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.