Skip James, Skip James 1931

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 04.22.11 in Reviews
A lesson in how the blues can be both earthy and mystical

If ever an artist personified how the blues could be simultaneously earthy and mystical, it's this wild-card from Bentonia, just outside the Delta. James cut all his landmark records in one year and then went into the ministry, forsaking music — or at least recording — until he became one of the great finds of the '60s revival three decades later. Perhaps he quit after a year because his haunting, otherworldly sound was too intense for any man to sustain. Rhythmically and melodically, James made music in a world of his own, with no concessions to commercial trends. His high, eerie vocals were a cross between a field holler and a death knell; his guitar work on the likes of "Devil Got My Woman" features minor keys and open tunings, while his piano playing on five songs (most notably "22-20 Blues") was, if anything, even more eccentric.