Skip James in Bloomington, Indiana - 1968

Jef Jaisun jef@jaisunphoto.com
Sun May 2 02:29:01 EDT 2004


http://www.idsnews.com/story.php?id=23096

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 
sophisticated person."

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 
Robert Johnson.

"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 
created."

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 
at all."

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 
'30s.

"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," 
Narváez said.

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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