Skip James: The Power of a Man with His Guitar
When people think of the blues, what sort of concepts come to mind? The expression of pain born out of racial oppression and everyday life? Stripped down instrumental arrangements? What always comes to certain minds is the indelible mark that the guitar, and more importantly its players, had (and continues to have) on the genre. These influences would eventually to the inception of another groundbreaking music form, the music of jazz. Oftentimes, when speaking of blues guitarists, names such as Lightnin’ Hopkins and Robert Johnson will arise. One name that is sometimes forgotten in this list is Skip James. This paper intends to focus on Skip’s influence on Delta Blues (arguably the most important blues form that was a precursor to jazz) through his playing and songwriting, and also analyze his works Devil Got My Woman and Crow Jane. The hope is that, through these analyses, it will be shown that Skip James is one of the most important figures in blues and for the development of jazz.
Central to the guitar playing of Skip James, or really any guitarist, is the tuning of the instrument. Skip James, in his words, “just fished around until” he “started finding” the open E tuning (E-B-G-E-B-E) used in nearly all of his tracks (Calt 88). The tuning is responsible in many ways for James’ sound, as Skip states “when you mix it you got your ‘cross’,” meaning he saw that certain chords and tonalities were unique to this tuning that did not exist in standard E-A-D-G-B-E (Calt 89). These tonalities and lead lines fit Skip’s voice well, and were willing to go wherever he wanted to with them. As such, it is difficult to find a piece recorded by James that is not in this tuning (there are even transpositions to Open E with songs such as Four O’clock Blues which was originally in standard tuning) (Calt 89). One interesting result of this tuning besides the tonality is the approach to double-stop thirds (a common figure for guitarists). To achieve the third parallel motion in Open E, James (or any guitarist) must utilize the first and fourth strings in what would normally be an octave motion with the first and fourth fingers (Calt 90). What is useful about this finger position of an octave used for tertian harmony is that, in between the first and fourth strings, are two more strings (second and third). What the guitarist can do with these extra strings is create drone harmonies, or use the strings for easy melody lines via fretting one or two of them.
Experimentation is a characteristic of both jazz and its predecessor the Delta blues. While Skip James was not the only blues guitarist to leave behind standard tuning, his pursuit of being different was a core value that transferred onto the styles he belonged to and influenced. Most important of those influenced by James’ style was Robert Johnson. Johnson most likely first heard Skip James’ playing through records, and then adopted various Bentonia techniques (such as melismas and unique, complex harmonies) (Palmer 116). Robert Johnson would go on to become one of, if not the most famous performers to come out of the Delta blues style. It is this style that had a direct impact on W.C. Handy, who would be the first published composer of blues. These compositions would eventually become a part of early jazz. Undoubtedly Handy heard music influenced by James, as he influenced the most famous guitarist (and many others) of the Delta blues scene. The Delta blues was the sound of James in many senses, and would have been very different if he had never existed. If that were the case, Handy would have heard a music that may have not appealed to him, and may have caused him to never publish music that sowed the seeds for early jazz standards.
Of course guitar technique is one component to the blues, but not the only component. The songwriting, namely the lyrical content, of a blues song can often be the defining factor in the overall feel of the track. Skip James always felt that the blues should be written about something that one has authentically experienced. Now, someone might say, “well, all blues singers wrote about their experiences, so what makes Skip James unique?” The difference with James was that some, if not many, of these experiences were either indirect or simply mental. Skip James biographer Stephen Calt describes these experiences as “random collections of fleeting happenstances, or expressions of attitude (Calt 116-117).” Most blues experiences are written about actual events, but Skip James introduced in many ways the usage of imagination to enhance the experience. Most would not actually shoot a cheating lover, but writing about it makes a person seem hard, an outlaw of sorts. James said that his lyrics expounded on the idea that he wanted criminals like Mister Cress to know that he “was just as ‘bad’ as he was (Calt 117).” Now with this in mind, compare such thematic ideas presented by Robert Johnson (who has already been established as both an important figure in Delta Blues who was influenced by Skip James). In the song Me and the Devil Blues, “You may bury my body down by the highway side spoken: Baby, I don’t care where you bury my body when I’m dead and gone You may bury my body, ooh down by the highway side So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride (“Robert Johnson- Me and the Devil Blues lyrics”).”
