Song of the Day: Skip James “Hard Times On The Killing Floor Blues”
Skip James‘ 1931 delta blues masterpiece, “Hard Times On The Killing Floor Blues” is a song that has long-haunted my subconscious. Filled with ethereal finger-picked guitar patterns, dark lyrics and James‘ ghostly falsetto, the song has absolutely bewitched me from the moment I first heard it at the tender age of 13. Skip James first recorded the song in 1931 as the b-side to “Cherry Ball Blues” which was released as a 10″ 78 RPM Shellac disc. Despite being a b-side, the song gradually became something of a signature song for James and it is not hard to see why. Everything about his performance of it is absolutely perfect and for the 2 minutes and 51 seconds that it plays, you will find yourself transported to another time, place and identity that is so vividly painted, it is almost terrifying.
Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James was born in 1902 in Bentonia, Mississippi. His father was a bootlegger who became a preacher. As a youth, James heard local delta musicians, such as Henry Stuckey, from whom he learned to play the guitar. In his teems, James began playing the organ in church and developed into a formidable piano and organ player as well as a guitarist. Indeed, he recorded several of his key songs on the piano. James recorded for Paramount among other labels throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s. His career was cut short by the Great Depression and he ended up playing blues and serving as a minister at his father’s church for several decades.
Skip James was rediscovered in the late ’50s by white blues enthusiasts (including by Takoma Park, MD native and guitar genius, John Fahey) as part of the late ’50s and early ’60s delta blues revival. He was appeared at the 1960 Newport Folk Festival and was able to record again: creating new versions of many of his classic cuts as well as recording new material. He died in 1969 at the age of 67.