Interview with Skip James' Cousin
Tuesday, 15 November 2005 00:00
| Interview with Skip James' Cousin|
|by Angela Mack |
may not be reproduced without permission
|Fred in his navy uniform age 17|
Interviewed by phone by Angela K. Mack
Name: Fred Bolden
Born: 1951 Boston, Massachusetts
Retired police officer
A: How are you related to Skip James?
F: Skip married my second cousin (my mother’s first cousin). He’s related by marriage. Skip’s wife’s name was Lorenzo Hurt. I’m really a Hurt.
A: How are you related to Mississippi John Hurt?
F: He’s my grand uncle. (My grandfather’s brother)
A: Do you remember meeting Skip James for the first time?
F: Oh sure….Oh sure….I’ll never forget that…down at NewPort. You see, Son House got drunk and was supposed to play that gig in 1964. (Newport Blues Festival) I remember that like yesterday. Skip was so nervous….so nervous…..[laughing] Skip was so nervous that he was shaking like the leaves on a tree.
Reverend Robert Wilkins had to calm him down. He was a performer also. Ever heard of Bob Dylan? He was there, too. Tom Huskins almost threw him out. Howlin’ Wolf was there. They called the tent “Bluesville”. Skip and Misssissippi Fred McDonald were really nervous. When he got on stage, that was the highlight of his career. He did this little thing with his left hand. Then he sang, “I’d rather be the devil than to be that woman’s man…..” He did it in that falsetto that sent chills up and down my back. It still does today. The crowd just went wild. He did about 4 or 5 songs.
The highlight of his whole career was the Newport Festival. There were thousands there. I was fascinated by the microphones that picked up his sound. I still have dreams about it. I never saw anything like that before, you know. He had on a preacher’s hat…black, winged tip shoes, a jacket, and a rectangular button with “KIN” on it….meaning he was a performer. That meant that you were part of the staff or a performer.
A: Was Son House there?
F: No. [laughing] Dick Waterman took him somewhere to sleep it off….probably Freebody Park.
A: Who taught Skip how to play?
F: I think Skip taught himself. But there was Little Brother Montgomery and an unknown guy….Henry Stuckey. And don’t forget during WWI, they were in Jackson, Mississippi and he met my Uncle Mississippi John Hurt. I think it’s from my Uncle’s influence. My Uncle used to hang out down there.
A: You mentioned that he didn’t like playing other people’s songs……….
F: That’s right.
A: Do you think it’s because he couldn’t play them?
F: No. No. And I’ll tell you why. You know why? He said, “I can play all those songs, but I want to do my own thing.” Skip said that to me, because we were sitting in the living room. We used to sit in the living room all of the time. He, Lorenzo, and I. I asked him once to play C.C. Rider. He said, “That’s Mississippi John Hurt’s song…….”
A: You said that Son House came to your house and played. What did he play?
F: Well, yes….I remember him and John Hurt doing one song, Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Blind Snake Moan”. They got really tore up. They were drinking that blues. Son House did “Preaching Blues”….it’s one of my favorites. … and there’s “Empire State Blues…” He used to work for that railroad. It’s about the Empire State Railroad.
A: What do you remember about Skip’s personality?
F: He was quite….almost mysterious……full of spirits….He could be both…..He could be lively…..Down in Newport…..he was so nervous….he was scared $#@less. [laughing] That’s probably the quietest I ever seen him. He could rub people the wrong way. But I was on his good side. I never gave him any argument. I tell you the truth,
he liked those %$#@houses and drank a lot. He didn’t drink too much at his house when I was there, though. Not like my Uncle John. My Uncle John always had a pint on him even when he was playing. I asked my mom as a young kid what that was. She said, “It gave him the spirit”……[laughing]
A: What made him mad?
F: Yes….there was a young 17 year old kid with a guitar. He said, “Skip, I learned how to play a song just like you play it….” Skip got mad and said, “I done been and gone from places you’ll never get to……” He got mad all of the time…..in conversation…yeah….like….those guys that found him. They were handling him for awhile. Skip was mad at John Fahey because they took his money and were squandering it at his expense. So Skip got away from them. He said, “They took my money and squandered it.” A lot of those guys they rediscovered….they embroiled them in money problems. The rediscovered blues guys felt cheated. They had no way of assessing what they were really worth. They weren’t prepared to be rediscovered and didn’t know how to deal with it. So they didn’t deal with it well.
When they found Skip in the hospital, he didn’t remember anything. He had to be taught again by blues enthusiasts who mastered his licks.
A: What made him sad?
F: He was a hard hearted man. He had a heart like stone.
A: Did he ever tell any stories?
What kind of stories?
