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!



My great friend from Nashville, John Beasley, created an amazing blog that takes you on a tour of blues-related sites in the Mississippi Delta.

Beaz knows whereof he speaks. He’s a talented singer and player, and makes the best margaritas you can imagine. He can do anything in the world except teach me how to play Deep River Blues as well as he does.

You will enjoy the trip through the Delta with Beaz as your guide; that I guarantee.

The photos shown were taken by the Beaz and show the outside neon sign and stage at Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero juke joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Four Cents Is Four Cents!


As I continue my pointless research into the folks who designed, built and sold the guitars we know and love today, I come across some funny stories.

Last night I read about Hartley Peavey, who started the Peavey Electronics company in Meridian, Mississippi back in the mid-1960s. Like Leo Fender before him and the original C.F. Martin before Leo, Mr. Peavey was a shrewd person who knew the value of money and didn’t waste it when making his instruments or amplifiers.

The story I found funny was that Peavey and a young and innovative guitar builder named Chip Todd collaborated back in the 1980s on a new guitar. This guitar eventually became the first of the T-series Peaveys and are still highly regarded for their tone and playing ease. It was the first guitar to use computer-controlled wood cutting and shaping for the bodies and necks. Chip’s design called for a small metal slug to be in the base of the neck, to be the bearing point of a neck-angle adjustment bolt.

As the time came to produce the guitars, the metal slugs still hadn’t been procured, and Chip told Mr. Peavey that, for now, they’d use a nickel coin for the slug they needed. Mr. Peavey, the brilliant business person, replied, “No; use a penny.”

Here’s Chip in a recent photo as he rides a Segway in his living room:

Another story of these wonderful music-industry folks: There used to be some music stores in the DC area called Veneman’s Music. Great stores. Veneman’s also made and sold their own line of guitars and basses and most of us in this area owned some of those; they were good utility instruments. The owner of the stores and guitar factory was a Dutch-born gentleman named Koob Veneman. He was a sweet guy with a beautiful smile and we all respected Mr. Veneman. But he was all business!

I had lunch a few months ago with an old-time salesman at Veneman’s rival, Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center, and he told us a funny story about Old Man Veneman, as he called him.

The salesman from Chuck’s was in Veneman’s Rockville, Maryland, store (now the Guitar Center on Twinbrook Parkway) and a young man was approached by Mr. Veneman, who said, “Hey, I recognize you. I sold you a Les Paul a few years ago. Do you still have it?”

The kid replied, “Why, yes, Mr. Veneman. I still have that guitar and I love it.”

And Mr. Veneman replied, “Well, I still have your $800 and I love that!”

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.

A Pascagoula Christmas!


These are probably the first photos I ever took, using my Dad’s Kodak Signet 80 camera, which was Kodak’s highest-end camera at that time. It was a 35mm rangefinder camera with interchangeable lenses. My dad picked it up in Mexico City when someone there stole his Nikon rangefinder from his hotel room. At that time, of course, SLR cameras were quite rare; Nikon didn’t offer one until a year or so later.

The Signet 80 was a great camera and totally silent, unlike the clunk-producing early SLRs and I used that camera well into the 1970s, even after I had Nikon SLRs and medium-format cameras of my own.

So these were taken in Pascagoula, Mississippi in 1958. I was in the first grade. The Christmas Festival that year was a big deal for me, because my dad flew Santa onto the river with his float plane, and a little boat picked Santa up from my dad’s plane and brought him to the docks. Mr. John Quinn, my dad’s friend who owned the menhaden plant mentioned earlier, lifted me up onto a 55-gallon drum because I was little. Mr. Quinn is in the dark-blue-black-and-white checked shirt in the second photo, and his wife, Jane, is standing next to him in a red-and-black checked shirt. Here comes Santa on the small boat.

In this crowd scene, you can see the Puss ‘n Boots cat-food factory in the background. That’s where I learned to ride my bicycle; there was a big concrete area in front of the factory which was vacant on the weekends. I had gotten a seven-transistor radio from Western Auto (it was sapphire blue) and I taped it to the handle bars of my bike so I could listen to WTIX (Tiger Radio!!!) from New Orleans as I rode around. They played Elvis and Chuck Berry and especially Buddy Holly.

In this photo, you can see the Pascagoula High School Marching Band. Hard to believe these lovely young ladies would be in their 70s today.

It Floats!

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My dad was a nut about airplanes like I am about guitars.

In 1958, we were living in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and Dad bought a brand-new Piper Super-Cub, had it fitted with pontoons at the Piper factory, and then had a ramp built on the Pascagoula River complete with a gas pump and turntable platform above the ramp so the plane could be easily swung around. I can’t imagine what that whole setup cost or why he felt the need to do it.