Nehemiah Curtis James, wasn’t one to chase record deals ’cause they went looking for him. Early on he didn’t see himself as a career blues player. Skip enjoyed playing for his friend as a leisure activity and he supported himself and eventually three separate wives working as sharecropper, lumberman even a minister. But he also had a life in the underbelly of lawlessness. Part of his life he was a successful bootlegger under the protection of a wealthy white plantation owner. He lived hard like a lot of other blues men of his day. He packed a pistol and boasted to biographer Stephen Calt that he once killed a romantic rival.
His music talents were always there however. Proficient in both guitar and piano Skip was eventually convinced to recorded with H.C. Spier in 1931. He was given a train ticket to Wisconsin and recorded disputably two dozen songs for Paramount Records. It was a big deal for Skip because prior to that in 1927 he had refused a record deal with Okeh Records. Some speculated that he didn’t want the publicity because of his criminal lifestyle.
Shortly after his recording sessions with Paramount, he met his father for the first time who was a Baptist Minister. The talented Skip James became convinced that blues music was, “the devil’s music”, and he renounced the blues for good enrolling at a divinity school in Dallas, TX. He participated somewhat reluctantly in the folk revival scene in the 1960’s. The religious issue was a big scapegoat for being emotional detached from his performances. He once said in a biography that he played with his “thinkin’ facilities” and not his heart. The last few years of his life he played to coffeehouse audiences in the Northeast. Unfortunately, the management of these places hired him reluctantly because they loathed what they called his “depressing music”.
But in 1964 Skip James played at The Newport Folk Festival with rave reviews, some saying that his performance was “the most dramatic” of all.
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