Skip James
Skip James
BENTONIA SCHOOL
Bentonia School, a style of guitar-playing sometimes attributed to blues players from Bentonia, Mississippi, features a shared repertoire of songs, guitar tunings and chord-voicings with a distinctively minor tonality not found in other styles of blues music.

While not all blues musicians from Bentonia played in this style, one particular blues player, Skip James (1902–1969), had a distinct, complicated, and highly sophisticated style that veered from typical blues guitar playing. His style became known as Bentonia School.
Skip James became the most well-known of the small pool of musicians associated with the Bentonia School. Others include Jack Owens and the un-recorded Henry Stuckey. Both James' and Owens' styles featured haunting minor chords and droning strings which, in comparison to the music of many other blues musicians, ring with an ominous and eerie feel.

The Bentonia school of guitar playing has strong associations with a guitar-tuning based on an open E minor chord. From the lowest (6th) string to the highest (1st), the tuning uses
E-B-E-G-B-E.(A common variant pitches the same intervals a whole step lower, in D minor: D-A-D-F-A-D.)

Blue Front Cafe, Bentonia
Although other blues musicians in a range of styles used this tuning (Booker "Bukka" White, Albert Collins, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Henry Townsend and others), the Bentonia musicians used it to great effect, achieving a distinctive tonality unique to the region.

Music at the Blue Front Cafe was often impromptu and unannounced. The café seldom advertised or formally booked acts. Many itinerant harmonica players and guitarists drifted through to play a few tunes, but at times the musical cast included such notables as Skip James, Jack Owens, Henry Stuckey, Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 (Rice Miller), and James “Son” Thomas.


Henry Stuckey
Born April 11, 1897 in Bentonia (Mississippi), Henry Stuckey learned guitar at the age of 8, by 11 he played in Juke Joints. Henry lived in Bentonia until 1917, when he left to serve in the U.S. Army, he was posted to France as an aid in a military hospital.
Henry Stuckey added much to the Bentonia style, it was in France during the First World War, while playing guitar with two French soldiers (a West Indian and a Gypsy), Stuckey is said to have learned the E minor open chord tuning that characterizes the Bentonia style.
E-B-E-G-B-E

Back in the U.S., Henry Stuckey resumed his work as a musician and met a young guitarist by the name of Skip James with whom he formed a duo. It is likely that Skip James, like Jack Owens learned the 'Bentonia Style' from Henry Stuckey. Stuckey became the owner of a barrelhouse 1930. He died of cancer in Jackson (MS) March 9, 1966, in a miserable hut. Gayle Dean Wardlow interviewed him shortly before that date.
Henry Stuckey is one of his legendary bluesmen of which we have no record.

Nehemiah Curtis "Skip" James
Born in Bentonia, Mississippi June 9, 1902, he died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania October 3, 1969.
An American Delta blues singer, guitarist, pianist and songwriter. He first learned to play guitar from another bluesman from the area, Henry Stuckey. His guitar playing is noted for its dark, minor sound, played in an open D-minor tuning with an intricate fingerpicking technique. James first recorded for Paramount Records in 1931, but these recordings sold poorly due to the Great Depression, and he drifted into obscurity.

After a long absence from the public eye, James was "rediscovered" in 1964 by three blues enthusiasts, helping further the blues and folk music revival of the 1950s and early 60s. During this period, James appeared at several folk and blues festivals and gave live concerts around the country, also recording several albums for various record labels.
His songs have influenced several generations of musicians, being adapted or covered by many.

Jack Owens
Born November 17, 1904 Died February 9, 1997 an American Delta blues singer and guitarist, from Bentonia, Mississippi, United States.
Born L. F. Nelson, Jack Owens' mother was Celia Owens, but his father, who bore the Owens surname, abandoned his family when Jack was 5–6 years old.
As he matured, Owens did not seek to become a professional recording artist, but he farmed, bootlegged and ran a weekend juke joint in Bentonia for most of his life. His peer, Skip James, had left home and traveled until he found a talent agent and a record label to sign him, but Owens had preferred to remain at home, selling potliquor and performing only on his front porch.
He was not recorded until the blues revival of the 1960s, being rediscovered by a musicologist, David Evans, in 1966, who had been taken to meet Owens by either Skip James or Cornelius Bright. Evans noted that while James and Owens had many elements in common, and a sound peculiar to that region, referred to as "Bentonia School", there were also strong differences in Owens' delivery. Both James, Owens, and others from the area, (including Bukka White), shared a particular guitar style and repertoire utilizing open D-minor tuning (DADFAD). Owens, though, had experimented with several other tunings which appear to be Owens' own. He played guitar and sang, utilizing the stomp of his boots for rhythm in the manner of some other players in the Mississippi delta, such as John Lee Hooker.
Evans, excited to find a piece of history in Jack Owens, made recordings of him singing, which eventually showed up on Owen's first record album Goin' Up the Country that same year and It Must Have Been the Devil (with Bud Spires) in 1970. He made other recordings (some by Alan Lomax) in the 1960s and 1970s.
Owens travelled the music festival circuit in the United States and Europe throughout the final decades of his life, often accompanied on harmonica by his friend Bud Spires, until his death in 1997.


With thanks to Mississippi Blues Commission and Wikipedia.

Jack Owens © George Pratt


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