At first, as the car barreled north toward Washington, D.C., the old blues singer pestered the driver with questions, demanding to know the name of every river, creek, and lake they crossed. “What is that body of water there?” he would ask as the car raced over a rickety bridge. He received each answer with a nod of recognition. The driver soon realized that this was how the old man was accustomed to traveling, that Nehemiah “Skip” James gauged his location using bodies of water, just as sailors navigate by the stars.
It was the summer of 1964, and three California college students—led by Washington-born John Fahey—had ventured into the Deep South not as civil rights activists, but as blues fanatics in search of their hero. They’d found Skip James in a Mississippi hospital, long forgotten by his own community. The bedridden James seemed to expect the sudden appearance of these fans; in fact, he seemed perturbed that they hadn’t come sooner to pay him homage.
The students worshiped the “lost” bluesman—among their idols, the 62-year-old James ranked as the most mysterious and most revered. His legendary 1931 recordings were some of the rarest of all the classic blues 78s, and their sublime artistry made them priceless. James’ intricate guitar work was rivaled only by his near-surreal piano playing, and no other major bluesman had mastered two instruments. And then there was James’ eerie voice, sliding back and forth between a keening falsetto and heart-slain soprano. He sounded like someone possessed, a one-man Southern Gothic drama.
In the hospital, one of the young admirers offered him a guitar; James no longer owned one. Doctors forbade any commotion for the ailing man, but James nevertheless began working out a brand-new song. He softly rasped the lyrics to “Sick Bed Blues,” in which he envisioned a “thousand people standing by my bedside.”
A few days later, the hospital discharged him, after the pilgrims had paid not only James’ medical bills, but also the money he owed his landlord. At his sharecropper’s shack, James picked up the borrowed guitar and began playing his old songs, which he hadn’t performed in years. He was rusty, but he still clearly retained his talent.
The students assured James that if he accompanied them back to Washington, D.C., capital of the so-called “blues revival,” he’d soon be as famous as Mississippi John Hurt, who’d been rediscovered the summer before and now ruled the local coffeehouse scene. James didn’t need much prodding. He packed a shabby old suitcase, and donned a dark suit and preacher’s hat. And then the old man left Mississippi behind forever, crossing so many bodies of water that he eventually stopped asking.
Night had fallen by the time the car reached Virginia, and the riders lapsed into silence. James stared out the car window. He had gone north to seek fame once before. On a winter night in 1931, he’d boarded a segregated train to Grafton, Wis. There, the 28-year-old recorded the songs that made him a legend and eventually spurred these young strangers to search him out—music so haunting and hallucinatory that a critic would later compare him to Poe and Van Gogh. But James earned little money from those records. Soon after making them, he quit music for good, thinking himself a failure.
Now he had a second chance at the acclaim that had eluded him. In Washington, he would finally make a livelihood from his art. If a mere party picker like John Hurt could find fortune in the big city, how could a genius like Skip James be denied his proper deserts?
Furthermore, James saw D.C. as a place where he could be healed. He believed that a jealous woman’s hex had caused his horrifying illness, a tumor on his penis. Distrustful of the diagnosis back in the Mississippi hospital—the word “cancer” was whispered in a hushed tone—James had his own ideas about the bad mojo that was ailing him. He’d heard about the “International Man,” a root doctor in Washington who could break the evil spell. James figured that after he regained his health, he could focus on his new career and become a blues star.
But just now, another matter seemed more pressing. James needed to empty his bladder, and he demanded a rest stop. The driver asked James to wait until they escaped the Jim Crow South. (The students had already been mistaken once that summer for civil rights workers, and had spent a night in jail.) The old man waited, then asked again—but too late. “He pissed all over me trying to get out of the car,” remembers Fahey. Such was James’ life: a mixture of humiliation, high drama, and bad timing.
In 1994, 25 years after his death, Skip James achieved a measure of the stardom he considered was his rightful due. The Yazoo label released a CD of his 1931 classics, Complete Early Recordings; distributor Shanachie reports that it’s already sold several thousand copies. Genes, a Silver Spring label, issued the first in a series of James’ previously unreleased sessions from the ’60s, the decade when the bluesman was rediscovered. And I’d Rather Be the Devil, a new full-length biography by blues researcher Stephen Calt, recounts the bluesman’s harrowing life and times.
James is, of course, overshadowed by the most famous bluesman of them all: Robert Johnson. In 1990, a box set of Johnson’s records charted on the Billboard Top 100; that same set won a Grammy and sold more than 350,000 copies. Director Martin Scorsese—who’s already depicted Jesus on celluloid—plans a biographical film about Johnson. And this summer, the bluesman’s bad attitude dogged the U.S. Postal Service, which airbrushed the stamp portrait of Johnson to eradicate the cigarette that hung defiantly from his mouth.
Johnson’s appeal owes as much to his myth as to his music. Few can resist the legend that he sold his soul to the devil, was poisoned by a jealous lover, and died a young genius’s death. Johnson embodied a kind of Delta Dr. Faustus, and his celebrated iniquities earned him rock ‘n’ roll street credibility with an entirely new generation of listeners. Esquire headlined an Oct. 1990 article on the Johnson cult “SATAN, NOW ON CD.”
Skip James’ mythos is less compact than Johnson’s. James survived his misspent youth, and the story of his later years provides plenty more of the kind of misery that fueled his music. Where Johnson supposedly cut a single, grand deal with the devil—trading his soul for mastery of his form—Skip James seems to have struck deal after deal and never come out ahead. In a way, James’ story is the truest story of the blues: He led an open wound of a life, and all he got for it was minor-league, post-mortem stardom.
In 1952, a high-school student named Dick Spottswood flipped through a stack of jazz records at an Adams Morgan music store. Intrigued by a macabre title—Hard Time Killing Floor Blues—he asked the shop’s owner to play a nearly pristine 78 with a Paramount label. The slow, mournful dirge hooked Spottswood. He bought that record for $1 (its only blemishes were crayon marks on the label), and then nabbed another, more worn-out record by the same singer for only 60 cents. Thus began Skip James’ second shot at stardom.
In the ’50s and early ’60s, Spottswood was one of the very few people who’d ever heard of James, or even of the genre called “country blues.” To most, “blues” meant the elec tric bands of Chicago and other Northern cit ies. Spottswood, though, favored the older acoustic music made strictly by and for rural Southern blacks.
Now an author, researcher, and musicologist, Spottswood is best known for his WAMU-FM show of music made before World War II. Like many scholars, he skirts obsession: If somebody blew a kazoo in the early 20th century somewhere in the United States—and somebody else bothered to record it—Spottswood can probably provide details of the session.
Back in the early ’60s, Spottswood concentrated on the blues, and he inspired an entire generation of Washington blues fanatics. His record collection attracted fellow students, aspiring musicians, and budding beatniks, all of whom hung out at Spottswood’s house in Takoma Park, analyzing the guitar playing on obscure 78s and arguing about who was the best bluesman.
A handful of these white suburban oddballs organized their lives around country blues. They yearned for something strange, something exotic, and most of all, something that gave ’em goosebumps, sounds that scared ’em—something akin to a nightmare captured on a record: a cry in the dark, a lone voice and a guitar engaged in the dialogue of the damned.
Only primal country blues satisfied their craving. “The rawer, the better” became their motto, and the rawest of all was the Mississippi Delta blues by such masters as Charley Patton, Son House, Tommy and Robert Johnson, Bukka White, John Hurt, and of course, Skip James.
Spottswood’s coterie began to reach beyond his collection. Like rabid jazz collectors before them, some of the younger blues converts road-tripped throughout the South, canvassing black neighborhoods for old 78s. The young men would knock on doors, ready with their pitch: “Buying up old gramophone records, paying a dime apiece for ’em, cash money!” An elderly voice might shout back, “We used to have ’em, but the children took ’em out in the cornfield and made flying saucers out of ’em.” But sometimes the searchers would strike gold. The householders would rummage about excitedly, then announce, “We got a gang of ’em.”
Soon the fanatics began to wonder about the ghosts singing on those scratchy 78s. Spottswood and company knew that Patton and both Johnsons had died decades before. But what about the other masters of the genre? What if they were still alive down in the Delta? And what if they could still play?
Skip James, like most of the bluesmen, had left behind few traces.
Calt’s exhaustive biography sheds light on James’ little-known early life, previously documented in only a few paragraphs of obscure anthologies’ liner notes. Born in 1902, James was raised on a plantation on the edge of the Mississippi Delta, near a town called Bentonia. When he was 5, his father—a musician and bootlegger—fled town after agents raided his whiskey still.
