Devil Got My Woman opens with the song's composer, a man rarely filmed in his brief return to blues performing towards the end of his life. By the time of his 1964 rediscovery, Skip James was a dying man. Ravaged by cancer and slowed by decades of relative musical inactivity, James was no longer the stunning artist responsible for the 18 fabled recordings he made in 1931. Yet he bravely managed to reflect a semblance of that artist, rousing himself to perform his esoteric music and baffling folk audiences with a formality little associated with blues singers. 'He was a true genius,' recalls James's manager, Dick Waterman, 'and he knew it. He had a manner toward everyone that was aloof, condescending, and patronizing.' Indeed, James looks somewhat out of place in the company of the other artists here, and while a personal aloofness may be one cause, his musical uniqueness is another. The others stand within a clearly-defined musical continuum: James is simultaneously a part of yet conspicuously apart from it. A convincing case has been made for a 'Bentonia school of Mississippi blues,' and we are told James learned the rudiments of guitar from Henry Stuckey. Echoes of his music are heard in Jack Owens, discovered by David Evans in the year this footage was shot. James's friend, Johnny Temple, recorded a version of 'Devil Got My Woman' in and Robert Johnson later refashioned that song into 'Hellhound On My Trail.' Yet for all that, Skip James remains a solitary figure in the history of the blues, seemingly without heirs or tangible precedent.
Although less well-known than Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson was a highly influential artist in the Delta Blues movement in the 20's and 30's. In fact, Robert Johnson was particularly taken by and influenced by Tommy's shows. His influence on Robert Johnson and his fame in the Delta were only surpassed by Son House and Charley Patton...
Rumors spread throughout the Delta about Tommy, just like Robert Johnson. Fans and friends believed that his unrivaled talent was the result of a deal with the Devil... Some of the rumors of his pact with the Devil spread from his live shows where he was famous for being able to play the guitar behind his head and neck, and could change the tone of his voice from "deep resonant tones to a beautiful falsetto in the same line"...
Abbe Niles, who had occasion to comment on Jimmie Rodgers' 'Blue Yodel' 78s at the time of their initial release, saw nothing unique in the amalgam of yodeling and blues singing that they offered. As much an expert on the blues as anyone was in 1928 - he had written the introduction to W C Handy's 1926 Blues: An Anthology - Niles was impressed by how distinctively black Jimmie's Blue Yodel recordings sounded, yodeling and all.
This came out in Niles' enlightening record-review column, 'Ballads, Songs and Snatches', which appeared in 1928 and early 1929 issues of The Bookman, a mainstream literary journal. Niles advised his readers to flesh out their Paul Whiteman collections with hillbilly, ethnic and all manner of 'Race' 78s, including blues and blues-related songs by the likes of Alberta Hunter, Rabbit Brown, Peg Leg Howell, the 'magnificent' Bessie Smith, Cannon's Jug Stompers and Washington Phillips:
'Listening to race records is nearly the only way for white people to share the Negroes' pleasures without bothering the Negroes'.
To Niles' ear, Jimnrie Rodgers was a 'White man gone black'. In his July 1928 column, Niles recommended Jimmie's first 'engaging, melodious and bloodthirsty 'Blue Yodel' '. In his September 1928 column, under the heading 'White man singing black songs', Niles endorsed Jimmie's Blue Yodel - No. II. He went on to acknowledge that Jimmie's first 'Blue Yodel' had 'started the whole epidemic of yodelling blues that now rages - though Clarence Williams wrote a good one five years ago.'
Complicating the "Tommy Johnson" problem even more is the song that Chris Thomas King performs in the film solo, as his character. It is titled Hard Time Killing Floor Blues and its composer and original performer is neither the real Tommy Johnson nor Robert Johnson but another Delta blues singer and musician who performed as "Skip" James.
The crossroads ritual is currently best known in popular American culture through the recent acceptance of a spurious legend that the famous 1930s blues singer Robert Johnson claimed that he had learned how to play guitar by selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads, somewhere in Mississippi. In truth, the blues singer who publicly made this claim was Robert's rather less-well-known contemporary and friend Tommy Johnson, not related to Robert. Tommy Johnson is remembered for his classic recording of Maggie Campbell Blues. LeDell Johnson, Tommy Johnson's brother, spoke with the blues scholar David Evans about Tommy's sudden guitar playing skill and Tommy's claims about it. His account of the ritual is typical of others collected throughout the South. Note that LeDell did not say that Tommy Johnson called the crossroads spirit "the devil" and he did not mention selling his soul.
If you want to learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroads is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little 'fore 12 that night so you know you'll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself... A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he'll tune it. And then he'll play a piece and hand it back to you. That's the way I learned to play anything I want...
from Tommy Johnson by David Evans
Did you ever determine what sort of musical influence Stuckey had on [Jack] Owens and James? Stephen Calt totally denies any sort of Bentonia tradition...
I don't think he's ever been there. Gayle Wardlow had met Stuckey, but I don't think ever heard him play. Or, if he did, I don't think there's any documentation of how he played - recorded documentation, at any rate, which is very unfortunate. Skip certainly said he was influenced by him. There was a whole Stuckey family - there was a whole bunch of them. Skip in fact was sometimes known as Nehemiah Stuckey. I don't know exactly what his relationship was to the family, but it was pretty close.
I've often speculated that maybe the tensions between James and his father may have been because he was possibly an outside child.
That could be, very very possibly. You mean that his real father was a Stuckey?
It's solely speculation.
It could be. In any rate, I did record Cornelius Bright, who was something of a protégé of Henry Stuckey, as well as of Jack Owens. He played and sang a version of The Devil that he said was the way Henry played it. It's very much like Skip James'.
Same tuning, same finger picking style?
Yeah, right. Henry probably did play more rhythmic music too. Skip plays some of that fast duple rhythmic style.
The frailing style?
Yeah, frailing. Jack has demonstrated some of that as well. I'm sure there was a local tradition there. I've recorded other musicians as well - in fact, Cornelius Bright, although he's younger and certainly was influenced by the older people. But there were many who were into that style and I think there's enough evidence to suggest that it was a tradition. Who knows who originated all those ideas.
So you see no evidence that Skip James invented the techniques and the repertoire.
No, but he certainly developed it to a fine point. I mean, his original recording session is extraordinary.
I think it's one of the greatest collections from a single session ever.
Sure, it's brilliant. But, the use of that tuning, many of the specific ideas, the prominence of falsetto singing and some of the themes or the verses are all found within that tradition, among others. Skip certainly acknowledged that he heard some other musicians - he named some names.
Johnny Temple was one...
Sure, although I think Johnny learned more from Skip than vice versa.
Do you see the influence of the Bentonia tradition outside of the geographic area? For example, one song that I've heard from other parts of Mississippi is Catfish Blues, and the whole tonality of that song is one that I associate with Bentonia.
Well, I wouldn't particularly relate it to that. I know Skip did a version of it, and Jack Owens does, but it is very widespread. It's possible. Of course, Tommy McClennan did one of the earliest versions of it, and he was originally from Yazoo City, but Robert Petway did the first recording. He was an associate of McClennan's, up in the delta. I think a lot of it ultimately stems from the Petway and McClennan recordings. They spread the song around. Tommy Johnson was alleged to have done it, and his brother Mager did a version of it. So, it could well be an older song - it probably is. But, I think those early recordings and then some subsequent ones in the fifties made the song very popular. It's a distinctive melody, and it would be one that would stick in the memory, just because it is so different. It fits with a one- or two- chord approach and use of the repeated short figures [which] are well within a general deep-South approach to the blues. So I wouldn't myself posit an origin in or around Bentonia. The style in the early days I think only had a limited influence, and that mostly in respect to particular songs - probably mainly The Devil and mostly very near Bentonia. Of course, Johnny Temple in Jackson picked up on it. Bo Carter's Old Devil is related to it - he was from right around Bolton - we're talking about 30 miles from Bentonia. There was a guy George Mitchell recorded in Canton, which is not far from there. He did a song he called Hard Times which has a relationship to that. And Joe McCoy did The Devil, but he was from right around there too, around Vicksburg, and was always picking up influences from others, and perhaps even got that from Johnny Temple. And Robert Johnson, of course, but Johnson's original home was down in Hazelhurst and he may have traveled around. He clearly was influenced in some way by Skip James.