Oh sure…..A lot of stuff he did when he was a young guy….his travels to Texas. (Austin or Dallas?) He said, “With money you can see and buy anything you want”. He told me the story how he got rediscovered. Bill Barth, Henry Vestine, and John Fahey. John went on to be famous, you know. They found Skip in Tunica, Mississippi in the hospital there. A couple of other guys were looking for Son House and they found Son and Skip on the same day. Can you believe that? They came into the hospital and played Skip’s record from the Grafton days.
I did talk to Skip about the Depression. He had to eat at the soup kitchens. Yeah, he went back to his parents. Most black people were hit hard back then and faired the worst I’m afraid.
A: Where did his dad live?
F: I think Bentonia, Mississippi. That’s the place you want to go. Skip had a school down there. He had several musicians down there who were influenced by him and played a lot like him……some great guitar players down there who recorded there.
A: What can you tell me about Skip parents?
F: No…..I tell you the truth…..It’s really really really mysterious……I didn’t think to ask him….I didn’t know how famous he was. I thought he was a regular. He had a lot of recognition. There was a lot written about him.
They [Skip and Lorenzo] had an adopted son named Bobby. I didn’t get along too good with him. He was a homosexual and he tried to hit on me….right there in Skip’s house. I haven’t seen Bobby since 1969 or 1970
A: You mentioned a notebook of songs that Skip had…….Do you know where it is?
F: Skip and his wife are both dead. I don’t know where it is. They let me have his bedroom when I stayed there. I was there for Thanksgiving and Christmas, you know. They were both very nice. His old notebook had all of his songs in it neatly written.
A: Did it have the chords written in it?
F: Oh no. I don’t think Skip could read music. I don’t think any of those guys could.
A: Where was Skip’s home?
F: Philadelphia. I don’t know whatever happened to that house. I’m sure they sold it or something.
A: You said you spent a lot of time in Skip James’ home? What was it like?
F: I was a young teenager then when I visited there. I would visit my other relatives there. He let me take his guitar out. He let me take his guitar to my mother’s cousins.
Eric Clapton bought the house…it was a really nice house….it really was…Clapton bought him the house because he took one of Skip’s songs “I’m So Glad”. He wanted to compensate for it. Eric Clapton wanted to give something back.
The kitchen was very, very clean….long table in the kitchen. Skip’s room was nice and tidy. They liked me so much that they led me have their room. The furniture was very old fashioned from the early 20’s and 30’s.
A: Did he ever make any meals for you?
F: Lorenzo did the cooking. Skip liked ham hocks, cornbread (the real flaky kind), and collared greens, and chitins.
A: Did Skip always want to do music?
F: He wanted to become a minister when he was young. But he had this thing with the blues. Times were hard…..he wasn’t going to get anywhere singing the blues. He knew that. I think his father was a minister. He went to some sort of seminary or religious school and became a minister.
A: Did Skip ever preach to you?
F: Every time I sat down with them for dinner, we had to recite a Bible verse. One time we were there. One of his friends came and Skip really yelled at him because he didn’t know a Bible verse. I have seen him step on a lot of toes and hurt a lot of people’s feelings. One time, when he was in Philadelphia, he played at a place called the “2nd Fret” ( a coffee house). He most frequently played there. He got on stage and preached a lot. But that turned people off. I’m telling you the truth, there would only be 5 or 6 people there. Can you imagine that for Skip James? His preaching turned a lot of people off.
A: So why did he quit for 30-35 years after his Paramount Recordings?
F: It was the Depression. What Skip was doing in 1930’s wasn’t selling. He went to seminary school after Grafton. Grafton was the only place that he recorded.
A: After Grafton, he was missing. It’s was really a mystery. What was doing? Where did he live?
F: Skip told me that he became a born again Christian. He became a minister for awhile then. He sang gospel music and traveled with a gospel group. When he traveled with those caravans (those young people), he probably got a better reception.
You see, can I tell you something? Dick Waterman was Son House’s manager and Mississippi’s manager. Son would try to find the nearest liquor store and get lost. So Dick dropped him off at our house once.
Bob Dylan was at our house in 1964 because my uncle had played at the Café Yana. My uncle had 5 nights sold out. My father and mother threw a party for him to celebrate….along with all of the patrons. Bob Dylan was there. I thought he was going to play. He was with some girl. He was hiding in our house making out with that girl. [laughing] I had to go to the bathroom and get passed him and that girl. This was in February 1964. This was just before the Beatles invaded America.
A: Did Skip ever teach you anything about God?
F: Not that I can remember.
A: Skip used to wake you up on Sundays with church songs. What songs did he play? Where did he go to church?
F: "What a Friend We have in Jesus”, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”, “Rock of Ages”, all of those songs. I don’t remember him going to church when I was there. I don’t know where he went to church. He had a beautiful piano.
A: He enjoyed playing piano?
F: Oh yeah….. Someone wrote a book on Skip, you know. I don’t think any of this information is in it.
