Skip James: an inspiration to the folk and blues revival of the 1950s and 60s

Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James was born on 9 June, 1902 in Bentonia, Mississippi. Growing up at the Woodbine Plantation, James took a liking to several local musicians (namely Henry Stuckey), from whom he learned to play instruments such as the guitar, and later, the organ and piano. In the early 1920s, James worked construction and wrote some of his earliest works, such as Illinois Blues, which reflected on his life as a labourer. In 1924, James returned home to Bentonia and earned his living as a sharecropper, a bootlegger, and a gambler, while simultaneously playing alongside his idol, Stuckey. By 1931, James took part in a recording session with Paramount and recorded eighteen songs (13 of which were on guitar and 5 on the piano). Upon their release during the Great Depression, the recordings sold poorly, and James “drifted into obscurity.”

In 1964, James’ career as an artist took off when he was rediscovered by blues enthusiasts (namely Bill Barth, Tom Hoskins, Dick Spottswood and John Fahey) who encouraged him to begin performing again. They were captivated by his distinct style and sound, which has been described as “dark” in a “minor-key sound” with an “intricate fingerpicking” technique. Consequently, James gained a reputation as one of the ‘great early Mississippi bluesmen.’ Upon being rediscovered after many years of obscurity, James relocated to Philadelphia and Washington, DC to play at jazz and blues clubs. He continued to further inspire the blues and folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, and his earlier records such as Hell Hound on my Trail and Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues made a major comeback.

Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues

Skip James’ infamous song Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues is perhaps one of the most unique and timeless songs he ever recorded. When it was first produced in 1931, James sang the lyrics to this song as if he meant it, having lived in extreme poverty. The song addresses the hardships of living a poor life, working job to job, and going door to door to survive. A ‘Killin’ Floor’ refers to the 30s slang for ‘slaughterhouse,’ where often, black Americans worked and had the worst job. At the time, the slaughterhouse was the only placement of work for many black Americans who migrated north to the Illinois region.

‘Hard times is here and everywhere you go
Times are harder than ever been before
You know that people, they are are driftin’ from door to door
But you can’t find no heaven, I don’t care where they go’

In his 1960s version of the song, James performed it in a way that was almost reminiscent of his life. He is said to have played it in a more sober tune, as black Americans were still facing similar issues that he endured in his youth. Unemployment, overt racism, and discrimination in the workforce were hard-hitting issues at the time, and James used his experiences from his earlier life to further reflect that these issues were still on-going. The sadness in the song often brings his listeners to tears, and is a stark reminder of the hardships that black Americans faced for a greater part of the twentieth-century.

References:

Eddie Dean. "Skip James' Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" Washington City Paper. 25 November, 1994. https://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/news/article/13009741/skip-james-hard-time-killing-floor-blues

Orville Johnson. "Skip James." Acoustic Guitar. (California: September 2010) Vol. 21, Iss. 3.