Tag: Blind Lemon Jefferson

Featured Musician: Skip James

When I started listening to the blues, I was fortunate to live in the world of YouTube and blogs. All of the living old blues men and women had already been tracked down, rare sides found, and historical performance footage uploaded to the internet.

One of my favorite stories to read about are when old performers were rediscovered by a small group of dedicated record collectors and amateur historians.

The legendary blues man Skip James was rediscovered in 1964. Check out this amazing performance he recorded that same year:

Skip James recorded some incredible sides in 1931, but his success was marred by the Great Depression. He did not record again for over 30 years. 

In 1964, after rediscovery, James preformed for the first time at the Newport Blues Festival. For the next five years, James enjoyed the career as a musician he never had. He passed away in 1969. 

Aside from Blind Lemon Jefferson, it’s hard to find a more idiosyncratic musician from the pre-war blues era than Skip James.

In many of his 1931 recordings, James played in a strange minor tuning he called “cross-note tuning.” This gave his music a somber, dark, moody quality. He also sang in an eerie falsetto that he was able to replicate even after his rediscovery. 

James’ contribution to music are unknown to many, but are significant. Hard Times Killing Floor Blues was famously covered in the Cohen Brother’s film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Additionally, Skip James’ recording Devil Got My Woman heavily influenced Robert Johnson’s 1937 Hellhound on my Trail, which is considered to be one of the greatest songs of the 20th century. 

Many people think of blues men as nomadic, soulful, troubled men that traveled the open road expressing themselves through their guitar. In reality, many great country blues artists we’re not like this, but were seasoned performers, playing pop songs of the day.

When you listen to Skip James’ music, you don’t hear a 1930s pop performer. You hear a man channeling something deep through his voice, piano, and guitar.

Skip James is a true country blues legend– there will never be another.

Featured Musician: Sonny Boy Nelson

Sonny Boy Nelson (real name Eugene Powell) recorded in the 1930s, and played along side legendary country blues musician Hacksaw Harney. I first discovered Nelson a few years into playing blues music.

It was a revelatory experience. 

Nelson’s intricate and sorrowful playing made me see the possibility of what my guitar playing could turn into.

When I studied with John Miller, I asked him to help me figure out some of Nelson’s playing because it was so unconventional, but so familiar. Only a master of this style like John could unravel this playing.

Watching and learning Nelson’s playing gave me a new outlook and perspective in what’s possible in country blues playing. It also helped me figure out the playing of blues-great Sam Chatmon who was undoubtedly in contact with Sonny Boy Nelson in his lifetime.

Here are some examples of Nelson’s incredible blues picking:

Nelson definitely has a unique style, but also has some clear influences. I can hear riffs from Tommy Johnson’s Lonesome Home Blues and a lot of stylistic borrowings from Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Matchbox Blues was a cover of a Blind Lemon Jefferson song, but Nelson’s version is a great example of making something your own.

For the same reasons as I love Scrapper Blackwell’s playing, I love Sonny Boy Nelson’s. They both have a clear way of playing in a key, and they constantly improvise, but their style is a recognizable trademark of their craft.

How did I find the blues?

I love country blues music.

I’m not talking about electric guitars and shuffle rhythms.

I’m talking about the real old blues.

The country-blues were regional African-American folk musics. These sounds laid the foundation for music today, and continues to be present, even if it’s just an esoteric ghost of a memory.

I found this music during a long journey, meandering through genres and artists, not knowing what I was looking for until I found it.

My journey started with the Grateful Dead. I always liked the acoustic songs like Brokedown Palace, Ripple, and Black Peter. This was Clue #1 to what I was looking for.

Clue #2 was when I started listening to Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. I was really drawn to their earlier music— their unconventional voices and acoustic guitar accompaniment struck me.

Young’s and Cohen’s music seemed so immediate and self-sufficient. I felt that these singers were drawing on something rich.

A source I could feel but not understand. 

Clue #3 hit me like a train— it was like lenses suddenly snapping into focus. The path on my journey was illuminated.

This moment occurred when I stumbled on a video of the blues singer Lightning Hopkins playing Baby, Please Don’t Go.

Afterwards I thought to myself: This is how the guitar is supposed to sound.

My new mission was to capture and fill my head with that sound.

Have I been able to capture it? No, because that’s the journey. Discovering the blues was just the clearest step on the journey thus far.

What I did manage to capture was the realization that I’m drawn to the image and sounds of the lone singer-songwriter bearing themselves to the world. 

In order to express themselves in a way that touches us, they have to tap into that rich channel.

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I feel like when I play guitar for people, or hear the music of one of these singer-songwriters, I get to tap into that richness and get to experience it again.

If only for those moments.

My journey has led me to many interesting stations, and I am excited to share them with you.

If you haven’t heard the old country blues music, listen to it.

It will give you the foundation to understand where all the music we love came from and also hopefully make you feel like I did when I first heard it.