Monday, July 11, 2011

10 Essential Delta Blues – Hard Time Killing Floor Blues

It’s Monday morning, & time for some blues!

We’re back to the 10 Essential Delta Blues series today with another great song, Skip James’ “Hard Times Killing Floor.”  & having said that, I have to immediately mention some issues with including the song in the series!

First, if we went strictly by geography, there would be no Skip James’ tune in a “Delta Blues” series, since Bentonia, Mississippi lies a bit to the east of the Delta proper.  Of course, James is often considered a “Delta bluesman;” & I’ll also note that the musician for song #10 on our list (this is #6) also is from a region a bit outside the Delta.

& for that matter, it’s interesting to consider what is meant by “Delta Blues.”  Is it strictly geographical or does it refer to a style of music that grew up around Charlie Patton & his circle? (In that case, neither James nor Mississippi John Hurt would qualify for the list at all.)  Or does it refer to “country blues” (to use another vague term) played generally in northwest to west-central Mississippi?  In her book In Search of the Blues, Marybeth Hamilton makes a persuasive case that the entire category “Delta blues,” so important a part of received blues history, is an imposed construction that dates back to an obscure but influential circle of record collectors (the most famous of these being Harry Smith of the Anthology of American Folk Music), & particularly to an obscure but influential figure named James McKune.  Elijah Wald, in his excellent Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson & the Invention of the Blues makes a similar argument about the concept of Delta blues (& “country blues” ) being, if not constructed, at least valorized by Euro-Americans during the folk revival period.

& then one further disclaimer.  If this were the 10 Essential Blues Songs (not that I’d ever make such a list, but speaking hypothetically), I’d probably lean toward including James’ “Devil Got My Woman,” if for no other reason than the fact that Robert Johnson essentially used that song whole cloth for his famous “Hellhound on My Trail”—different, & very powerful lyrics by Johnson, but the music was virtually unchanged. 

With that, on to an incredibly powerful song.  As is the case with many of James’ composition, “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” is played with the guitar in open E minor tuning—EBEGBE—in other words, if you strum the guitar’s six strings unfretted, you play an E minor chord.  This is also called “crossnote” or “Bentonia” tuning (in honor of James’ hometown, tho apparently there’s little basis to the idea of a “Bentonia school” that played crossnote, unless you consider James a school of one.)  These days many guitarists who use this tuning take all the strings down a whole step so that the open strings produce a D minor chord rather than an E minor one—the E minor tuning is thought to put undue strain on not only the strings but also the guitar neck, as two strings (the 4th & 5th) are tuned higher than concert pitch, & there’s already quite a bit of tension created by the 4th string at concert pitch. 

Although the guitar is tuned to a minor chord, the song isn’t strictly speaking in the standard minor mode.  As is typical of blues, there’s tension between minor & major, with instances of both the major third (“Mi”) & the flatted one.  In fact, I believe Rory Block plays James’ tunes in open D major, not D minor.  It certainly could be done.  Jo Ann Kelly does a wonderful slide cover of "Hard Times Killing Floor Blues," & I strongly suspect that's in an open major tuning.

James was known for intricate fingerstyle guitar work, & that is most certainly in evidence here.  James also was a powerful (if at times, disturbing) lyricist, & I’ve reproduced the lyrics after the video because they are definitely worth a look.  James originally recorded “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” in 1931 at Paramount’s Grafton, Wisconsin studio,
as the B side to A side “Cherry Ball Blues.”  The original 78 would be worth a small fortune—there are only two known copies!    The story of economic depression is vivid & haunting—the term “killing floor” refers to a slaughterhouse—& James paints a word-picture of a region & an era when economic uncertainty existed at a very bare bones level for African-American workers.

Great song!  Hope you enjoy it.

Hard time here and everywhere you go
Times is harder than ever been before

And the people are driftin' from door to door
Can't find no heaven, I don't care where they go

Hear me tell you people, just before I go
These hard times will kill you just dry long so*

Well, you hear me singin' my lonesome song
These hard times can last us so very long

If I ever get off this killin' floor
I'll never get down this low no more
No-no, no-no, I'll never get down this low no more

And you say you had money, you better be sure
'Cause these hard times will drive you from door to door

Sing this song and I ain't gonna sing no more
Sing this song and I ain't gonna sing no more
These hard times will drive you from door to door

“dry long so” is a dialect term for poverty; it also occurs in Robert Johnson’s “Come On in My Kitchen”

Photo at the top of the post is of a young Skip James.  It is considered to be in the public domain.


  1. Another tune I've liked for a long time. Chris Thomas King played this in O Brother, Where Art Thou. This is the first time I've ever heard the Skip James original. Fantastic!

  2. Hi Roy: Yes, Chris Thomas King does a nice job with this one. My favorite cover version is by Jo Ann Kelly, who plays it as a slide song! But it's hard to beat Skip James' original. Glad you liked it!

  3. The song in itself is excellent - all the things the blues should be. But it is your expert commentary which makes the post and provides real added value.

  4. Hi Alan: Thanks so much! Glad my comments enhanced your listening.

  5. This is a powerful piece. Thanks for sharing it and for giving us the background.

  6. Hi HKatz: You're most welcome! So glad you liked it.

  7. Hi, it's refreshing to find someone discussing how if we look at Patton-influenced blues, or instead we look at countryish blues from the Delta itself, or instead we look at countryish blues from the Delta or near the Delta, etc., in practice we get very different things. Hamilton's book is empty, among other things. She betrays little interest in or knowledge of blues or jazz (which she blurs with each other misleadingly, blurs them much more than Robert Wilkins and Kid Ory actually sounded like each other). In at least two places she admits to making up stories found on _other_ pages in the book, but the misplaced creativity actually appears a lot more places than that, e.g. her suggestion that W.C. Handy was exclusionary towards white participation in black music and her claim that Louis Jordan was known for sexual lyrics apparently sounded good to her but both happen to be wrong. She criticizes John Lomax's notion of what black folk songs were, without providing any evidence that she knows what black "folk" songs were remotely as well as Lomax did. (She calls "Frankie And Albert," a folk song that predates blues music, a blues song.) To give another example, her comments about the Clarksdale jukebox survey betray an ignorance of where Tommy McClennan, Bill Gillum, and others were from, which is pretty outrageous given that the blurb on the back of the book leads us to believe she knows much of anything about "delta blues" (oh, which in the blurb includes Leadbelly). Wald's book is mostly terrific and he knows 1930s blues well but his suggestion that folk blues arose out of town and city blues along the lines of Ma Rainey's recordings is way off base; he admitted to me that he got that idea from conversations with his friend Dave Van Ronk (who apparently didn't know much about early folk blues either, and effectively was relying on an argument from ignorance -- serious researchers knew before Van Ronk was born that blues arose as folk music). According to Stephen Calt, Skip James said "dry long so" meant "without a cause," as in, for no reason. Best wishes, Joseph Scott


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