Skip James was born and grew up in Mississippi where his father was a bootlegger who found Jesus and became a preacher. Life was tough for a young black man in rural Mississippi at the turn of the century. Young Skip knew it well as a worker on road crews and levees in his 20’s. He no doubt drew from his experience as inspiration for one of his most famous songs, Hard Time Killing Floor.
Skip James’s musical prowess was developed early, likely honed in his father’s church. His talent was recognized by somehow by Paramount. They paid for his travel to Grafton, Wisconsin in 1931 to record his songs. Skip drew influence and style from blues and spirituals, bending genres with original and cover compositions, but the latent emotion and authenticity in his music was the substance of his own life.
The slaughterhouses that employed many black men at the time may have inspired Hard Time Killing Floor, though it isn’t clear whether Skip James ever worked in one. A blues song by nature, one might imagine a modern day psalmist pouring his heart out to God, expressing the emotional anguish of the drudgery of life under the sun. Inherent in the plaintive heart of the blues, though, is a sorrowful note of hope, a certain resigned peace and satisfaction in the singing of which hope rises above the pain.
Skip’s musical career never got off the ground with the heavy air of the Great Depression flattening out the wind under his wings. Skip James turned his attention to directing the choir in his father’s church. He was ordained into both Baptist and Methodist churches. His musical career was quashed even as it started. Not much would likely have survived about Skip James, the musician, if it wasn’t for the blues and folk music revival of the 50’s and early 60’s.
Major record labels began catering to the growing folk music crowd at that time began reproducing “race” and “hillbilly” music from the 20’s and 30’s. Skip James was rediscovered in the process.
The tail end of that movement lofted Skip James into the spotlight for a brief, five-year stint before his death. If it wasn’t for the rediscovery of his music at the end of the blues and folk revival, just as the electric amp of rock and roll was beginning to drown out its acoustic predecessor, the genius of Skip James may have never been known and appreciated.
Hard Time Killing Floor gained much deserved attention in the composition by Chris Thomas King for the Cohen brother movie, O Brother Where Art Thou.
As the emotion laden minor chords of Hard Time Killing Floor are playing in the background, representative of the real hard times of the African American laborer in the Jim Crow south, the down-and-out trio of ne’er-do-wells in the movie dream of finding a million dollar bounty of stolen booty in a lonely valley that they don’t realize is soon to be flooded over. Their unlikely dreams are as real to them as they are certain to remain unfulfilled.
So it was for the delta blues originators, most of whom would never find the vein of gold they sought from their music. Fortunately for us their music has survived to enrich many generations since.
Although the movie is somewhat a spoof of the human condition, roughly inspired by the Iliad and the Odyssey, it is buoyed by a reverent tenderness for the real trials and tribulations of the black plight in the south at the turn of the century. The real inspiration is theirs.
We owe them a debt of gratitude for the way they bore up under the oppression of our ancestors. They plumbed the depth of human emotion that gave birth to the blues and inspired have musical offspring for generations after.
One of the more compelling modern versions of Hard Time Killing Floor is done by the Lovell sisters, going by the band name, Larkin Poe:
It’s fitting, perhaps, that these sisters from the Piedmont (Georgia) have channeled such a beautiful rendition of Hard Time Killing Floor. Skip James is considered one of the seminal delta blues artists, but his style might be more aptly described as Piedmont blues, featuring fast and clean fingerprinting over heavy bass lines. The sisters capture well the character of the sound and emotion Skip James conveyed with his old acoustic using a modern slide guitar and Fender Stratocaster.
There is something pure and inspiring about the way the blues connects with the human condition. While we may have appropriated the music borne out of the real sorrow and pain of the past for our present pleasure and entertainment, we should not forget the reality that gave birth to the blues.
We all have our trials and tribulations. We all connect on that human level. Some have most assuredly had it worse than us. They survived and pressed on, and so will we.
Out of the ashes of pain and suffering arises a thing of real beauty – the blues and all that the blues has inspired. The Skip James’s of the world have given us so much beauty, forged as it were in the fire of hardship. It’s a gift we don’t deserve.
The gift keeps on giving as succeeding generations find inspiration in the emotional and musical roots of the blues. For a very different take on the Hard Floor Killing Blues, inspired by the lyrics reimagined melody, I leave you with Marty O’Reilly and the Old Soul Orchestra: