Guitar blues of the 1930s brought to life in UHD 4K video, for the second century of recorded blues fans.
Episode 02: “Worried Blues" by Skip James (1966)
This time we turn to one of Robert Johnson’s most important musical influences, Skip James. Robert Johnson reworked two Skip James songs into 32-20 Blues and Hell Hound On My Trail. Skip also left a wide lyrical and stylist impact on Robert’s recorded canon, most clearly heard in Come On In My Kitchen. Skip was born the same year, first recorded the same year, and was rediscovered the same year as that other Delta Blues legend, Son House, who also shaped a significant chunk of Robert Johnson’s recorded work.
Don’t Skip The Book
For some background on Skip’s life, I highly recommend “I'd Rather Be The Devil” by Stephen Calt. It is somewhat unique amongst all these obscure and mysterious early bluesmen to have one example where someone who personally knew him well (while he was still alive) had the good sense to ask him lots of questions, write down the answers, and publish a book about it. This is a charismatic and unique musician that we know quite a bit about thanks to this book.
It was not recorded until much later, in 1966, but “Worried Blues” was composed and played by a pioneer of the 1930s Vintage Blues era. It is not one of Skip’s original 18 sides recorded at the famous furniture factory in Grafton, Wisconsin for Paramount in 1931. It came from Skip’s brief 1964-1969 rediscovery and return to the music industry after his 30something-year absence from recording blues. It is not one of his signature songs, and might be considered a “deep cut”, so I’ll explain why I’ve chosen this selection for episode two.
The practical reason is that unlike much of Skip’s music, which is played in his idiosyncratic Open D-minor tuning, “Worried Blues” is in standard tuning. It wasn’t the first or most famous Skip James song I learned, but practically it means that I play it a lot more often, and therefore already have it a bit more polished than his Open D-minor stuff. When you only have one guitar you really need to be in a “Skip James mood” to retune to Open D-minor and just play only his stuff for a few hours.
But the real reason for this selection is: because I actually got to see him play it. Skip and several other rediscovered legends of the Vintage Blues era were recorded and filmed in July 1966 as part of the Newport Folk Festival by that great archivist of the blues, Alan Lomax.
Lomax created a virtual Mississippi juke joint in Rhode Island, stocked the bar, and had his cameras rolling as Skip James, Son House, Bukka White, Howlin’ Wolf, and others went at it. Skip wasn’t going to get the crowd on their feet, rocking to the beat like Howlin’ Wolf and his band, nor could he match the powerful, raw emotional performance of Son House, but Skip could play guitar circles around either of them. And nobody could sing eerie, haunting blues like Skip James.
In those days, Son House was somewhat notorious for his alcoholic ramblings during the performances of his fellow bluesmen. There’s another clip from the same event with Howlin’ Wolf giving him a pretty stern talking-to regarding his drunken bluesmanship. From the original recordings of “Worried Blues” it sounds like they might have needed a few takes to get Mr. House to shut up long enough to record the whole song. Even in the final take, if you listen carefully you can hear Son start to sputter off again until the unmistakable hushed voice of Mr. Wolf tells him to zip it.
In spite of his occasional ramblings, Son House did offer a warm hand at the end of Skip’s song, and that must be pretty nice to have The Father Of Delta Blues applaud your performance, which is why I needed to borrow a glimpse of it to end mine.
You can download and listen to a copy of “Worried Blues” and a few other Skip James recordings in the online archive on this site by Alan Lomax’s foundation.
After many years of studying Robert Johnson’s 29 songs with nothing more than two grainy old photographs to gaze upon, and the educated guesses of those who have worked out by ear what he’s playing, it was somewhat magical for me to finally see a master from the 1930s perform on film. Skip had a unique and idiosyncratic way of playing, and I may not have found the encouragement to try playing his stuff if I’d hadn’t seen it from the man himself.
