Music so Old It’s Up for Grabs 1: Skip James

Skip James: «Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues» [mp3]
Lord, I'm depressed. Not the clinical mental state; the financial crisis is finally scraping the lining of my pockets. So I thought a song from the Great Depression would be fitting on this idle, rainy day of no work (yet still no play).

Not that I fancy my state of affairs even remotely comparable to the hardships of the millions affected by the Great Depression—or the billions now in grave poverty all over the world. Still, I thought I'd give all of you who were neither filthy stinking rich nor wretchedly poor before this global recession fell upon us something for free, now that you need it. So here you go: Music that the copyright police can't arrest you or I for sharing, simply because it's too old. Heh!

Country bluesman Skip James (1902-1969) was from the US south; a mean and bitter grouch whose misogyny was only matched by his misanthropy and who, because of the Depression, variously tried his hand at being a plantation foreman, a preacher (Baptist and Methodist!), a pimp and various other shady professions. He was a religious man, of the kind who only ever invoked God whenever fantasising about the eternal suffering and punishment of those who (he imagined?) had crossed him. Sample lyric:
Somebody gonna wish they had religion
Somebody gonna wish they knew how to pray
Somebody gonna be so sorry that they laughed at me
You better get ready for that great day
My kind of guy!

But I digress. In 1931, James got a break when he was contracted to record several 78s. But the supremely talented and original bluesman's career was cut short almost immediately due to poor sales, a consequence of the Great Depression. A life of hustling and treachery followed, until he was found in a Washington DC hospital—friendless, abandoned and (in typical hypochondriac fashion) «dying»—by glorious and equally hateful fan of obscure 78s, maverick fingerpicker John Fahey, 33 years after James' last recording. For the next five years, Skip James experienced a revival that didn't give rise to gratitude as much as a bitterness at its belatedness, at the hands of an audience of white middle class, Socialist folkies he despised. (Naturally.) Then he died.

But long before that, back in 1931, he'd recorded the signature song for the Depression, «Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues». «Killing floor» refers to the abattoir, but was slang used as a colourful metaphor for hardship, be it romantic or economic.

And if you like this recording, check out James' '60s re-recording of the song, with clearer sound and by which time he'd developed a strange and decidedly chilling falsetto that renders the words all the more poignant, and ensures his place among the most unique blues singers in history…

Oh, and you might remember the song from this film:

Enjoy—it's free!

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