More on Skip James PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 31 August 2006 00:00
More on Skip James
An interview of Skip James' cousin, Fred Bolden, by Roi Geyari of Israel. 2006

It sure is exciting to be able to chat with someone who knew Skip!

I not only knew Skip James, but I spent many Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays right in Skip's home. The James's actually gave me their bedroom to sleep in, and I can still remember the old fashioned furniture it contained and a notebook on the night table where Skip had written his songs in lead pencil. This room was upstairs and not in use, since Skip was very sick at the time, they made quarters for him to sleep downstairs. Eric Clapton, you know, bought Skip and his wife that beautiful home in West Philadelphia.

When did you first meet Skip?

Skip and I met around the time of the 1964 Newport Blues Festival. See, Son House was scheduled to appear, but he became too drunk to go on, so Skip, who had just been re-discovered, went on in Son's place.

How close were you to him? I mean, for example, could you have a conversation with him that will flow into personal details like worries, women, ect.? Can you describe a typical conversation?

I wouldn't call Skip and I very close because I wasn't around him all of the time. When I went down to his house, I'd maybe stay about a week, usually around Thanksgiving or Christmas.

How did his family/parents feel about Skip's secular music, about his "devilish" music? How did Skip feel about it? Did he feel like he's doing something wrong? Tell me a little bit about his perspective about the whole blues/gospel issue.

I honestly never knew anything about Skip's family. Never heard Skip talk about his family. I never knew Skip to have any qualms about singing blues and religious music. Just as my uncle, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip was comfortable with both.

What hobbies did he have besides music?

Man, I never knew Skip to have any other hobbies besides music, if so, I didn't know about them.

How would he react for criticism/compliments?

Skip was a very complex unpredictable man. For example, if you went to show him a chord or song that Skip used, he was liable to get angry with you. So, often, he didn't take compliments too well. Skip would compliment you if you were able to say a bible verse at his table before dinner, but if you didn't know one, Skip would castigate you very harshly.

Did he have a passion to be popular and successful, or was it enough for him just to have the ability to play the music that he loved?

Early on, Skip wanted some measure of success with his music, but because of the Depression, it didn't work out that way.

What did he think about other kinds of blues? British rock-blues, electric blues, ect.?

I never really asked him what he thought of other kinds of blues, but I wish I had.

As a huge fan of Robert Johnson, I'm curious, did Skip listen to Johnson's music? What did he think of that, especially of his remake of "22-20 Blues"?

Skip did not like the idea of Robert Johnson, or any other person, taking his music. Skip told me that he basically believed in everyone doing his own thing. When I once asked Skip to play "See, See, Rider", he told me no; that it was a John Hurt song, and that he, Son, and John Hurt had different styles and didn't do each other's material.

Was he willing to share some of his "musical secrets", I mean did he teach other people guitar techniques and things like that?

Roi, believe me, Skip was not willing to share his musical secrets with no one. That's the reason why he made his music so complex - so others couldn't copy his material, so I never heard of Skip ever teaching anyone his music.

Did you talk to him about his early recordings? Did you tell him your opinion about them? Did he share his feelings about the fact that the record wasn't very successful as a result of the depression?

We did talk a little about his early recordings. Skip said he became despondent and decided to go to a seminary school to become a minister.

Do you know what happened to him after his 1931 session for Paramount? Do you know where he was? Did he know how popular he became during that time? For example, as far as you know, did he hear Johnny Temple's cover of "Devil Got My Woman" from 1935?

After the Paramount sessions, I think Skip said that he went to work in a lumber camp, if I recall correctly. I honestly never heard him talk about Johnny Temple.

What do you remember from his live shows?

As for Skip's live shows, the first one I saw was very enthusiastically received. That was Newport 1964. After Skip moved to Philadelphia, that wasn't often the case. See, he used to play regularly at the Second Fret Coffeehouse. There, Skip used to do more talking than playing, lecturing his audience, and trying to be more educated than he really was. That turned a lot of people off, so they stopped coming to see Skip. Sometime when I went down there, you might only see five or six people in the club who actually came to hear Skip. So, he alienated a lot of people.

Do you remember where you were when you heard about Skip's death, how did you hear about it and how did you react? Were you at the funeral? Do you remember how many people were there?

I honestly can't say where or when I first heard the Skip died, but it was long after his death. There was no particular reaction, as I had long lost touch with that particular part of our family.

One of the most interesting things to me is the women in his songs. Did you talk to him about that?