“Skippy,” a precocious child, was versed on guitar and piano well before his teens. James would eventually follow his father’s wayward lead, spending the ’20s rambling the South. Never a full-time musician, he found other ways to survive: as a laborer, dynamite blaster, gambler, pimp, and bootlegger. A small but brawny man, he didn’t back down from confrontations; guns (like the Colt revolver he often carried) figured as prominently in his life as guitars. He saw music as a hobby, whether performing on a street corner or in a barroom. In fact, he admired his first musical mentor, a whorehouse pianist, as much for his fancy clothes and stable of prostitutes as for his keyboard mastery.
But in the state capital of Jackson, James found his real musical education. He hung out with the musicians who congregated there from all over Mississippi, and came to see himself as more than a mere entertainer. The blues standards of the day struck him as frivolous party music; he saw his own songs, and his idiosyncratic style, as something much darker. He once told Calt that he played his songs “to deaden the mind” of female listeners. To James, the blues were an incantation, a way to cast a spell.
In 1931, he got to test his powers. Throughout the ’20s, business boomed for “race records” produced for a black audience, and companies scoured the South for blues singers. After auditioning in a Jackson record store, James earned a recording session with Paramount Records in Grafton, Wis.
There, the first song he performed was “Devil Got My Woman,” partly inspired by a girlfriend who’d deserted James for his best friend.
I would rather be the devil than to be that woman’s man
‘Cause nothing but the devil changed my baby’s mind.
When most blues singers wailed about a scheming woman, they either cursed her or begged her to come back. But instead of groveling or complaining, James cast himself as Satan, as a figure of darkness and power.
A piano song, “22-20 Blues,” combined murderous lyrics with masterful musicianship. Calt describes the song: “No blues pianist has ever displayed the arresting variety of instrumental phrases he uncorks after every vocal line of “22-20,’ which is probably the most impromptu, improvised effort found in blues recording.” In fact, Calt notes that the artsy Kronos Quartet covered it in the ’80s, but the classically trained musicians “could not capture the nuances” of the original.
Other commentators have groped to describe James’ music. One, struck by the “lovely contrapuntal lines and eccentric phrasing,” went so far as to claim that James’ melodies were “more like Elizabethan music than the blues.”
If the instrumental part of “22-20” was Elizabethan, the violent, homicidal lyrics hewed closer to the Jacobean period. James improvised the words on the spot after the engineer requested a “gun song.” Those lyrics still pack a wallop, even by the standards of gangsta rappers:
If I send for my baby and she won’t come
All the doctors in Wisconsin sure won’t help her none.
And if she gets unruly and gets so she won’t do
I’ll take my 22-20—I’ll cut her half in two.
During the two-day session, James would record two dozen other songs, including the salacious “Special Rider Blues,” the morbid “Little Cow and Calf Is Gonna Die Blues,” and the apocalyptic “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” which were eventually issued as Paramount 78s.
But “Devil” and “22-20” were his most popular. They sold in the hundreds, a respectable showing during the Depression, and were heard by black record buyers throughout the South—including a young guitarist named Robert Johnson. In the late ’30s, Johnson bestowed on James the sincerest form of flattery: He covered both songs, re-casting them as “32-20 Blues” and “Hellhound on My Trail.” The latter eventually became Johnson’s most famous recording.
James’ music was as raw and as evil as it comes, and his songs exerted a kind of gravitational pull—first on Johnson, and later on Spottswood’s young suburbanites.
Tom Hoskins was the first of Spottswood’s followers to find one of the group’s disappeared idols—but that idol was not Skip James. Hoskins, a novice guitar player, preferred sweeter, more polished music than that of James and Johnson. Hoskins tried to strum along to the records of Mississippi John Hurt, a laid-back, melodic, finger picker. But the wanna-be guitarist hungered for more than the record: He wanted to see Hurt play. He wanted to learn the technique from the master.
Hoskins vowed to locate Hurt.
He gleaned a clue from a bootleg tape that Spottswood had acquired from an Australian enthusiast. “Avalon’s my hometown, always on my mind,” sang Hurt. “Pretty women in Avalon, want me there all the time.” Maps of the Mississippi Delta failed to show the town, but in February 1963, Hoskins found it on an antiquated road atlas.
Hoskins was ready to go; his American University classes would be there when he returned. But he faced one problem. “At the time, I didn’t have a very good car,” he remembers. That obstacle seemed to melt away: “I ran into this girl, and she had a brand-new little Dodge Slant 6, and she really wanted to go to Mardi Gras. I said, “I’d be happy to take you to Mardi Gras, and after that, I want to go up to Mississippi and see if I can find somebody.’ ”
After the pair made it to New Orleans, Hoskins phoned a friend back east and discovered that police had posted a 26-state alarm for him on charges of kidnapping, grand theft auto, and violating the Mann Act: His companion, he found out, was only 17, and the Dodge belonged to her father. “There wasn’t much I could do about it then,” says Hoskins. “If I got caught, I’d just have to depend on her to explain that I was deceived.” (She later did.)
