Music to Help You Score With Sad People: Skip James


Enid: That one song Devil Got My Woman, I mostly just keep playing that over and over. Do you have any other records like that?

Seymour: There are no other records like that.

In Terry Zwigoff’s film Ghost World, based on the comic book by Daniel Clowes, Skip James’ Delta Blues masterpiece does eventually help Seymour (Steve Buscemi) score with Enid (Thora Birch). Of course, scoring with Enid ends up costing Seymour his relationship, his job, and a good portion of his sanity. Be careful how you use this music.

Nehemiah “Skip” James was born in a small town just south of the Mississippi Delta in 1902. His father was a bootlegger and a Baptist minister who abandoned the family shortly after Skip was born. When Skip was ten, his mother bought him a $2.50 guitar, and with the aid of various local musicians he learned how to play the blues on both the six-string and the piano. James played and sang at parties, roadhouses, juke joints, and whorehouses on the weekend and worked as an itinerant labourer during the week. While working at a lumber camp, he shot his first man. At another lumberyard, he met a man named Will Crabtree who was living large as a pianist and a pimp. James followed in his footsteps, but had to give up pimping after a dispute with one of his women. He fled to Memphis and hid out in a brothel, where he made a living playing the piano. In 1924, James returned to Mississippi where he worked as a sharecropper and bootlegger and developed the three-finger picking style and unusual tuning that make his guitar work sound so unique. (For the guitarists in the crowd, it was an E-minor cross tuning, E-B-E-G-B-E). At a young age, he married a sixteen year old girl, a minister’s daughter named Oscella, who quickly left him for one of his close friends.

Devil Got My Woman was recorded, along with something between 16 and 27 other songs, at the Paramount studios in Wisconsin in February of 1931. The records didn’t sell at all well, and James was never paid his fair due. Within a year, he had begun studying to be a minister after a chance meeting with his father. He worked as part of a Gospel quartet touring with his father’s Baptist revival show until the 1940s. In 1946 he was ordained as a Methodist minister and he remained a preacher until the late 1950s when he dropped out to become a plantation worker.

In the spring of 1964, an enthusiastic group of students researching American folk music found James recovering from syphilis in a Tunica County hospital. He appeared at the Newport Festival that year, and spearheaded the late-60s blues revival along with Son House and Mississippi John Hurt. By all accounts, Skip James was a miserable old bastard who treated the people who came to hear him play with contempt and who refused to acknowledge that anyone else had ever played the blues on his level.

There is a great scene in Ghost World where Enid is dying the green out of her hair. In the background, she is playing a compilation record of old blues numbers that she’d picked up at Seymour’s garage sale. When the first strange notes of Devil Got My Woman sound out, Enid stops short. The music has caught her attention. The next scene has Enid laying back in a chair with her feet up, head back, eyes closed, completely absorbed in the music. When the song ends, she immediately picks up the needle and starts listening to it again.

Skip James’ music is informed by the extreme contradictions of his life. He feared God, but felt drawn to a fast and easy way of living. He craved sex and affection but he had been burned by romance and he was deeply misogynistic. Critics often describe James’ high tenor voice as eerie, and his musical style as rhythmically unpredictable, but what really stands out is the tremendous depth of feeling and the searing honesty. It is easy to believe that, in 1931, the Paramount engineers captured a rare moment of pure emotional release. The remarkable thing about that scene in Ghost World is that Enid, in the midst of realising that she simply cannot fit in with the fake, hollow, and meaningless world around her, has a moment of intense spiritual communion with a Mississippi sharecropper, pimp, and blues man who had died of cancer years before she was born. In Devil Got My Woman, and in the other songs that Skip James recorded in 1931 we all have the opportunity, in this empty and plastic world, to find something very real.

I would rather be the devil than be that woman’s man.
I would rather be the devil than be that woman’s man.

Oh, nothing but the devil changed my baby’s mind.
Oh, nothing but the devil changed my baby’s mind.

I laid down last night, laid down last night,
I laid down last night, tried to take my rest.
My mind got rambling like the wild geese from the west, from the west.

The woman I love, woman I love, woman I love,
Stole her from my best friend.
But he got lucky, and he got lucky,
Stole her back again.


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