# This transcription is the author's own work and represents his interpret- #
# tation of the song. It is intended for private study, scholarship and #
# research purposes only and is not intended for publication or distribution.#
Hard Time Killing Floor -by Nehemiah "Skip" James, 1930
Tabbed by Dadfad (John M.) firstname.lastname@example.org or Dadfad@dadfad.com August 1, 2002
Done on Microsoft Notepad using: Courier New, 10 font.
If you're looking for a note-for-note tab from the movie "O Brother Where Art
Thou", this isn't it. This is in the style it was played originally by Skip
James. Very similar to the movie, but not exactly. That's how these styles of
tunes were done back in the '20s and '30s as traditional country blues tunes.
It's difficult to really explain how to play a tune like this from tab, but
there have been so many requests that I'll try my best. Skip James' style in
open D-Minor is largely composed of several "signature licks" that when added
to the general progression of the tune make it very recognizeable as a Skip
James piece. I think the best way to start is by first tabbing his most dis-
tinguishable lick with both tab and describing how it is played, and then
in the body of the main tab I can just say "add sig lick here". I learned to
play Skip's tunes in his style many years ago from Bowling Green John Cephas,
(probably the foremost living expert on Skip James-Bentonia Style D-min blues)
who knew him personally and learned from Skip himself. This will be a simpli-
fied version at best. The only way to play it properly is to become familiar
with the tuning and finger-style playing in this style and add and improvise
as you go, which is how both Skip and Bowling Green played it. I guess the
best way to start is by giving the open D-minor tuning (Open E-minor can also
be used but is harder on your strings and guitar neck). Tab would be identical
for either open D-minor (DADFAD) or open E-minor (EBEGBE). Put down your pick.
This must be played with your fingers.
Skip's main signature lick is as follows:
This is the actual lick, and these are the finish notes only.
This lick is done by sliding from the 3rd to the 4th fret and then back up to
the 2nd fret. It can be done as two separate picks or as only one pick with a
smooth up and back down the neck motion. Then finger and play the first fret,
then the open four string. All of this should be done as a very flowing, smooth
lick. The note on the 3rd string first fret can also be a pull-off from the 2nd
fret note. Above I also showed the finish notes. These are just the notes them-
selves without the slides, so you can see which ones you're aiming for within
the lick. There are several variations on this lick, both with timing or with
additional notes, but this is the basic figure as used in this, and several
other of Skip's D-minor tunes (ei. Cherry Ball Blues, Devil Got My Woman, etc).
Skip and John both frequently used a John Lee Hooker-ish multiple hammer-on
on that 3rd string/first fret note repeated after the open 4th string that
ends the lick above, and then adding one of the "rhythmic figures" shown down
below after the tab for the first verse.
Now I'll start on the first verse. This verse, with or without improvised
changes, can also be used as an intro to the piece.
You know that hard times 'r here and everywhere you go
D__0________0______0_________0_________0____________(insert sig lick now)__
Times is harder than they been before
F______1______(sig lick)__________1_________(sig lick)_____________
Whoa-o-o oh-o oh
[ Tab from: http://www.guitartabs.cc/tabs/s/skip_james/hard_time_killing_floor_blues_crd.html ]
(turnaround line to next verse or ending)
This is it, in it's most basic form. Note the 0h1 (O to 1 fret hammer-ons.
These are pretty important to the style). These and other phrases often are
followed by arpegiated downward slow strums. I improv around these basic lines
with changes in each verse, different turnarounds, changes to the sig lick,
etc. That's how Skip did it, that's how John Cephas did it and he taught me.
If you familiarize yourself with how the tuning works and its intricacies,
you will be able to do them soon also. I'll show a couple of variations, a
different turnaround and a guitar solo verse to start off with. A tip. While
it's played in D minor, it's actually probably in the key of D major. It's the
inter-play between the minor and major that give this tune (and others of
Skip's Bentonia Open Minor Blues) their distinctive feel. The third-string
fingered on the first fret changes it from minor to major. Hammering into the
major was a frequent addition in these tunes. It sometimes helps to play a
line while the first finger is kept on the third-string/first fret or ready to
quickly go back to it. Skip's signature lick, and variations of it, were fre-
quenly injected into the tune wherever they fit appropriately.
(this is another variation turnaround to next verse or an ending)
The above is done using a pull-off to the open note from the picked note. Other
notes in the open strings can be added as well if desired.
(This is a semi-melody line guitar instrumental for between two verses)
The sequence above is a series of thumb and first-finger pinches with a few
rolling slow arpeggiations added. Follow it with the "signature lick" (with
or without one of the rhythmic figures that are shown in the example below).
Slides, especially to the 3/4 pairs, can be added for more expression.
Again, this can be improvised as seen fit.
D_______0__________________ or ______________0___________________
(Here are "rhythmic figures" that can be used with or in place of the signature
lick shown at the beginning. Skip frequently added one of these. He sometimes
would vamp between these and his sig lick several times before the next verse
and used them frequently as fills when they might fit in a given time-space.
Again, he frequently used multiple hammers on the 0-hammer-1 note above.)
The final ending chord to one of his D-minor tunes would frequently be 000130
which is a D7 chord, or a single note on the open second string followed by
this d7 chord.
"Hard Time Killin' Floor" by Nehemiah "Skip" James, 1930
You know that hard times are here an' everywhere you go.
Times is harder than they been before.
Whoa-o-o, Oh-o. Whoa-o-o, Oh-o Oh. (Sung, moaned or hummed between verses)
And the people are driftin' from door to door
Can't find no heaven, don't care where they go.
You hear me singing my lonesome song
These hard times can last so very long.
If I ever get off of this killin' floor,
I'll never get down this low no more.
You say you have money, you better be sure.
These hard times will drive you from door to door.
Gonna sing this song, ain't gonna sing no more.
These hard times will drive you from door to door.
(The "killin' floor" was the nickname for the worst part of the stockyards in
Chicago, where the actual slaughter took place. It was hot, filthy, gruelling,
bloody work. Many who came north looking for a better life found depression-
era Chicago very little better, if not worse, than the lumber camps and cotton
fields they left behind in Mississippi. This tune, and Skip's tune "Illinois
Blues" are about the disappointment he found in the north. In "Illinois Blues"
he asks that a friend lie about how well Skip's done since moving to Chicago.
Skip's D-minor style was a style peculiar to the Bentonia County, Mississippi
area in the '20s and '30s. Others from the same area used the same tuning for
many blues tunes, the only other recorded one being Jack Owens, but Skip is by
far the most recorded and most well-known. Others by Skip include "I'm So
Glad", "Devil Got My Woman" and, probably his most famous before the release
of the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou", "Cherry Ball Blues".)
One final word. Let me stress again how improvisational this style is. I have
three versions of Skip doing this tune, each one different. The same with
Bowling Green John Cephas. He recorded it for albums twice. I recorded several
other versions by him as well. None of these versions is identical to another.
It would be a good idea to listen to as many versions as possible by both.
I don't mind helping with any questions e-mailed to me (no files or frames).
My best advice is to just learn the style, learn the tuning and then play it
the way you feel it should be played. Hopefully this will get you started.
Good Luck. -Dadfad