If you didn’t know, “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” might be one of the hardest songs to find out who the publisher is, and yes, that is probably an over-dramatic statement. The only reason I’m saying this though is because I helped participate in the wild goose chase of a search for the publisher of the said song for Seth, my brother. Seth went in and recorded this song to put on his upcoming album, and if you want to record a cover song and make any sort of profit off of it you have to pay the royalties to the publisher, artist and whoever else. Which is all well and fine, it’s giving the artist what they deserve for writing and/or performing a song, but what’s not fine is when you can’t find the publisher of said song. You see, “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” is an old blues tune that has been passed down over the years and like most old songs whether it be blues, gospel or whatever else it has been recorded by many people, and the rights to the song have been passed around many times, and they’re alternative spellings of the song as well. Some songs though, fall under a law that if it was recorded before 1923 then it is in the public domain, which means the copyright has run out on it, so no worries if you want to record it, but this song we are talking about was recorded in 1931….so that loophole doesn’t work. Anyway, after hours of looking and calling in some help (thanks, Terry V) we eventually found out who owns the publishing rights now (it was Wynwood Co. Inc. for anybody interested to know) and got the royalties paid and everything sorted out, But this isn’t about me complaining about the search for the publisher of this song it’s more about what all I learned about the song while looking for the publisher.
If you’re not familiar with “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” then you’re about to be. where the song probably gained most of its popularity today is from the 2002 movie “O’Brother Where Art Thou” in which, Tommy Johnson is a blues musician (roughly based off Robert Johnson) the main characters pick up at the crossroads while on their way to “seek the treasure” and Tommy plays the song “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” around the campfire later into the movie. Tommy Johnson is played by the real-life blues musician Chris Thomas King and Chris himself actually plays the song on the soundtrack of the movie, Which is pure gold by the way, and I highly suggest you give it a listen.
However, the first recording of this song was done in 1931, by the man who wrote it, Skip James, A Delta blues musician hailing from Bentonia, Mississippi. How the recording of this song came about was in early 1931, H.C. Spier a record store owner and a talent scout who James had auditioned for took a liking to the musicians sound, that was achieved by an open D-minor tuning and his intricate fingerpicking style. After these auditions, Speir’s had James travel to Grafton, Wisconsin under the record label Paramount Records where he recorded “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” in a chair factories attic that was made into a makeshift studio. He recorded 18 tracks in one night including songs he wrote like “Devil Got My Woman” and “22-20 Blues” (the basis of Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues”). The recordings done at Paramount Records by James had a very divergent sound of the typical blues musicians at the time and were the cornerstone of his music career. Due to the recordings being released during The Great Depression, sales were next to none, and James was let go from Paramount Records and retreated back to Mississippi where he was a choir director and preacher in a church for years. During the 60s though, blues enthusiasts rediscovered Skip James and his career revitalized during this period with new artists covering his songs. Cream and Deep Purple both covered his song “I’m So Glad”. Then in 2002 with Chris Thomas King recording “Hard Times Floor Killing Blues” for the soundtrack for “O’Brother Where Art Thou” and in 2011 Gregg Allman covered “Devil Got My Woman” and many other musicians have covered different Skip James songs since.
Later recordings of “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” were done by RL Burnside, on his “Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down” album that was released in 2000 but, with the alternative spelling “Hard Times Killing Floor”. Along with Burnside, Martin Simpson covered the song as well, on his 1986 instrumental album “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, he put it on his album with the alternative spelling as well. The Documentary film directed by Wim Wenders and produced by Martin Scorsese “The Soul Of A Man” is the second installment of the documentary film series “The Blues”, the film tells the story about the lives and musical careers of blues musicians Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson and JB Lenoir. “The Soul Of A Man” features performances honoring the lives of these three blues musicians, artists like Lou Reed, Bonnie Raitt, and T-Bone Burnett played and Lucinda Williams did a cover of “Hard Times Killing Floor”.