Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Bluesman Skip James' grave lures fans to Bala Cynwyd

For all of Philadelphia's rich history across the American musical spectrum, from jazz to rock and rap, landmarks of blues history are thin on the region's ground.


For all of Philadelphia's rich history across the American musical spectrum, from jazz to rock and rap, landmarks of blues history are thin on the region's ground.

But beneath the soil of a hillside Bala Cynwyd cemetery is the incongruous resting place of an enigmatic Mississippi bluesman, buried 40 years ago today, which has grown quietly into a pilgrimage site for a stream of blues listeners.

They come in tribute to Skip James, whose searing falsetto, spryly fingerpicked guitar playing, and unorthodox, Thelonious Monk-like piano style won a cult following after just two days of recording in 1931.

"We get people here from New York, Connecticut, California, and of all age groups, to visit Mr. James," said Rita White, Merion Memorial Park's corporate officer. "He does get a lot of recognition."

It was not always thus for the mysterious, pioneering singer.

After his mid-Depression recordings did not lead to instant stardom, he disappeared from the music scene for 33 years before three fans tracked him down in a Delta hospital during the 1960s blues revival.

Then, after playing to the largest audiences of his life, he fell in love with another bluesman's niece, and moved to West Philadelphia to join her in a home bought for them by Eric Clapton.

The couple's low-rise granite stone in Merion Memorial Park says nothing of James' musical life and calls him only Nehemiah James, his little-used birth name. A plaque outside the graveyard honors another musical resident, the minstrel performer James A. Bland, who composed "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny."

So every few weeks, clusters of James devotees walk into White's office and ask if they've found the right place - if a son of Bentonia, Miss., who became a titan of the blues really ended up being laid to rest in the Philadelphia suburbs.

"I had no idea that it was so close," said Owen Weekley of Titusville, N.J., who posted a picture from his 2002 visit to James' grave on his Web site (

Weekley, 59, and an old college friend have made a hobby of cataloging the graves of blues legends. About 250 people a day stop by their Web page, Weekley said, with many reporting back after their own trips.

"Since you can't go see these people in concert anywhere," Weekley said, "about all you can do is go to their graveside and say thank you."

James wavered between fame and obscurity. During the decades before his rediscovery, those won over by his 1931 recordings - made in a furniture factory in Grafton, Wis. - had little way to know if he was alive or dead. When he was found in a hospital bed in Tunica, Miss., James barely remembered how to play the guitar.

Gaunt and weary, he relearned a few songs in time to become an instant star of the 1964 Newport Folk Festival.

"He made magic in less than 15 minutes," Dick Waterman, a writer and photographer active in the blues scene of the time, said yesterday. "He came out of the void. He came out of the scratchy 1931 [records], and people were openmouthed."

Waterman, who had helped rediscover bluesman Son House, believed James' impact would be far-reaching, and made sure to photograph the first note James played from the festival stage. Nearly four decades later, the picture became an official icon promoting the national 2003 "Year of the Blues" celebration.

But James' career stalled soon after the festival. The next year, Waterman took over as his manager, though James' eclectic technique and rivalries with other musicians made him a hard sell for some venues.

"He could be elite and regal and rude and cutting," Waterman said, "but Skip was such a mysterious and charismatic figure."

In 1965, James made his Philadelphia debut at the Second Fret coffeehouse at 19th and Sansom Streets, where he and a contemporary, Mississippi John Hurt, became regular acts. James left his new home of Washington, where he was being treated for genital cancer, for Philadelphia, where Hurt's niece Lorenzo lived. They married and lived at 509 N. 55th St., a house bought by Clapton, whose band Cream turned James' "I'm So Glad" into a rock hit.

James never achieved that level of stardom. Though talented and influential - performers from Bonnie Raitt to Beck have covered his songs - James sometimes lectured about religion to his friends and audiences, whose numbers dwindled as a result.

"He was pretty much hurt by the world to have such a personality," Fred Bolden, 58, a cousin of Lorenzo James', recalled this week. "You had to know how to handle him."

Philadelphia's transplanted blues legend died of cancer Oct. 3, 1969, and his wife followed eight years later.

Their tombstone, though unadorned, is an improvement on the unmarked resting places of many other blues titans. Even the great Bessie Smith, buried in Sharon Hill, did not have a tombstone after her 1937 death until Janis Joplin helped pay for one in 1970.