In contrast to last episode’s advice to use a thumb pick and palm muting to sound like Robert Johnson, to sound like Skip James you do the opposite: bare thumb and no palm muting. Let the strings ring out with your wrist floating high above the bridge. The key, which I discovered watching his video (and might have never stumbled upon without it) is to post your ring finger firmly on the body of the guitar, to create a steady arching bridge with your hand high over the strings. This fixed platform allows the thumb to keep the steady, independent beat, while forcing you to pluck the strings with just your two remaining fingers. Not one, not three, exactly two fingers. That’s how to recreate Skip’s characteristic sparse, droning sound.
“Worried Blues” is also a beautiful example of the ambiguity in blues that gives it the air of melancholy. Sometimes people unfamiliar with the genre think blues is only sad, depressing music, but it’s really not. It’s melancholy. It sounds like things are going to hell, but just maybe everything will turn out okay. “Worried Blues” is probably a sad song, but maybe not.
Skip accomplishes this ambiguity both musically and lyrically. Musically, he’s constantly hammering-on, pulling-off, or sliding between the minor and major 3rd notes to shift the sad minor chords into happy major chords and back again. He uses ambiguous 7th chords to create a “hanging” unresolved sensation.
Lyrically, like much of Skip’s music, “Worried Blues” is a grab bag of assorted couplets (some original and some recycled by bluesmen since before blues was recorded) that he would alter as he would see fit and as the song developed. The line,
I wish I could holler, just like a mountainjack
I would stand on top of the mountain and I would call my baby right back
he nicked from Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell’s 1928 hit “How Long, How Long Blues”, which Skip had also covered in its entirety on piano during his 1931 session. Renowned for their ability to shout from mountaintop to mountaintop, a mountainjack is an antiquated term for a lumberjack, so old that it doesn’t pass my spell checker.
Watch how his simple lines can weave between the extremes of emotion:
I’m so worried now
Oh no, that doesn’t sound good
But I won’t be worried long
Ahh that’s better. Things are improving already!
Because I’m going to pack my little old suitcase
And down the road I’ll be gone
Great, problems solved! Or wait. You’ll be gone because you’re killing yourself?
In this version of “Worried Blues” he focuses his troubles on the two women in his life. He first laments his unrequited lover and then, after a brief free timed instrumental break, his mistreating mother, before finally declaring he ain’t gonna let these women run him wild and ending the song with an ambiguous, hanging E7 chord. This last line could be interpreted as a defiant rallying call to face his problems, or as a cowardly admission that he’s escaping his problems by ending it all.
I’ve heard four different versions he recorded of this song, each one slightly different. It was in another version when he sings, “I went to that river and I looked it from side to side” that it occurred to me that this was probably a song about suicide, or at least thinking about suicide. Apparently down in Mississippi the preferred method of offing oneself was to jump in the river.
When Skip was rediscovered in 1964 they found him in Tunica County Hospital, dying of cancer. Throughout his brief 5 year revival he was in and out of the hospital and this experience left its mark on his new compositions from this period. In addition to “Worried Blues”, he wrote “Washington D.C. Hospital Center Blues” and “Sick Bed Blues”, where he laments his doctor mumbling very low, “it may get better, but it’ll never get well no more.”
Skip was slowly and painfully dying, in the worst way possible: penis cancer. The thought of putting himself out of his misery must have crossed his mind, and this came out in his music in subtle ways. At this point in his life, Skip James was a man with plenty to be worried about.
Of course Skip James did not commit suicide and neither should you. (Unless maybe you’re slowly dying of terminal penis cancer.) So if you’re climbing up onto a chair to knot something around your neck, or climbing out onto a bridge to jump in the river, step down right now and don’t do something so stupid! Because …
Next time I’ll be playing a selection from a true phantom of the blues. And you won’t want to miss it.
Thanks for watching, listening, and reading. So until next time, “I’m going to pack my little old suitcase, and down the road I’ll be gone”. (But not dead.)
Guitar: 2002 Carvin Cobalt C850LH
Audio interface: Resident Audio T4
Camera: iPhone 6S
Editing: MacBook Pro Retina
Video Editor: Final Cut Pro X
Audio Editor: Logic Pro X