After Mardi Gras, the fugitives drove to Mississippi, arriving in Avalon one Friday at dusk. Not even a crossroads, Avalon boasted a lone grocery store that also served as the post office. There, Hoskins asked a pair of elderly men if they knew a blues singer named John Hurt. They provided directions down a gravel road that led to a shack.
As the girl waited in the car, Hoskins knocked on the front door. An elfin old man answered, and his wide, good-natured grin turned sour when he saw the white stranger. Undaunted, Hoskins stuck out his hand and said, “Hey, John, my name’s Tom, and I’m from Washington, D.C., and I’ve been looking for you for a long time.”
Hoskin’s reference to the nation’s capital clinched it: Mississippi John Hurt believed that the FBI had come to take him away.
By then, Hurt’s wife Jessie had bolted out the back door to find their landlord, a white man who quickly appeared on the scene. Hoskins convinced them all that he was no G-man, or civil rights worker, either—just a fan who’d come seeking his favorite musician.
The 72-year-old Hurt had quit playing music years ago and didn’t even own a guitar; he spent his days tending cattle on his landlord’s farm. But he was delighted to hear that Hoskins admired his old records. Hoskins fetched his guitar from the car and presented it to his hero. He asked Hurt to practice so they could record his music over the weekend.
Returning on Sunday, Hoskins was amazed that Hurt had retained much of his finger picking ability. The old musician eased into his repertoire as though it were a comfortable pair of overalls.
“Looking at his hands play, it was absolute magic,” recalls Hoskins. “I know how Howard Carter felt when he opened Tutankhamen’s tomb and looked in. [Hurt] was alive and he still had it. He was bright, bubbly, and full of life. I knew I had something special.”
In a few weeks, Hurt had moved to D.C., where he stayed at Spottswood’s house in Arlington. Hurt’s floppy fedora and foot-tapping music won over people who’d never even heard of the Mississippi Delta, and who would have gasped to know that the Hurt lyric “lovin’ spoonful” referred to semen. That summer, he charmed the crowd at the Newport Folk Festival. In the District, he held court at the Ontario Place, a folkie coffeehouse in Adams Morgan. Newsweek and Time paid their respects. Even journalist Edward R. Murrow took time off from the Cold War to nod his approval.
The blues revival was launched. Hoskins’ fairy-tale triumph—a dramatic journey into the past! a happy ending!—sparked other rediscoveries. Sleepy John Estes turned up in Brownsville, Tenn. Bukka White was alive and well in Memphis.
But Skip James remained an enigma, the last of the great lost bluesmen.
According to Calt, James received only $40 for his 1931 recordings, and he soon quit the music business, bitterly declaring it a “barrel of crabs.” The next year found him in a Dallas bread line.
Calt’s book traces the next three decades of James’ “lost years,” an extraordinary odyssey throughout the Deep South. At one point, he even joined his long-lost father, who’d become a Baptist minister. His father disapproved of James’ blues-singing past. But James’ attempts at reform—being ordained in his father’s church, even singing in a traveling gospel quartet—didn’t last.
In the mid-’40s, odd-job wanderings brought James to an Alabama mining camp, where he married the camp cook, Mable. The couple moved to Bentonia, near James’ birthplace, where he cut timber and eked out a living. By 1964, the childless couple had settled in northwest Mississippi, where James drove a tractor.
That summer, Berkeley student John Fahey embarked on his cross-country car trip to find James. Fahey had grown up in Takoma Park; after Spottswood played him a Blind Willie Johnson 78, he was converted to country blues. The summer before, Fahey had located Bukka White simply by mailing a postcard to the bluesman’s hometown.
James would not be as easy to track down; besides, there was competition—other blues fanatics were on his trail. James remained the last great prize to be found. Fahey and two companions chased a lead turned up by a Southerner: that James’ hometown was Bentonia. But residents, if they remembered James at all, said he’d left years ago.
After that dead end, Fahey’s blues posse combed the upper Delta, coming up empty-handed at country shacks and deserted towns. But in July, the trio got a break.
