Skip James: “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues”

Nehemiah Curtis James was born on June 9, 1902 in in Bentonia, Mississippi.  But he became famous as a blues guitarist-singer-songwriter named Skip James.

James first recorded “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” and other songs in 1931. The recordings, however, did not sell well record buyers lacked disposable income during The Great Depression.  So, James gave up performing for awhile.

In the early 1960s, though, blues fans rediscovered James. And he began recording and performing again until he died in Philadelphia on October 3, 1969

Below, Skip James performs “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” American Folk and Blues Festival in Cologne, Germany on October 9, 1967.

In the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, singer and actor Chris Thomas King sang “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” around a campfire.

Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    “I’ll Fly Away” and the Prisoner

    On October 9, 2013, the state of Arizona executed the 71-year-old Edward H. Schad, Jr. by lethal injection in Florence, Arizona. Schad, the oldest person on the state’s death row, had been convicted of killing a man during a robbery almost 35 years earlier.

    The warden asked Schad if he had any last words. And the inmate responded, “Well, after 34 years, I’m free to fly away home. Thank you, warden. Those are my last words.”

    The Song That Inspired the Last Words

    Reverend Ronald Koplitz, who was Schad’s pastor and who met the prisoner in 1981 while serving as prison chaplain, explained that the last words were a reference to the hymn “I’ll Fly Away.” Rev. Koplitz had become friends with Schad and kept in touch with him after his time as prison chaplain.

    Rev. Koplitz gave Schad the song “I’ll Fly Away” a few weeks before the execution.  And apparently, Schad felt a connection to the song.

    “I’ll Fly Away”

    The song that gave some comfort to the prisoner in his final moments before being killed goes back to 1929.  In that year, Albert E. Brumley wrote “I’ll Fly Away.” The wonderful hymn, about eternal life and flying away “to that home on God’s celestial shore,” is one of the most popular gospel songs of all time.

    There are a number of great versions of “I’ll Fly Away.” The song has appeared in several movies, including in nice a version by Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). Doc Watson played an instrumental version of “I’ll Fly Away” in his last public performance.  And the song appeared in The Waltons.

    Here is a great live version by Gillian Welch.

    “The Prisoner” Inspired the Song that Inspired a Prisoner

    When Schad referenced the song on the death gurney in Arizona, he likely did not know that his invocation of the song inside prison walls sort of brought the hymn home. When Brumley began writing the song while picking cotton, he was inspired by a song called “The Prisoner’s Song.”

    Brumley thought about that song regarding a prisoner thinking of leaving his love behind.  And he used a brilliant analogy using prison to represent life on earth.

    Brumley was inspired by specific lyrics in “The Prisoner’s Song.” The line “Now, if I had the wings of an angel,/Over these prison walls I would fly” led to Brumley’s theme about flying away.

    In this video, Johnny Cash sings “The Prisoner’s Song” on a January 20, 1971 episode of his TV show.

    During the introduction, Cash refers to the popularity of “The Prisoner’s Song.” Vernon Dalhart initially recorded the song in 1924 as a B-side to his version of “The Wreck of the Old 97.” “The Prisoner’s Song,” which likely was written by Dalhart’s cousin Guy Massey and/or Guy’s brother Robert Massey, became a big hit for Dalhart.

    In “I’ll Fly Away,” Brumley also retained the prison theme, using it as representing life on earth: “Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly.” It is not hard to see how Brumley’s wonderful song might bring some comfort to someone like Schad, strapped down on the execution gurney facing certain death. Music soothes both saints and sinners.

    What is your favorite version of “I’ll Fly Aawy”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Coolest Thing About the Opening of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

    The excellent Coen Brothers’ movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) opens with a scene of prisoners in the old South working on a road and singing the work song “Po’ Lazarus.” Unlike many of the other songs on the T-Bone Burnett produced soundtrack, though, “Po’ Lazarus” was not recorded specifically for the film.

    Recording of “Po’ Lazarus”

    The recording of “Po’ Lazarus” was one of the many recordings made by Alan Lomax and his father John Lomax. The two men visited the Mississippi State Penitentiary in 1959 and recorded prisoner James Carter leading a group of other prisoners in the song.

    That recording of “Po’ Lazarus” later appeared on Lomax’s 1960’s album Bad Man Ballads credited to James Carter and the Prisoners. The song recounts a sheriff going to arrest Lazarus.  Then, the sheriff ends up shooting “Po’ Lazarus”: “Well then they taken old Lazarus/ Yes they laid him on the commissary gallery.”