Skip talked about two of the women in his songs. The first one he called "Cherryball", a secretary at the Paramount Studios, and he may have been somewhat infatuated with her. The other one was, of course, his wife Lorenzo. See "Lorenzo Blues".

When Skip was rediscovered, it seemed like he didn't play much after the Paramount session. His playing in the 60's sounds kind of rusty, but still so beautiful. Can you remember the process of his improvement, I mean, who reminded him how to play like Skip James again, and how much time did he invest in practicing?

Skip was re-discovered in June of 1964 at a time when many people were searching for the lost bluesmen who had recorded in the 20s and 30s. Three of them, Ed Denson, Henry Vestine, and John Fahey, found Skip at the Tunica County Hospital in Tunica, Mississippi. They paid his bill (about $84) and brought him to Washington, DC by car. At that time, Skip hadn't played a guitar in years and had to be taught all over again by these blues enthusiasts. They had memorized many of the chords that he used from those Paramount recordings. I know that he practiced a lot, but I don't know how much time.

Do you remember exactly how many recording sessions did he have after his rediscovery?

It's hard for me to say how many recording sessions he had after re-discovery, but there were quite a few.

Did he like having good time, parties or whatever, on Saturday night? He probably wasn't allowed to smoke or drink because of the illness, but do you remember if he was doing it anyway?

No, I don't ever remember Skip partying.

As far as you can remember, did he feel like his end is close, I mean, did he looked scared or pessimistic?

I believe Skip knew that he had terminal cancer, but that's something we never talked about.

Did he tell you about his childhood? If he did, what did he tell you?

He didn't talk much about childhood, except to say that he loved to beat notes out on a bucket when he was a boy.

How many children did he have? How many times he was married?

When I visited Skip's home in Philly, he and his wife had an adopted son named Bobby. Other than that, I never knew Skip to have any children, or ever to have married, except my mom's first cousin, or John Hurt's niece.

Did he jam with other musicians like Son House or John Hurt? And I don't mean a situation where for example Son House plays a song, then John Hurt, and then Skip or something like that. I mean did he actually play songs with others, as a band?

I never knew Skip to jam in unison with any other musicians, except like you said i.e, in duel concerts.

Did you ever get a chance to sit with him alone and hear him play just for you? If you did, do you remember what songs he liked to play? Do you think he felt more comfortable with the guitar or with the piano?

Sure, Skip would play just for me, and I made requests.
It's hard to say whether he was more comfortable with the guitar or the piano.

Do you remember when your cousin married Lorenzo? Were you at the wedding?

Well, I didn't really find out that Skip had married my mom's first cousin until around the late fall of 1967. They were in Cambridge at Al Wilson's when I they called us up, so I took a bus over there to meet them.

When did you stop being in contact with Skip? Was it after your uncle passed away? Do you remember something from Mr. Hurt's funeral? Was Skip there?

After I joined the Navy in 1969, I lost all contact with Skip and Lorenzo, I think, and yes this was long after my uncle, Mississippi John Hurt, had passed.

Well, I attended my uncle's funeral, and I definitely don't recall Skip there. I only saw Furry Lewis and Memphis Willie Borum.

First, I took a bus from Boston to Chicago. Shortly after that, Teddy Hurt, my cousin, drove me, my uncle Cleveland, his wife, and my aunt Katherine all down to MJH's funeral. On a Saturday night we visited the body at a funeral home in Greenwood, Mississippi. Next day, we drove to a small church way out in Avalon. Afterwards, we buried my uncle up in the hills - I stayed right through the whole thing.

Do you have any thoughts that you can share about the rumors that Skip killed a man? Also I would like some details, when did Stephen Calt start these rumors and what was his theory and stuff like that...

Roi, from the whole time that I knew Skip, I never heard anything about him ever killing a man. It seems to me that something like that would have popped up in family conversation. Honestly, I don't know Stephen Calt, nor have I ever read his book, but everything that I hear about him is pretty negative.

Did you get the chance to talk to any other famous bluesmen at that time?

Other bluesmen that I met and talked with have been Brownie McGhee, Robert Wilkins, Memphis Willie B, Son House, Bukka White, Willie Doss, Buddy Guy, and AC Reed.

How long have you been playing the guitar? Who are your influences?

I've been playing now off and on for about 45 year, though I don't consider myself a professional by any means. Without a single doubt, Skip and Uncle John are my only influences
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