“We stopped off to get some gas,” remembers Fahey, “and I saw this black teen-ager sitting around, and I asked him—I used to ask everybody, everywhere we went—if they’d heard of Skip James. He said, “No, but one night I was over at Benny Simmons’ barbershop, and this crazy old man came in drunk and claimed he used to make records with piano and guitar up North’….That had to be him.”
At the barbershop, Fahey received directions to a nearby shack where an old woman—after feigning ignorance—told them that her husband, Skip James, was in the hospital.
The rest is history, or at least a footnote. Delta bluesman Son House had just been found up in Rochester, N.Y. On July 13, 1964, Newsweek covered both rediscoveries in one story, rhapsodizing, “These two were the only great country blues singers still lost. No one knew whether they were alive or dead….The search for these old-time bluesmen has always had a note of urgency about it. Theirs was our finest and oldest native-born music, the blues, country-style, pure and personal, always one Negro and a guitar lamenting misery, injustice, but still saying yes to life.”
The accompanying photo showed a haggard, grim James in his hospital bed, solemnly reading a pamphlet from his father’s collection of theology tracts. James looked more like a man contemplating death than one saying yes to life.
Except for Fahey, the pilgrims worshiped James; the young discoverer’s relationship to James stood in stark contrast to that of Hoskins and Hurt. “I didn’t like him,” says Fahey bluntly, “and he didn’t like me.” Their animosity was perhaps a collision of artists: Fahey was an accomplished guitarist, and had already released several albums on his own Takoma label.
“They both had big egos,” remembers one member of Spottswood’s blues cult. “Skippy expected hero worship, which he pretty much got from most everybody, but Fahey was a pretty arrogant person.”
Fahey laughs sarcastically, remembering that James couldn’t pay his hospital or rent bills. He says, in a mock brag, “I bought Skip James for $200.”
Strangely, Fahey’s own career would echo James’. After decades of critical acclaim but low sales, Fahey’s work disintegrated as he battled alcoholism and the Epstein-Barr virus. This year, Spin magazine rediscovered Fahey in an article called “The Persecutions and Resurrections of Blind Joe Death,” a reference to Fahey’s nom de guitar. And recently, Rhino Records released Return of the Repressed, a compilation of his work. He currently resides in a gospel mission shelter in Oregon, and spends his time—what else?—record-hunting. He now seeks used classical albums, which he trades for cash.
James left behind no rosy memories of the South, and except for his wife (who would soon join him up North), no family to speak of. Friends? Well, no one came to visit him in his sickbed—no one except the strangers who’d driven 3,000 miles to worship him.
In Washington, though, James acquired plenty of friends, and strangers called him a genius. Like Hurt, James stayed for a few weeks at the Spottswood home until he could find an apartment of his own. Spottswood found James fascinating and enigmatic, and judged that his very presence was historic: “It was like the second coming having Skip here.”
James was more than an atypical bluesman; he was atypical, period. “He really stood out from the mass of humanity,” says Spottswood. “If he had been raised in different circumstances and had some level of academic training, he could have been an original thinker in any number of fields. He had that brooding, inquisitive intellect that was never content to leave things unchallenged. I could have easily seen him teaching physics or philosophy.”
According to Spottswood, the preacher’s son harbored “some contempt for religion, but he certainly believed in God. The Lord and Satan were constantly at battle within that complicated psyche.”
James drew his baroque vocabulary from the Old Testament, and peppered his speech with jargon from his father’s collection of theological books. It was clear to Spottswood that James had read those texts more avidly than the Bible.
James had recorded a pair of gospel numbers in ’31, and had learned a few spirituals during his stint with the gospel quartet. Spottswood believes that James felt no qualms about returning to the blues, unlike the Rev. Robert Wilkins, another rediscovered bluesman who now sang his old tunes with Christian lyrics. (Fahey disagrees with Spottswood on this matter; Fahey says that James cynically “crooned” the blues in the ’60s, fearful that a heartfelt commitment to the “devil’s music” would damn him to hell.)
Where racial matters were concerned, James was too misanthropic to choose sides. “I don’t think he had a lot more use for git-along Southern blacks than he did for the white oppressors,” says Spottswood. “He didn’t suffer fools or take no kind of shit.”
James stood in stark contrast to Hurt, Washington’s—and the nation’s—most famous rediscovered bluesman. When Spottswood asked the newly enfranchised Hurt who he’d support in the ’64 election, the affable 72-year-old meekly replied that he didn’t want to anger anyone: “If I vote for Mr. Johnson, then Mr. Goldwater gonna be unhappy. And if I vote for Mr. Goldwater, then Mr. Johnson’s gonna be unhappy.” When someone asked James the same question, he snapped, “I’m voting for Skip.”
