Skip James in Bloomington, Indiana - 1968
Sun May 2 02:29:01 EDT 2004
Skip James' 1968 Bloomington concert remembered by fans
By Ryan Whirty
Published Thursday, April 29, 2004
When Nehemiah "Skip" James took the stage at IU's Whittenberger Auditorium
March 30, 1968, the blues legend knew he had terminal cancer. It had put
him in the hospital before, and seven months after his IU concert he was
bedridden. He died Oct. 3, 1969 at the age of 67.
But that early spring night in Bloomington, nobody else in the Auditorium
-- not even folklore graduate student Peter Narváez, who picked James up
from the Indianapolis airport and welcomed James into his house for two
days -- was aware James was dying. Aside from frequent naps, James showed
no sign of ill health.
In fact, if James wasn't feeling well, he put on a very good face; in a set
of 1998 liner notes Narváez said he "found James to be a cheerful,
informative conversationalist and guest." (James even jammed with Narváez
at his house, the bluesman on guitar and the grad student on harmonica.)
Such a description is somewhat contrary to the general belief James was a
gloomy, dour man -- a belief that was fueled partially by James' rough and
sometimes violent past and a James biography by Stephen Calt that some say
painted James in an unfairly negative light.
"He was a perfect gentleman," Narváez said today. "He was an extremely
Regardless of personality, James' place in the history of American folk and
popular music is secure. In the 1920s, he began to play professionally, and
in the early '30s, he made some of the most crucial and influential blues
recordings ever, highlighted by the haunting, immortal classic, "Devil Got
My Woman." In doing so, James influenced countless blues, folk and rock
artists, and became a guiding light for subsequent blues greats, including
"Coupling an oddball guitar tuning set against eerie, falsetto vocals,"
writes musician Cub Koda, "James's early recordings could make the hair
stand up on the back of your neck."
Despite his age, James had, by early 1968, performed numerous times in
front of largely white audiences that were just beginning to open their
minds to the blues and to the frequently-punishing life of the average
Southern black person that the blues laid bare with painstaking detail. In
the early 1960s, white folkies started to get hip to rural country blues, a
trend that led to a renaissance of sorts for artists like James, Son House
and John Hurt. By the late '60s, rock groups -- especially British ones
like the Rolling Stones, Cream and Led Zeppelin -- were electrifying the
blues and blasting it at top volume.
But while that particular black-white cultural amalgamation proceeded
fairly smoothly, other encounters between the races in the late '60s didn't
go so well. On college campuses across the country, increasingly militant
young black students were becoming frustrated by what they perceived as
foot-dragging by white student leaders and campus administrators who were
hesitant to enact many of the civil rights and equality demands put forth
by black (and sympathetic white) protesters.
IU was no exception. Scheduled for March 30, 1968 -- the same day as James'
concert -- was a debate between Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon William Chaney
and IU graduate student Kas Kovalchek. The event, sponsored by the IU
Department of Speech and Theater, was canceled at the request of IU
President Elvis Stahr, who told the Indiana Daily Student Chaney's presence
would have been a "direct affront to many members of the Bloomington and
University communities, especially the Negro community." Stahr added the
administration "has been working to eliminate all semblance of
discrimination within the University."
Wise words, considering at the same time, a group of about 200 black
students were meeting to plan a non-violent protest in front of Stahr's
home and to draw up a list of demands to present to the president. The
group eventually arranged a meeting with Stahr April 2 -- the purpose of
the meeting, according to the IDS, was "to take concrete action concerning
discriminatory practices on the campus."
It was into this background that Skip James, a 66-year-old black man from
Bentonia, Miss., who for his whole life suffered through the indignities of
Jim Crow -- arrived in Bloomington.
Naváez said the night of the concert, the auditorium in the school union
was almost filled to capacity. Except for a few international students, the
crowd was entirely white. There was a mixing of undergrads, grad students
and Bloomington residents, many of whom were folkies who Narváez said had
little knowledge of the blues but were eager "to hear somebody who was an
authentic, older African American from Mississippi. They were polite," he
added of the crowd, "but they were also fascinated."
The Auditorium was dimmed for the show, but, thanks to a non-smoking
regulation, the room lacked the smoky haze of the clubs at which many
bluesmen played for their new white disciples. With bright spotlights on
the stage, Narváez stood at the microphones to introduce the man of the hour.
"We have one of the greatest stylists and blues singers with us today," he
told the crowd, then ceded the spotlight to the aging bluesman as the crowd
clapped and cheered.
The applause heightened when James walked out in front of the crowd --
alone and armed with his guitar -- and sat in a chair on an otherwise bare
stage. A somewhat diminutive man, James was dressed in a gray suit -- his
graying hair betraying his age. Two microphones were positioned in front of
him, one set up by Narváez, who was recording the show on a reel-to-reel
with James' permission.
"Thank you, and good evening everyone," he told the audience before tuning
his guitar for a minute or so and warming up to the crowd. "As a rule," he
said, "I always usually open my program with a spiritual. I always like to
put Him in first place, because without Him, it's a failure to start with.
An honest man can hit a straight lick with a cooked stick. That's how we're
Neither sickness nor age nor alcohol seemed to affect his performance, and
the auditorium's acoustics augmented the sparse but riveting playing of a
man who had played such an instrumental role in the development of American
folk and pop music.
"The sound was fabulous," Narváez said. "There was a really big sound. You
could hear every one of his licks very nicely."
With his dulcet falsetto and guitar tuned in his famous Bentonia style,
James rendered 21 songs, including many of his classic compositions -- "I'm
So Glad," "Cherry Ball Blues," "Hard Luck Child and "Drunken Spree," among
others. In simple terms, James was on that night. Narváez said James' voice
was "very, very good" and "his playing was great. He hadn't lost his chops
Exuding an infectious charm, James also interacted with the audience after
almost every song. He took a request for "Illinois Blues," and he
frequently coaxed the audience into laughter. When introducing "Devil Got
My Woman," James explained he wrote the song after his first wife, who had
an ingratiating ability to exasperate him.
"So I decided to give her to a man that could handle her," he said as the
audience tittered with laughter, "and that was the devil."
Revealing his storytelling abilities, James also offered background to
several of his songs. He found inspiration for "Hard Time Killin' Floor
Blues," for example, in the economic bleakness of the late 1920s and early
"I was in Dallas, Texas, at that time, in the soup line," he said
matter-of-factly, recalling a period in his life -- and the lives of
millions of other Americans -- that was smothered by with abject poverty.
"I couldn't get no work to do, couldn't get nothin' to eat hardly but that.
I got some good ideas from that experience."
After roughly two hours, he brought the concert full circle by closing with
another sacred song, "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning." He plucked the
last chord, then said a quiet "thank you" as the crowd offered up a rousing
ovation. About a year and a half later, the blues lost him to cancer.
Narváez eventually offered his tapes to Document Records, a European label
that was trying to collect and release live recordings of several early
bluesmen. "Skip James: The Complete Bloomington Concert" was released on
two CDs in 1998. Today Narváez holds a Ph.D. in folklore from IU and works
as a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada. He also
remains a fierce Skip James fan who's proud of the concert and of the CDs
that resulted from it.
"It turned out to be the best, well-recorded concert Skip James ever made,"
The fact that such a pristine, powerful recording could be made by a man
knocking on death's door is essentially astounding. The Bloomington concert
only enhanced James' legend and showed how brilliant and driven James was
as an artist -- and as a person.
"That's why I know how to compose a song as I do or as I did," he said
proudly, "because I had gone through that experience, and quite naturally I
could talk about it."
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