This, in a more implicit way, demonstrates an extension of the outlaw mentality that James wanted to project. Outlaws have a certain psychological profile, and this includes not having concern for their death. They live a life of extreme danger, stealing whatever they wish, but understand the consequences of doing so. Such a life inevitably leads to shootouts with law enforcements or rival gangsters, all the while knowing that they could be killed. Even in death, the outlaw believes they will live on in an infamous existence. Johnson declaring “You may bury my body, ooh down by the highway side So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride” reflects this dynamic of the outlaw experience. Now, consider that numerous songs of Johnson’s do not contain this theme, instead focusing largely on elements of relationships (namely romantic ones or lack thereof). Take, for instance, the section in Love in Vain that states “When the train rolled up to the station I looked her in the eye When the train rolled up to the station and I looked her in the eye Well, I was lonesome, I felt so lonesome and I could not help but cry All my love’s in vain (“Robert Johnson-Love In Vain lyrics”).” These are not words of a hard man, as a hard man would not cry or feel such heartbreak at the hands of a lover. In fact, this sensitivity is present in one way or another in numerous tracks of Robert Johnson, leading one to ask where the sparse outlaw references originate from. Based on the previous evidence, it is clear that Johnson took great influence from Skip James. Since this paper established James’ goal to show toughness through song, it is logical to conclude that his lyrics had an affect occasionally on Johnson (causing him to write lyrics that reflect an outlaw attitude). This lyrical content would come to be associated in some shape or form with the blues in general, as themes of being tough or breaking the law would work sometimes alongside heartbreak and general hardships of life.
Integral to understanding Skip James’ musical contribution is an intricate analysis of his music. In this paper there will be two song excerpts analyzed, the first one taken from Devil Got My Woman and the other from Crow Jane. The time signature of Devil Got My Woman is the simple duple meter of 4/4. This is an interesting choice, and one would think an obvious choice considering the great deal of songs that have been written in this meter (it is called common time after all). Think, however, of how early on this was in the development of the blues. Devil Got My Women was written long before a full piece band had been introduced to the blues (hence a rhythm section that could keep time efficiently). Pulse in this early era of blues was variable, stretched and sometimes non-existent. Now admittedly Skip most likely used this meter without a second thought, but its significance is still pronounced. Since Devil Got My Women is the most associated song with James, chances are it (more than other songs) influenced Delta blues musicians (in turn W.C. Handy and jazz). Did Skip James use other meters? Of course, but the point is that the most known song by Skip was in fact written in 4/4. Some may say, “jazz had other influences,” and this is true, however the meters of these influences were not 4/4. Ragtime predominantly used 2/4, so where could have jazz musicians gotten the idea for 4/4 meter? Indeed the blues has its roots in field hollers which were at times in 4/4, but nevertheless when jazz musicians were hearing the time signature it was in blues songs, not field hollers.
With this in mind, the excerpt used here of Devil Got My Woman contains an accompaniment line in the steel guitar that is rather intriguing. The rhythm consists of combinations of quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes (including triplet figures). The melodic result of these combinations is a diverse mixture of complex double stops with intervals ranging from thirds to compound 15ths. The accompaniment is without a pronounced harmonic progression in the manner that a European composer such as Beethoven may understand (i.e. triads and sevenths in a homophonic manner), but there is a harmony. The excerpt fluctuates harmonically in the guitar line with the following scale degrees (assuming D Dorian is the scale); 2, 1, 5, 1, 7, 5, 7 (x5 (played five times)), 3, 1, 5 (x7), 3, 5, 1, 3 (x2), 5, 7 (x2), 5, 3, 4, 5, 7 (x2), 5 (x2), 6, 1, 2, 1, 2, 6, 1, 2, 7, 1, 5, 1. This harmony is significant to the development of jazz in numerous ways (once again based on the syllogism: Skip James influenced Delta Blues; Delta Blues influenced jazz; therefore Skip James influenced jazz). Firstly there is the modal movement harmonically (in the guitar) and melodically (in both the vocals and guitar). Modes became a staple in jazz beginning with Miles Davis’ work on albums such as 1958’s Milestones and 1959’s Kind of Blue. Specifically with Kind of Blue Davis wanted to “draw closer to African and Gospel music as well as the blues, but admitted that he had failed in this intention (“Kind of Blue”).” Despite Miles “failing” to represent the music he wanted to, he undoubtedly was influenced by it (i.e. the blues) when recording the album. Influence is present in musicians whether they know it or not, as the music they listen to invariably will appear in their playing. In 1959 and prior, there were a plethora of blues genres available, but no matter what genre Davis listened to for inspiration, Skip James’ influence was no doubt present. As has been established throughout the paper, Skip James was the jumping off point for numerous stylistic innovations for blues artists, which would eventually influence jazz. Taking this into account, is it possible that Miles Davis was subconsciously moved towards the modes through the blues recordings he listened to for writing Kind of Blue? Think about this, the other music he wanted to draw from used scales that were not modes like Dorian (they most likely were in scales such as major and minor, and possibly pentatonic). Furthermore, blues is not known for using modes per se, but rather scales that reflect a combination of Western and African influences, and yet Devil Got My Woman blatantly contains a modal element. Prior to his modal jazz work, Miles Davis was heavily involved in bebop. Supposedly he changed to modal because it gave freedom from complex chord changes, but his love of blues may have given him the rough plan for modal jazz (namely the song Devil Got My Woman) (“Kind of Blue”). One may say this is speculative, but there really are few examples of songs as influential to blues as Devil Got My Woman that contain modal elements, and as such the conclusion seems to have clout.