Dick Spottswood’s wife, Louisa, became James’ fast friend. “Skip was kind of an appealing rascal,” she remembers. “Very likable at times, very difficult at times—full of surprises.” Louisa, the daughter of a prominent Delaware family, especially liked to watch the bluesman play with her pet whippet.
While ensconced in all-white, well-to-do Arlington, James didn’t much ramble around the neighborhood. He mostly practiced the guitar, and often spent time in the kitchen, hunched over a small antique piano handed down by Spottswood’s grandmother.
A few days after arriving in Washington, James went further north, this time to the Newport Folk Festival, for his first major performance since his rediscovery. His guitar playing couldn’t match his youthful mastery, but his autumnal voice more than retained its power, now with an added edge of age and sadness.
Writer Peter Guralnick, transfixed by the dramatic comeback, described the scene in his book Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll:
Skip James appeared, looking gaunt and a little hesitant, his eyes unfocused and wearing a black suit and a wide-brimmed flat-topped preacher’s hat that gave him as unearthly an appearance as his records had led us to suspect he had….As the first notes floated across the field, as the voice soared over us, the piercing falsetto set against the harsh cross-tuning of the guitar, there was a note of almost breathless expectation in the air. It seemed inappropriate somehow that this strange haunting sound which had existed ’til now only as a barely audible dub from a scratched 78 should be reclaimed so casually on an overcast summer’s day at Newport….As the song came to an end, the field exploded with cheers and whistles.
But James’ next song, his disheartening chronicle of the Depression, “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” stunned the hushed audience, composed mostly of folkies more used to grooving to the warm sounds of songsters like Hurt. Spottswood saw the artistry in James’ performance, but was also realistic about the bluesman’s potential commercial appeal: “I’m sure many in the audience found Skip James eminently ignorable.”
After James returned to D.C., he began gigging at the Ontario Place. A former grocery store in Adams Morgan, the Ontario attracted a nearly all-white crowd of college students, professionals, and beatniks. Here John Hurt had launched his second career. James, buoyed by the enthusiastic reception at Newport, now tried to accomplish the same.
The Ontario audience had adopted Hurt as its “patriarchal hippie,” and he responded with enthusiasm, playfully bantering with his new white audience. Hurt—who’d never considered himself a bluesman to begin with—presented material already familiar to the crowd, which knew his 1928 tunes from a popular Folkways compilation, Anthology of American Folk Music. His signature songs, including “Candyman,” were light party numbers. He’d even rehash standards such as “Chicken,” and lead the audience in asingalong.
The taciturn James exuded no such showman’s charm. He didn’t tell feel-good stories between feel-good songs; instead, James performed without patter, distilling his life’s miseries into his music. He sang of death and betrayal to a crowd weaned on Cub Scout campfire stories.
The Ontario audience was unprepared for James’ spectral presence, for his falsetto wailing and intricate, jazzlike instrumental breaks. “It was like the difference between tragic opera and some frivolous comedy,” recalls Lee Talbot, who managed the Ontario Place. “Everybody became quiet and thoughtful—just the words of some of Skip’s songs send a shiver up your spine, and when he sang it, it was guaranteed to.”
James’ music spooked spectators. “It put you in mind of sitting in a corner on the backs of your heels, rocking back and forth, moaning,” says Talbot. “It made me think of some dark bayou with Spanish moss hanging off the trees, an eerie voodoo atmosphere….Skip’s music evoked thoughts in people that maybe they didn’t want to be thinking when they were out on the town trying to have a good time. It made people uncomfortable, but the blues is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable.”
Dark, dense, and downright scary, James’ music would prove too difficult for fairy-tale success. “We had expected that we had another John Hurt on our hands,” recalls Ed Denson, another member of the Washington blues cult. “And in terms of public acceptance, that was not true, and that was too bad.”
James didn’t hide his jealousy. Backstage, he criticized Hurt’s technique and offered him guitar lessons. Claiming that Hurt crammed too many notes into his finger picking, James lectured on “wasted motion,” a phrase he’d picked up from his father’s books.
During jam sessions, James spiked his playing with complicated riffs and chord changes in an attempt to sabotage Hurt, who dutifully tried to keep up. An unreleased session tape reveals James angrily pounding the piano to drown out Hurt’s earnest—if ludicrously out-of-sync—accompaniment.
