Mississippi-born blues legend Nehemiah “Skip” James (1902-1969) was one of the great success stories of the late ’50s and ’60s folk and blues revival. Though he made his first recordings in 1931 for Paramount (18 sides), he had little commercial success in that era, and spent most of the next three decades working as the choir director in his father’s church, then as an ordained minister himself.
By the close of the 1950s, however, James’ original 78s were gaining popularity among a new generation of young (overwhelmingly white) musicians and record collectors who were looking back to the music of the ’20s and ’30s for a power and authenticity that was sorely missing from the tame popular music that dominated America in the 1950s. Then, in 1964, he was “found” in Mississippi by guitarists (and record collectors) John Fahey, Bill Barth, and Henry Vestine—later of Canned Heat—and they convinced James to appear at the Newport Folk Festival in July ’64, launching a career renaissance that would last until his death from cancer in 1969. During those five years, he toured and recorded (including an album for Fahey’s Takoma Records label), and the band Cream cut his song “I’m So Glad” for their 1966 debut album, Fresh Cream, earning James around $10,000 in royalties.
With his unearthly high wail and deft fingerpicking guitar style, James was among the most distinctive Delta bluesmen, and also quite influential in both of his performing eras—Robert Johnson adapted elements of James’ style back in the early ’30s (Johnson’s “Hell Hound on My Trail” was based on James’ “Devil Got My Woman”), and in the ’60s many an aspiring blues picker investigated his open D-minor tuning and sturdy, insistent bass lines.
This performance of “Devil Got My Woman” comes from the Newport Folk Festival in 1966. Among the crowd around him are Howlin’ Wolf and Son House. Recommended recordings: The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James and, in the ’60s, Devil Got My Woman (Vanguard, 1968). And this video is part of a Vestapol release called Devil Got My Woman: Blues at Newport 1966, featuring James, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, Bukka White, and Rev. Pearly Brown. —Blair Jackson