Crow Jane is the other excerpt this paper will analyze. What is intriguing about the guitar part is the walking bass motion carried essentially throughout the song. The way that the bass section of the guitar moves could be indicative of ragtime influence, however this is impossible to prove with hard evidence. Theoretically though, considering Skip James was born in 1902 at the height of ragtime (Calt 23), it is likely that he heard it and was possibly influenced by it. What is fascinating about the guitar accompaniment are the improvisational fills that Skip plays. Notice the steady quarter note pattern in the bass/pedal note and the sixteenth/eighth mixture in the upper register pattern. Skip used finger picking, like many of his contemporaries, which requires a mixture of usually the thumb, index finger, and the middle finger (an exception being the Carter scratch method one also utilizes the ring finger and pinky). It is unusual, maybe unheard of, for a guitarist to play continuous bass tones in the thumb while simultaneously playing subdivisions and cross-rhythms with the other fingers. Skip probably did not have any idea how technically skilled he was as a guitarist, but it would be difficult to find guitarists who finger pick like he did nowadays, not even master finger pickers such as Jeff Beck or Lindsey Buckingham could have originated the technique James had in Crow Jane.
In terms of the vocal melody in Crow Jane, the rhythm is interesting in that there is syncopation. Drawing back to the idea that Skip James influenced jazz through his influence on blues, the syncopation (while he is not the only influencer to include it) shows where possibly some jazz musicians (indirectly) came up with the concept of syncopation in their music. At the very least, the vocal rhythm is a flowing motion, leading the listener to wonder which part drives the other. The parts being referenced are the vocals and guitar, and usually it is obvious that the accompaniment or the lead push the song forward. In the case of Crow Jane, however, this distinction is not so obvious. Listening to the audio recording it seems that, given a choice, the guitar part is the driving force. The reasoning behind this statement is that the rhythm, more specifically the meter, is solidly held by the walking bass.
Skip James lived a life of pain. He battled illness at seemingly every turn, not to mention went unnoticed by the world for his music until the very end of his life (Russell 123). Upon “rediscovery” by blues enthusiasts when Skip was in a hospital, the world soon came to know what music this spirited man from Bentonia created. Eventually blues scholars would speak, to a certain degree, about James’ paramount influence on the blues. Often times, however, Skip would be grouped with his contemporaries rather than separated as a unique catalyst in blues’ development. This was one aspect of this paper, in that, a goal was set to showcase James’ unique technical and musical approaches to blues. A link that has been missed in conversations about Skip and the blues, however, is its indirect and direct influence on jazz’s development. This was the second aim of this paper, as there are virtually no academic resources that make this important (and possibly disputed) connection. In conclusion, Skip James’ influence will be felt for many eons, as his unique approach to music was so monumental, he did not know his own power. Any musician that has ever played blues or jazz has Skip to thank, and ought to remember that.
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Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta. New York: Penguin, 1982. Print.
“Robert Johnson-Love In Vain lyrics.” Lyricsmode. 2012. Web. 12/2/2013.
“Robert Johnson- Me and the Devil Blues lyrics.” Lyricsmode. 2012. Web. 12/2/2013.
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