Hurt met such spiteful behavior with an almost Christlike acceptance. “Skip would play harder music to show that he was a better artist than John, or to try to show John up,” recalls Talbot. “Of course, ol’ John would just have that gentle sort of smile and say, “Boy, that Skippy sure can finger pick.’ ”
To James, music meant ruthless, if not bloody, competition. After all, he’d won his train trip to blues glory in Wisconsin by beating out other musicians at an audition. Robert Johnson was dead, but John Hurt was still alive to beat up on.
Whiskey helped James ease the pain of his cancer and settle into his new surroundings. Spottswood began to see the many sides of his houseguest. “He had a mercurial personality,” remembers Spottswood. “Unlike Hurt, he wasn’t a happy person, and when he drank he would become vicious.”
During the late summer, James logged his first recording session since the ’30s. Gene Rosenthal, a young latecomer to the blues cult, hosted the session in his parents’ basement. (Genes, Rosenthal’s label, has just released this session on a new CD, She Lyin’.) Those casual sessions in the Maryland suburbs would prove the final time James’ health would allow him to focus fully on his music.
That fall, James moved into an apartment on 19th Street NW, near Dupont Circle, and his wife, Mable, left Mississippi to care for him. But before moving into their new abode, the couple spent an idyllic week at the Maryland farm—more a commune, really—where Talbot lived.
Mable’s stories fascinated Talbot; he especially remembers a confession she made as her husband napped on the porch. “She told me there was a fella on the plantation who wanted to screw her, and she didn’t want anything to do with him. And she was selling whiskey on the side or something, so he threatened to get her thrown off the plantation. So she got him alone with her and put an ice pick in him….She said, “You know, Mr. Lee, when you stick somebody with an ice pick, the hole close up and it bleed on the inside.’…They never did figure out that there was foul play.” James himself rarely broached the subject of his murky past in the Deep South; his admirers soon stopped asking.
Not long afterward, James’ illness worsened. In a chilling couplet from his new song, “Sick Bed Blues,” he showed that he was only too aware that modern medicine had already made its final diagnosis:
The doctor walked away, mumbling very low
Saying, “He may get better, but he’ll never be well no mo’.”
Louisa Spottswood, now divorced and living in Philadelphia, recalls the almost Victorian manner in which James explained his problem.
“He was suffering from pain, but he was very vague about the location and the nature of it. I gathered that it was related to the illness that he had when he was found in [Mississippi]. When it began to bother him again and he was in considerable pain, he went to a man he called a “witch doctor’ in Washington. Skip told me the witch doctor diagnosed the case and said [Skip] had been hexed by a jealous woman in the area of the navel, and the poison had sort of drained downward.”
James once asked Louisa to pick up the witch doctor’s medicine. She followed directions to a row house near Union Station, where the man lived in a second-floor apartment. “He was a middle-aged man with a rather unfriendly appearance, quite stern, and on the wall was a chart which had a map with astrological symbols,” she remembers. “He gave me a jar with a dark brown liquid in it.”
Even that remedy didn’t work enough magic. The tumor grew, and that winter, James checked into D.C. General Hospital, which treated indigent patients. Once there, he chafed at medical opinion. Doctors told him bluntly that if he wanted to live, he had no choice: His penis would have to be amputated.
James at first refused, vowing to endure the agony though the doctors told him he couldn’t imagine the torment ahead if he postponed the procedure. But in early 1965, James surrendered. “The pain just got too bad,” explains Louisa.
As a young man, James had written songs full of swaggering machismo, songs about women and violence. Now he’d lost the ultimate proof of his manliness in the most ignominious way. Once, he’d “deadened the mind” of his female fans with his music. Now those conjuring powers could do him little good.
During James’ previous convalescence, young worshipers had surrounded his previous sickbed, and Newsweek had come calling. But this time, his only visitors were Mable and Louisa Spottswood.
Humbled, James composed a new song, “Washington D.C. Hospital Blues.” The bluesman who’d once embraced damnation in “Devil Got My Woman” now sang as a lowly supplicant, grateful for the life-saving medical care he received.
They came and asked me,
“Who in the world are you?”
I said, “I’m a good man,
But I’m a poor man.
You can understand.”
Louisa remembers that when she first visited James in the hospital, she found him lying on his bed, the white sheet pulled over his head like a funeral shroud. Even as James’ depression lifted, the ritual continued. “The first time, it was a shock, but after that it got to be kind of comical, and I’d say, “Hello Skip. It’s Louisa.’ And he’d pull off the sheet and be friendly and chat.”