A: What was his piano like?
F: Upright. Beautiful. In those days, most of them were used. He had a new one…..light brown, new. I don’t know what he did with his piano.
A: You said that, one night, Skip started out playing “I’m so Glad” for you real slow and then a flamenco piece. You said he was always full of surprises? How so?
F: Oh yeah, full of surprises….
A: What kind of surprises?
F: Musical surprises. Skip, his wife, and myself would listen to him play and talk in the living room. He would play a Broadway show tune, then a spiritual……something like that….
A: What were some of the spirituals he liked?
F: ….. “Jesus, he’s a mighty good leader, all the way, all the way”….., “I Shall Not Be Moved”, “Wade in the Water”….. I think I learned that one from Skip. That’s in my repertoire.
A: What about the woman behind Skip James, Lorenzo. What was she like?
F: Lorenzo stuck with him all the way. If you asked him, he say, “She’s shaped like a Coca Coca bottle and she wibbles and she wobbles when she walks. Those are lines from a song of his. Very heavy. Not fat. Large woman. Very kind, thoughtful, and supportive. They have a beautiful grave site. She was religious. I don’t know what church.
A: So what about the lyrics, “I’d rather be the devil than to be that woman’s man?” Was that a real person?
F: He had an experience once. That song was a true story. I think we all have.
A: What did Skip say about Grafton or his recordings?
F: Not much…..except that they paid his way up there…..he had to sit still….in the recording laboratory. That’s what they called those then. He said it was uncomfortable. They were advertised in the Chicago Defender. They sold everywhere.
A: How did he record them? Did he like how they turned out? What about the Grafton studio?
F: It was a factory. He said, “They had me up in a factory in this room…..” I think that was a make shift studio.
A: What is a make shift studio?
F: You make your own place to record….they would set up the equipment to record you. The room would have to have good acoustics. (“Room tone” is what they called it in the 20’s)…..this was common…..The Wisconsin Chair Factory was a great place that was hollow…..spacious…..a great place to record…..
A: Yeah. That makes sense. I never heard that. Did he get paid well for his recordings?
F: Naw……No….I don’t think so. I think he got maybe $50 a record….maybe….I’m not sure how they paid him. You did a bunch of songs and they’d give you $40 or $50. They targeted people like Mississippi and Skip. It meant greater profit.
The black community bought them. Those records popped up in Chicago, New York, the south.
A: What can you tell me about “race records”?
F: Well, they had a market that was all part of segregation….they had a market for blacks and a market for whites. Then later, a polite way of saying “race records” was “R & B”. It was the politically correct term.
A: You mentioned that when Skip was ill, he was really “bitter about the guys running Paramount in the 30’s”. Why?
F: I think I was talking about H.C. Spier…..
A: Did Skip listen to his own recordings?
F: Oh yeah…….I had one of his 1930 sessions from Grafton…..my mother had all of his other albums…..She is, like, 90 years old. I was in Vietnam and I left all my records over there….Blind Lemon Jefferson….all of them….
A: Did Skip ever talk to you about Vietnam?
F: Oh sure….he said things like, “I’m proud of you….be careful…..take it easy…..keep playing that guitar…..If I can do it and John Hurt can do it, you could do it.”
A: Did you play on the ship?
F: Oh yeah.
A: Can you play “I’m So Glad”?
F: Oh God no! I could never play that. It’s too intricate for me. Mississippi John Hurt taught me. I could play his songs like him.
A: What was your favorite Skip song?
F: Al of them…..”I’m so Glad”……I listen to this more than any other. He had a strange way of tuning his guitar. Open E or open D.
Have you ever heard me?
You can hear one of my songs here. www.the-blindman.com/knockin.mp3 This is a song I wrote. Mississippi John Hurt taught me how to play like that.
A: Where did you record it?
F: In my living room.
A: With what?
F: One of those cheap tape players you buy at Radio Shack.
You can also go here. www.soundclick.com/bands/7/waltertoresspontobeat.htm Click on Soundclick. Maybe you’ll see 4 or 5 of my songs.
A: Why didn’t you ever become a performer?
F: Because I didn’t want to go through what Skip and my Uncle John went through. I decided to go to school. I went for 4 years and then became a police officer for the Boston Police Department. I’m retired now.
A: I read somewhere that Skip died of lung cancer. Is that what you rememember?
F: He didn’t die of lung cancer. He had his testicles removed. We all in the family knew that. A lot of these people write a lot about these people and they get the facts all wrong. That’s why he had such a high voice because he had his testicles removed. He had that happen in the 60’s.
A: I am also looking at this photo of him taken at his 1964 Newport. He looks so mad. Why?
F: He had a good reason. He was a sick man. When that picture had been taken, he had just gotten out of the hospital.
MUCH THANKS TO FRED FOR THIS EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW!