Skip James' Hard Time Killing Floor Blues
June 15, 2013 8:32 PM   Subscribe

...James is, of course, overshadowed by the most famous bluesman of them all: Robert Johnson... Few can resist the legend that he sold his soul to the devil, was poisoned by a jealous lover, and died a young genius's death... Skip James' mythos is less compact than Johnson's. James survived his misspent youth, and the story of his later years provides plenty more of the kind of misery that fueled his music. Where Johnson supposedly cut a single, grand deal with the devil—trading his soul for mastery of his form—Skip James seems to have struck deal after deal and never come out ahead. In a way, James' story is the truest story of the blues: He led an open wound of a life, and all he got for it was minor-league, post-mortem stardom.
Skip James' Hard Time Killing Floor Blues

See also Mississippi John Hurt & Skip James on WTBS-FM 1964 posted by y2karl (17 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
Excellent post.
posted by Senator at 8:43 PM on June 15, 2013

Chris Thomas King covered this in one of my favorite tracks (and scenes) from O Brother Where Art Thou? (previously)

The original version by James is spellbinding.
posted by Rhaomi at 8:47 PM on June 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

Because of the stratospheric altitude of his later in life falsetto, not to mention his guitar playing's delicate filigree of slide and fluttering hammer on, I have always preferred his version from the 1966 Vanguard Records recording of Devil Got My Woman, finding it far more spectral, otherworldly and spooky than the original. But then, too, that was the first version I heard of the song. Back then, the 1931 recording was unknown to most of us.

Of course, after reading that article in the City Paper when it first came out, it has given me new insight as to where that falsetto came from....
posted by y2karl at 9:13 PM on June 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was researching a lot of music from the Delta because I was trying to influence my own guitar playing after becoming bored with it over the years. I was coming from a rock background and I'd never really gotten into the music my guitar heroes mined so heavily. I was totally digging the journey and then I heard Skip for the first time. It was this version of Sickbed Blues. It still tears me up to this day.

Edit: Duh, I went straight to the music links and didn't even notice you posted that City Paper article. It's really great.
posted by Ululator at 9:25 PM on June 15, 2013

Yeah, that 1966 album is just otherworldly. If there are any audiophile types out there, the Pure Pleasure Records pressing of Today! is well worth the price. You can still get it on vinyl as a reissue from Vanguard, but it doesn't compare. I wouldn't normally bother with a fancypants pressing of a blues album, but that recording has such a wonderfully spacious warmth. Thanks for the post.
posted by Lorin at 9:35 PM on June 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just beat me to it, littlejohnnyjewel. You're so cool.

Then have this scene from Ghost World.
posted by Kinbote at 9:37 PM on June 15, 2013

That's how the song goes...
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 9:39 PM on June 15, 2013

Eponyhistorical, bub.
posted by Kinbote at 9:42 PM on June 15, 2013

...that recording has such a wonderfully spacious warmth

Vanguard Records was a classical music label before it became a folk music label, which is why their recordings have such high production values. It really shows in Skip James Today!, Mississippi John Hurt Today! and Devil Got My Woman as well as albums by such folk artists as Joan Baez, Ian and Sylvia and Richard & Mimi Fariña. Crystal clear, warm, intimate and spacious all at the same time.
posted by y2karl at 10:13 PM on June 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

The original version by James is spellbinding.

Ha, my bad -- I thought you were referring to the 1931 version of Devil Got My Woman, when I responded, and it was to the later version of that song which I linked.

But my preference for his later version of Hard Time Killing Floor Blues as compared to his 1931 original is parallel to my regard for his later version of Devil Got My Woman.

This, by the way, or so I believe, is the 1966 version of Hard Time Killing Floor Blues. What I said about his guitar and voice applies to this one, too. Your mileage may of course vary.
posted by y2karl at 10:50 PM on June 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Joyful, thank you.
posted by BenPens at 4:09 AM on June 16, 2013

Side note: In 1964 WTBS (video link above) was the student radio station at MIT in Cambridge MA. In 1979 they sold those call letters to Ted Turner for $50,000 so he could use them for his mega TV station in Atlanta (which later changed its handle to WPCH).
posted by beagle at 5:24 AM on June 16, 2013

I have this lyric in my head and i cannot remember if it was from James or Carr.
"He was a good man, he was a poor man, you can understand..."
posted by clavdivs at 7:11 AM on June 16, 2013

That City Paper article does a wonderful job of contextualizing the country blues. I may yet pass it on to people when I need them to understand why the recordings of people like Fred McDowell and Furry Lewis feel like urgent dispatches straight from the universal soul.

Thanks for this!
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:31 AM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this. I'm a huge Skip James fan and it's always great to expose him to new audiences.
posted by misterpatrick at 8:53 AM on June 17, 2013

Within a matter of weeks, it will be 46 years ago since I first heard Devil Got My Woman for the first time. That does and doesn't seem all so very long ago.
posted by y2karl at 11:00 AM on June 20, 2013

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