Hard Time Killing Floor Blues


Perhaps the scariest three minutes of music ever recorded were by Nehemiah “Skip” James in 1931, in Grafton, Wisconsin, for the old Paramount blues label.


Here’s the original recording of Skip James’ Hard Time Killing Floor Blues. The way I heard it was that it refers to James working the “killing floor” in a Chicago slaughterhouse.

Any guitar player who has tried to do this song can tell you that it isn’t easy. I think James recorded it in Em tuning; for the sake of not popping strings, I’ve shifted it to Dm in my poor attempts to play it. This style of fingerpicking blues evidently originated in or near Bentonia, Mississippi, where James was from. My dad drove us through Bentonia when I was a kid; it’s a wide spot in the road near where Highway 49 crosses the Yazoo River.


The idea of someone doing this song on an electric guitar is not so novel– I do it on a Strat– but doing it with a band, live, and with an accordion and drums as part of the deal . . . well, it took Lucinda Williams and her fine band to manage that and the following YouTube video is, to me, stunning. Their spare arrangement just nails it:

Sorry I can’t provide any info on this video; the intro, showing someone playing James recording his song on a Stella guitar, is very well done. Folks who knew Skip James, who died in Philly in 1969, say he wasn’t a very happy person much of the time but I suspect he’d love what Ms Williams and her associates did with his wonderful song.

AN ASIDE . . .

It occurs to me that it was almost exactly 50 years ago that our family drove through Bentonia, Mississippi. At the time, the late summer of 1963, we were living in Houma, Louisiana, which is southwest of New Orleans. I don’t know what possessed my dad to move there; they must have had a great airport as flying was the only thing that he cared about. I remember that we were living there when John Kennedy was killed.

My mom, my brother Jeff and I loved Houma. It was deep in the Cajun bayou country and the food, music and people were wonderful. Near Houma was a smaller town called Thibodaux, on the banks of Bayou Lafourche, where my dad took us to a superb little seafood restaurant on the weekends; here’s a photo I took of Jeff standing on Thibodaux’s main drag. Moody and magnificent, wasn’t he?

Jeff In Thibodaux. LA

Here are my mom, Jeff and me in front of our house on Willard Avenue; I’m the geeky-looking guy wearing glasses; I wasn’t moody or magnificent, but at least I was cheerful:

Jim, Mom, Jeff 2

Anyway, there was a hurricane about to hit in that area and it was something to worry about. All that part of the Gulf Coast is low-lying, and the Houma/Thibodaux area especially so. If you recall the Swamp Thing comic books, they were set in Houma. So my dad decided the smart thing to do would be for us to hop in the white DeSoto and spend a few days in Yazoo City, Mississippi (250 miles due north and on higher ground), and Bentonia is 15 miles south of that town.

As it happened, the hurricane came up as far as Yazoo City so we didn’t escape much. But I got to see Bentonia, never dreaming that one day I’d wish I’d paid more attention to it!

Cars With Fins!

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Perhaps the prettiest car I ever had was this 1958 DeSoto Firesweep Sportsman, given to me by my dad when I first started driving. Here’s a drawing from an ad:

He had bought me a ’58 Chevy first, but that car was a loser, so he bought himself an Oldsmobile and gave his DeSoto to me. Here are my mom, my brother Jeff, our then-new Chihuahua, Tiger, and me standing by the DeSoto in Apalachicola, Florida in 1966, just as I started driving; don’t know what I’m pointing at here:

There were a lot of cool features to the DeSoto, but the push-button automatic transmission may have been the coolest. Here’s a Web photo of the dashboard; the transmission controls are on the left side of the dashboard. See ’em?

Another dash photo. Look at the groovy knobs! Of course, this was before the government made car-makers have safety uppermost in mind when designing a dashboard. I’m not certain this car even had seat belts; I suspect it didn’t, unless my dad put them in later. He had an aftermarket AC put in and it worked so well it would fling ice at you from the rear deck.

Here’s a great Web photo of some lucky person’s pink DeSoto convertible. How I would love to have that car!!!

Many cars today look like little bars of soap rolling down the road. I loved it when cars looked like jet airplanes or the TV-show Batmobile!

Kid Days . . .


Back to the old photos for a visit to the past. These were taken in Pascagoula, Mississippi in the late 1950s and seem so carefree.

In this photo, my younger brother, Jeff, attacks me with a water hose, the bounder! He’s standing in a foot tub and seems to be enjoying himself!

Here’s my mom and Jeff as we survey the results of Mom trying to put up a pup tent. Not too successful. Please note the stylin’ gunbelt I am wearing: It was the two-gun Paladin set, based upon the TV show starring Richard Boone, and it came with business cards that read:

Have Gun; Will Travel. Wire Paladin, San Francisco

Jeffrey appears to be chewing on a blue-plastic shovel. He was three years old in this photo, but, oddly enough, I believe he still chews on blue-plastic shovels.

In my opinion, the Paladin gunbelt was far more elegant than the Gene Autry, Lone Ranger or Roy Rogers gunbelts. It was black leather with a silver chess-knight emblem and was edged with silver beads. The guns were silver, too, with black-plastic grips.

There weren’t too many bandits who hung around our house on Resca De La Palma Street, and that gun belt was one of the main reasons.

Café Du Monde, 1965

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We continue our review of old color photos with one of the New Orleans of 1965.

When I was a kid we lived in Louisiana for a few years, and going to the Café Du Monde at the Farmer’s Market in New Orleans was always a big treat. The puffy and powdered beignets with the strong coffee in teeny cups was something I looked forward to. The location, then as now, was by the levee and the old Jax Beer factory.

In this photo are my mom, me with the glasses and my younger brother, Jeff. The nifty beige car behind my mom is a 1961 Plymouth Savoy.

You Can Go Home Again, Thanks To Google Maps . . .

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Google Street Views is so cool! Thanks to it, I was able to find the house we lived in over 50 years ago, as seen in these two photos.

The photo on the left is from 1961, with my first-grade brother Jeff in the foreground. On the right is the Google street view, present day. The three-car garage has been modified to what looks like living space, but otherwise it looks much the same.