Wednesday, December 28, 2011

December 28: Skip James, "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues"

Artist: Skip James
Song: "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues"
Album: Various
Year: 1931

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While many may think that at its core, it is the most simple and straightforward of musical styles, the reality is that there is as much diversity within blues musicians as there is in any other genre.  Even in the earliest days of recorded blues music, there were different schools of playing, as well as a massive range in overall approaches taken by the musicians.  Though most are familiar with the "Delta" blues style, and the "boogie" style that would develop later, it is the forms of blues music that preceded both of these where the true seeds of almost every current form of music were planted.  Truth be told, due to the time during which they recorded, as well as the overall impact of some of the later artists, many of these early blues performers have been lost in time, and yet once one hears his music, it is clear that there are few players more important than Skip James.  Recording a majority of his best known songs before the likes of Robert Johnson and other blues luminaries, James went almost completely unnoticed until the 1960's, and yet within his recordings from the 1930's, one can find the basis for many of the best known blues songs in history.  Understandably, these recordings are as basic as one can find in terms of orchestration and overall sound, and yet the emotion and power with which he plays is second to none, and there are few moments in music history that can top Skip James' 1931 recording, "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues."

For the most part, "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues" is all about the amazing level of mood that Skip James brings to every corner of the song.  As was the case with almost all of the early blues players, the song features nothing but James and his guitar, and yet this is more than enough to completely captivate the listener.  There is a slow groove within the progression that he plays, and it is the almost "bumping" rhythm that sits subtly in the music which separates his sound from that of any of his peers.  This completely unique rhythm gives the impression of an older car or perhaps a horse-drawn cart moving down an unstable road, and helps "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues" to take on an even more vivid imagery and personality.  There is also a deep intimacy within the guitar found throughout "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues," and the sound is so delicate that it almost demands the listener to remain completely silent while experiencing this masterful blues execution.  At many points, the guitar also seems to take on a second vocal part, working in amazing contrast with James' voice.  It is during these moments where the line blurs on whether his voice is leading the guitar or vice versa, and this is a testament to the complete commitment and overall authenticity that comes through in the song.  This interplay and somewhat "still" sound is what would be copied by a wide range of later bluesmen, and yet none deployed it with the same impact as one finds here.

It is the way that the voice of Skip James travels along "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues" that makes his voice impossible to mistake, as in both tone and pitch, he is completely unique.  The fact that James shows no problem in working all across the vocal scale instantly separates him from a large potion of his contemporaries, and the way that he uses different pitches to emphasize certain parts helps "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues" to become far more than a "typical" early blues recording.  This is complimented by the fact that James also gives the song a great deal of depth by putting vocal inflections on certain syllables, and it is also this element which adds an additional rhythm to the song.  At the same time, throughout "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues," Skip James keeps the overall mood very quiet and reserved, and this pulls the listener in even further, as if witnessing a solemn and spiritual moment.  It is the reality that this song does not follow a "standard" blues progression in terms of lyrics which places it apart from later artists, and yet the sentiment and soul of the song are as deep, if not disturbing as any other recording.  Though the last lines do offer some sort of "looking up" type of idea, the reality is that almost every line of the song emphasizes just how hard times were during the early 1930's, and the overall sense of hopelessness that hung over the nation.  It is the way that James brings out the darkest and most somber aspects of this point in history that in many ways gives it far more impact than any photographic or written historical record.

Though there is no question that Skip James is not as well known as some of the artists that followed him, when one looks at the overall historical progression, there can be little argument that his performances did not impact many of these same musicians.  It is the distinctive style with which he presented his songs that in many ways makes him a "school" of blues onto himself, and yet this would not be fully realized until his "rediscovery" in the early 1960's.  James was one of a handful of "found" bluesmen that played at the now-legendary 1964 Newport Folk Festival, and in the years that followed, he would find his songs being covered by some of the biggest artists on the planet.  Though many are unaware, the song "I'm So Glad" that was recorded by both Cream and Deep Purple among others, is in fact written and originally recorded by James almost four decades before these covers.  This would lead to an even wider recognition of the brilliant work of Skip James, and even in more recent years, one can find James' songs being featured and covered in some of the biggest grossing films around the world.  Furthermore, one can make the case that "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues" has given its title and sentiment to similarly named songs, and the unique way that James tuned his guitar has created a legacy unlike any other bluesman.  Whether it is due to the purity in his sound or the overall mood that he conveys, there is simply no other song in history quite like Skip James' magnificent 1931 song, "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues."

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