Hard Time Killing Floor Blues

Album: Hard Time Killing Floor Blues (1931)
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Songfacts®:

  • To be down on the killing floor is to be feeling very depressed. In this song, James sings about people working too hard for too little; they feel like they're down on the killing floor.

    There's some speculation that Skip James' killing floor is a literal abattoir, but he never worked in one and it's more likely a metaphor.
  • James, from rural Mississippi, recorded this song for the Paramount label, which released it as a 10-inch single with "Cherry Ball Blues" in 1931. The song didn't get much attention until the blues music revival of the 1960s, when Delta blues musicians from the '20s and '30s were "rediscovered."

    "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" was re-issued on the Biograph label in 1964, the same year James first played the Newport Folk Festival; he was 61 at the time. James made more recordings before dying from cancer in 1969.
  • "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" found new life when Chris Thomas King performed it in the 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? in character as blues musician Tommy Johnson. King's version, produced by T-Bone Burnett, was included on the soundtrack, which sold 8 million copies and went to #1 in America.

    In the film, King performed it around a campfire with George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson (the Soggy Bottom Boys) looking on. King recalled in his book The Blues: The Authentic Narrative of My Music and Culture: "It seemed during the pivotal campfire scene, I'd truly conjured some mystical Voodoo, which Rodger Deakins, the cinematographer, had masterfully captured. I hadn't swiveled my hips on Ed Sullivan, set my guitar on fire at Monterey Pop, nor moonwalked on Motown's 25th anniversary stage. Yet, somehow, it was understood we'd caught lighting in a bottle."
  • In 1965, Howlin' Wolf released a song called "Killing Floor." His version also finds him in low spirits, but because of girl problems.

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