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 and was likely honed in his father’s church. His talent was recognized by Paramount which paid for him to travel to Grafton, WI in 1931 to record his songs, including Hard Time Killing Floor. Skip drew his inspiration and style from various sources, from blues to spirituals, bending genres with original and cover compositions, but the latent emotion and authenticity in his music was the substance of his own life.
Hard Time Killing Floor may have been inspired by the slaughterhouses that employed many black men at the time, 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 promising musical career never got off the ground. The Depression smothered the wind under his wings, causing Skip James to turn his attention to directing the choir in his father’s church. He was ordained into the ministry of both the Baptist and Methodist churches at this time. His musical career was quashed before it even started, and not much would likely have survived about Skip James, the musician, if it wasn’t for the blues and folk music revival of the 1950’s and early 1960’s.