Those of you who’ve been to a gig recently may well have heard me sing this haunting song first written and recorded by Skip James back in the 1930’s.
When I was 17 years old and I was into picking up cheap second hand vinyl in
the markets in London, I’d often buy music on a whim, not knowing the artist or the genre.
That was how I ended up with a record that I chose initially for the cover and the price before being rooted to the spot as the turntable revealed the inimitable sound of Skip James, his unique picking guitar style, his high voice and his extraordinary lyrics. It’s no understatement to say that song and that moment changed my life.
I sold my electric guitar, stopped playing with my band at the time, threw away my plectrum and learnt slowly how to play with my fingers on a battered old Epiphone.
I spent the following years addicted to all types of acoustic blues from the Mississippi Delta and I was incapable of listening to anything else, with the exception of Malians, Ali Farka Toure and Boubakar Traore who I’d also picked up on vinyl back in the day!
To cut a long story short, it took me pretty much twenty years to find the courage to play this song, I have never had a music lesson in my life, I’ve only ever learnt from records or from playing with other musicians over the years. Skip James was and will always remain an absolute master for me, someone who took the form of song to its most poignant and touching heights.
He wrote complex and immensely poetic lyrics, not merely to have words to moan and wail to the music but to express as a poet would, profound and specific images, ideas and stories through his words. (See his “Washington DC hospital Blues’ or his ‘Cherry Ball Blues’)
The idea that I would one day be able to play, in some form or other, this man’s music is some testament to stubborn determination and hard work. When I first heard that song all those years ago, I was capable only of strumming open chords and struggled with bar chords!
When Ben Harper heard me play Cypress Grove he jokingly said, ‘No one plays Skip James’ meaning you’d have to be crazy to learn a song that difficult!
Like all of these songs in this little series of covers, if people get to discover Skip James through my humble little version, it’s a good job done for me!
I will always carry the torch for the great Skip James.