Skip James was one of the first influential blues players. Although he came from the same Mississippi culture that produced Delta blues, James had a unique sound, built around unusual guitar tunings and his eerie falsetto. Robert Johnson based his song “32-20 Blues” around James’ lesser known “22-20 Blues”, and Cream famously covered his song “I’m So Glad” on their 1966 debut Fresh Cream. (a future BTM episode)
Because the Depression hit just as he was releasing his music, James’ career never flourished and he wasn’t active again until the 1960’s. Renewed interest in folk and blues music in the 1960’s led to twilight careers for blues originals like Skip James and Son House. His recording of “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” was released in 1931. This is a film of Skip James performing in 1966 at the Newport Folk Festival:
While Skip James played in Delta style, another Mississippi musician, R.L. Burnside had a sound typical of the north part of the state, a more repetitive and rhythmic sound. Although a performer since the 30’s, Burnside came to national prominence through his collaborations with younger electric blues players of the 1990’s. Burnside’s 2000 recording of “Hard Time Killin’ Floor” juxtaposes his authentic and earthy vocal with a modern rhythm arrangement. This short clip shows a bit of Burnside’s North Mississippi style.
Chris Thomas King is an accomplished acoustic and electric blues player, and also released one of the first blues/rap collaborations in the early 90’s. He portrayed blues man Tommy Johnson in the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou, and also performed “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” on the soundtrack.
Another blues group with rap roots is Little Axe, led by Skip McDonald, who worked with Grandmaster Flash in the early days of the Sugarhill Gang. Their 2006 recording of “Hard Times” is far removed from the original. One of the few “trance blues” groups, Little Axe uses instrumental layers and atmospheric sounds to create a 21st century version of Delta blues.
Here are the complete versions of “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” tracked through time: