Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James was born on June 9, 1902, in Bentonia, Miss. Growing up at the Woodbine Plantation, James took a liking to several local musicians, namely Henry Stuckey, from whom he learned to play instruments such as the guitar and, later, the organ and piano. In the early 1920s, James worked construction and wrote some of his earliest works, such as Illinois Blues, which reflected on his life as a labourer.
In 1924, James returned home to Bentonia and earned his living as a sharecropper, a bootlegger, and a gambler, while simultaneously playing alongside his idol, Stuckey. By 1931, James took part in a recording session with Paramount Records and recorded 18 songs (13 of which were on guitar, and five on the piano). Upon their release, however, during the Great Depression, the recordings sold poorly, and James “drifted into obscurity.”
In 1964, James’s career as an artist took off again when he was rediscovered by blues enthusiasts (namely Bill Barth, Tom Hoskins, Dick Spottswood and John Fahey), who encouraged him to begin performing again. They were captivated by his distinct style and sound, which has been described as “dark” in a “minor-key sound” with an “intricate fingerpicking” technique. Consequently, James gained a reputation as one of the “great early Mississippi bluesmen.” Upon being rediscovered after many years of obscurity, James relocated to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., to play at jazz and blues clubs. He continued to further inspire the blues and folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, and his earlier records such as Hell Hound on my Trail and Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues made a major comeback.