Probably just through records, would you say?
Well, the 32-20 seems to be off of James' records, but his Hellhound On My Trail suggests some direct influence, though that could possibly be through Johnny Temple who he also seemed to have been influenced by. Johnson evidently got around some in those years immediately before his recording, and must have understudied any number of people because you see so many influences in his playing. He was obviously quick to pick up on good ideas. There's definitely something of Skip James and perhaps more generally of the Bentonia style, in those two songs, anyway. The 32-20 is really a cover. And the other one, Hellhound On My Trail - I don't know if you could call it a version of The Devil, but it's... I don't know what term you could apply to it. But musically it uses many of the same ideas, and of course even thematically it's related. It seems perhaps to be something of a recomposition, sort of inspired by it. It's like taking those ideas and re-writing it in your own language.
"I think this Skip James project is the most interesting thing I've ever done," he states categorically. "The idea was to record the saddest, most morbid and angry music in the world, using a guitar. There's noise in some pieces and it's going to be long. Music to encourage people to commit suicide."
The working title is a reference to Fahey's infamous encounter with this "strangest, most complex and bizarre of all blues artists" when he visited Skip James in Tunica County Hospital, Mississippi in 1964. Whatever his feelings about James's music, Fahey denies the project is a tribute to the bluesman bearing his name.
"No. Fuck him, he wasn't worth it," Fahey growls vehemently. "He was condescending and a real jerk. Henry Vestine, Bill Barth and I visited him in hospital and the first time we met him he said, 'So you guys have heard some of my records, the ones that were made in 1931?' We told him we had and he said, 'Gee, it sure took you a long time to get here, you can't be very bright. Well, it was nice of you fellows to risk your lives, spend all those years and all that money looking for me. I can understand why you did that, because I really am a genius. Well, goodnight now.'
"Before we met I was in awe of him," he says. "It was a shattering experience. I was very young and naive. The main reason I tried to find him was to learn his guitar tuning."
...See, John Fahey and the late Bill Barth were the two who re-discovered Skip in that Tunica, Mississippi hospital. They introduced themselves and paid his bill (about $84) and put him in a car bound for DC. As Skip was telling me, they were running up all kinds of bills and debts at his expense. After a while, Skip was able to get rid of those two %$#@ and make a fresh start. He did okay with Dick Waterman, though he was very careful in signing future contracts...
Shortly into his re-rediscovery, yeah, he had every reason to be pissed off. With his co-resdiscoverers using his money the way they did. Skip explained the whole situation to me on one of my stays at his house. Skip hated John Fahey and I don't blame him! I'm sorry. I have to stop because I'm really losing my temper...
What was Skip like? He was a stoned nut. God bless him. I always got along with him, but Skip liked to preach to his audiences about the vicissitudes of life and it turned many people off. It was the same way at home. When you were a guest at his house, man you had to be able to recite bible verses at his table, or you'd be castigated severely. At times, he could be rude to some of his fans. There was a white teen who wanted to demonstrate one of Skip's riffs that he'd learned. Skip told him, "Man, I done been and gone from places you'll never get to". Clearly, the kid's feelings were hurt. On the other hand, Skip could be quite affable as stated in that article. He treated me like a king when I stayed in his home. He always gave me his bedroom to sleep. He let me take his Gibson over to our other relative's homes. Basically, he could be one way or the other. It depended on his mood. I guess you already know that musically he was strictly an individualist. He, for the most part, did his own stuff.
I was with poor Skip. He had testicular cancer and they did all that they could. Finally, they had to remove the gonads. Just remember that Skip meant well. I understood that when I was a young man.
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