by Skip James with “Illinois Blues” on one side and “Yola My Blues Away” on the other. Sure, it was battered and beaten into submission by every decade since its inception but with new technology now available, its restoration was complete, thus it made the 2017 Blues Images Calendar CD.

Singer/Songwriter/Guitarist/Pianist/Preacher Skip James was born Nehemiah Curtis James on June 9, 1902, in Bentonia, Mississippi. He died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on October 3, 1969 at the age of 67. After making a series of sides for Paramount in 1931, he drifted into obscurity, partly because the great depression robbed him of his audience. Thirty-three years later, in 1964, he was rediscovered lying ill in a Tunica, MS hospital bed by three blues archeologists including Henry Vestine of the band Canned Heat and folk guitarist John Fahey. He was quickly hustled up to that year’s Newport Folk Festival where he was a sensation. It is said that his re-emergence on the scene, coupled with the simultaneous rediscovery of Son House (1902-1988), was what led to the folk-blues boom.

As more and more musicians heard his music, they added to his growing legend by recording his songs. Cream and Deep Purple covered his “I’m So Glad.” Beck, in 1994, covered “He’s A Mighty Good Leader.” Gregg Allman, in 2011, covered “Devil Got My Woman.” The Coen Brothers used his “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” in their 2000 film “O Brother, Where Art Thou.” Other artists who have sung the songs of Skip James include Bonnie Raitt, Nick Cave, James “Blood” Ulmer, T Bone Burnett, Los Lobos, Lou Reed and Lucinda Williams. Seventeen albums have since been released under his name (or with tracks by him on Various-Artists compilations) since 1964, the latest of which came in 2005 on the Yazoo label (“Hard Time Killing Floor”).

John Tefteller, of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records, had the following to say about Skip James. “Oh man,” enthused one of the foremost collectors of rare sides, “Skip only made about nine records, all certifiable masterpieces. Upon being rediscovered in the ‘60s, I remember I sold a beat-up copy with a crack in it to another collector for $12,000.”

“Don’t you think you took advantage of the poor guy?”

“Heck no, he offered it and was thrilled he got it!”

Apparently, according to Tefteller, there’s a lot of demand for Skip James records because they hardly ever show up, if at all, at any of the sales. “It’s been that for about 10 years now,” adds Tefteller. “That guy was so pleased because in 25 years of looking for records, he finally found a Skip James to own!

“Champion Records pressed some copies that, if you can find them, for a little less than 10 grand, but most of them got destroyed.”

Still, the question remains, why are they so sought after?

“Skip James had a very haunting voice and a very unique tuning on his guitar. Plus, the way he played it was like he was attacking the guitar. There are film clips of him from the ‘60s taken at the Newport Folk Festival. He was ill, had cancer, but he played, boy, he played.

“If anybody out there owns any Skip James records,” concludes Tefteller, “I’ll buy them. And I’ll pay big.” 

About Mike Greenblatt

A longtime music journalist, Mike Greenblatt is a contributing editor with Goldmine magazine.

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