James slowly came to accept his condition, and even began to joke about it. Once he yanked up the sheet to reveal his mutilated member to a flabbergasted Louisa. She remembers “a mauve flower with scalloped edges.”
“Then he said to me rather proudly, “I say to these young doctors, This would be really sad for someone your age.’ Basically he was saying he’d done it all. He was acting pretty devil-may-care about it.”
Later that winter, he was finally discharged and continued his convalescence at home. For a while, he rarely left the apartment. But that spring, James seemed to become a new man. He believed that he’d whipped his cancer, and put weight on his emaciated frame. In the apartment, he often played the piano the Spottswoods had loaned him. The bluesman was now a man of leisure—strolling around Dupont Circle, feeding pigeons in the park, and generally taking it easy.
Gone were the dark suit and preacher’s hat. James now sported Bermuda shorts and casual shirts. Remembers Louisa, “He was sort of swaggering around in those shorts, which was in the old way of thinking—remember when this was back in the ’60s—an uppity thing to do.” James was feeling strong again, strong enough to show the devil in himself.
Now it was Mable who was ill and depressed. In summer ’65, biographer Calt visited the couple’s apartment. “[I] found Mable alone, sitting in a darkened room,” Calt writes. “ “I’m sick,’ she blubbered. Her jaw quivering, she said that James had disappeared. No one would tell her where he was. “Skip’s always thinkin’,’ she added ominously. “Skip’s got mean things on his mind.’ ” Then she asked Calt to buy her a bottle of Scotch, which he did.
As it turned out, Mable was right to worry. James had skipped out of Washington, leaving her for another woman.
James had often been curt with his rough, “country” wife. One night at the Ontario, he caused a scene when he saw her dancing with one of the beatniks, Ed Denson. James angrily broke up the “foolishness,” as he dubbed it, and pulled Mable back to her chair.
James had courted his new girlfriend, a Philadelphia widow named Lorenzo Meeks, during his frequent stopovers in that city. Meeks was no younger than Mable (like James, in her 60s), but James thought Meeks was uptown and high-class, a notch above his former wife.
Naturally, the Washington blues coterie wondered what Meeks saw in the emasculated blues singer. “When we found out he’d run off with a new woman, we were just dumbfounded,” said Louisa. “I mean, we were young, and we thought, “Wow, mind over matter.’ ”
That winter, Mable was evicted from the Dupont Circle apartment, and the furniture was piled outside the building. Among the abandoned belongings stood the piano. Washington—the site of James’ supposed comeback—turned out to be just like any other town: a place for Skippy James to leave behind.
He never made it out of Philadelphia. His cancer continued to spread, and in late ’68, doctors removed his testicles and the remains of his penis.
James could barely afford medical treatment. After leaving Washington, he put out three more records. All three met with critical acclaim, and all three logged disappointing sales. James would have preferred commercial success: “I can’t live on air puddings,” he told Calt.
But just as James was on the brink of destitution, he began receiving royalties from his song “I’m So Glad,” covered by the British rock trio Cream on its debut album, Fresh Cream. Guitarist Eric Clapton made sure that the dying blues singer got his payments, which mostly went to pay his hospital bills. (Ironically, James’ song was itself a cover of sorts: He had transformed a tepid Tin Pan Alley tune, “I’m So Tired,” into a delirious guitar-picking tour de force.)
Louisa Spottswood and her whippet often visited the ailing bluesman. He married Lorenzo Meeks on his deathbed. (“I think it was really a love match after all,” says Louisa.) Meeks died in 1977, and the couple are buried under a single tombstone in Philadelphia.
One October afternoon in 1969, Spottswood had just returned from visiting James in Philadelphia. Their last meeting had been at the ’67 Folk Life Festival in Washington, when the singer’s healthy plumpness had surprised Spottswood: “I still had this vision of him as a gaunt, gray-haired guy with a little bit of a stoop and really intense glare.”
Now, though, he found himself listening to one of James’ ’60s gospel songs—one of the few spirituals James had recorded.
Haunted by a verse, Spottswood played the record again and again. Back at James’ Mississippi sick bed, when pilgrims came to pay him homage, the bluesman had envisioned “a thousand people standing by my bedside.”
But in this song, he sang of himself, humbled, on a pilgrimage of his own. This time, James pictured himself as part of the nameless, mortal multitude, among “many a thousand trying to get home.”
Spottswood later found out that James died that afternoon. “I thought, you bastard, you really touched my life once more, didn’t you?”