    Finding James Carter

    But that background is not even the coolest part of the story. According to The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax by Tom Piazza, the Coen Brothers movie brought a little more good will to singer James Carter.

    After the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? became a bestseller, Alan Lomax’s daughter Lomax Chairetakis and others tracked down the 76-year-old Carter living in Chicago. They gave him a substantial royalty check.  And then in February 2002 flew him, his wife, and two daughters to the Grammy Awards ceremony.  At the ceremony, the soundtrack won the album of the year for 2001.

    The New York Times noted that Carter had left home at age 13 and did time in prison for theft, a parole violation, and weapons possession.  Before his rediscovery, he barely recalled singing the song for the recording.

    James Carter passed away in November 2003, less than two years after his trip to the Grammys. The other prisoners in the recording have never been identified. But together they created an outstanding recording used in a classic film.

    What is your favorite song from O Brother, Where Art Thou? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Jack Klugman: A Game of Pool

    I was sad to hear that Jack Klugman passed away this week on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, we also lost the excellent actor Charles Durning, whose many accomplishments include a memorable role in O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), on the same day too. The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Klugman is his great work in The Odd Couple (1970-1975). Apparently the show was on the minds of other people too, as after news spread about Klugman’s death, fans began going to 1049 Park Avenue in New York, the location of the apartment of Felix and Oscar. I remember watching the show regularly as a kid, and although the impetus for the storyline was the adult problem of divorce for the two men at the center of the story, a kid could easily relate to the humor the show found in the challenges of friendship.

    Of course, Klugman did a lot of other great work in shows like Quincy, M.E. But when I think of Klugman my next thought after The Odd Couple is his great work in The Twilight Zone episode “A Game of Pool” (1961), also starring Jonathan Winters. In the episode that originally aired October 13, 1961,both Klugman and Winters, largely known for their comedic skills, show they can pull off drama just as well. Klugman’s character aptly illustrates the dream of being the best, as his character dreams of playing the greatest pool player of all time. But in the end, we also learn that with accomplishment comes its own kind of responsibilities. Check out “A Game of Pool” in the three videos below.

    Part 1:

    Part 2:

    Part 3:

    Klugman also appeared in three other episodes of The Twilight Zone, including another memorable starring role in an episode touching on the afterlife, “A Passage for Trumpet” (1960). His other two episodes were “Death Ship” (1963), and “In Praise of Pip” (1963). According to Wikipedia, Klugman’s four appearances in the original series tie him with Burgess Meredith for most appearances. In this video clip, Klugman discusses series creator Rod Serling and his work in the series. Here is hoping that Klugman and Durning both find more peace in the afterlife than Klugman’s character did in “A Game of Pool.”

    What is your favorite work featuring Jack Klugman or Charles Durning? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Best Gospel Songs by Pop Singers 4: Morning, Flying & Mystery

    In response to popular demand, Chimesfreedom continues its periodic discussion of the best gospel songs by pop singers. In this Post, we consider one gospel song overwhelmingly identified with one pop singer, another gospel song that is recorded by many singers, and finally, a beautiful song about being an agnostic that deserves a place next to other songs of faith.

    “Morning Has Broken,” Cat Stevens.

    This song is so associated with Cat Stevens — now Yusaf Islam — that for a long time, I thought it was one of his original songs. But the Christian hymn first appeared in 1931, and the music goes back even further to the nineteenth century as a traditional Gaelic tune, “Bunessan.”

    “Morning has Broken” is a simple song with a simple message of being thankful for each day: “Praise with elation, praise every morning / God’s recreation of the new day.”

    “I’ll Fly Away,” Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch.

    Alfred E. Brumley wrote “I’ll Fly Away” in 1931. He was picking cotton when he came up with the song. As he later explained: “I was dreaming of flying away from that cotton field when I wrote I’ll Fly Away.” Many believe the song is the most-recorded gospel song of all time. If true, it is not surprising because it is a beautiful song.

    A number of country singers have recorded the song, including Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Charley Pride, Jim Reeves, and Alan Jackson. Etta James does an uplifting version. Kanye West does an excellent version too. I especially like Alison Krauss’s version, and in particular this version with Gillian Welch from the film O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000).

    “Let the Mystery Be,” Iris DeMent.

    One might dispute including “Let the Mystery Be” from Iris DeMent’s Infamous Angel (1993) album in a discussion of Gospel songs because the song reflects DeMent’s agnosticism rather than faith in a higher power. Yet, the song only could have been written by someone who was raised in a religious environment.

    DeMent grew up in a Pentecostal family where she was not allowed to listen to non-gospel music, and the song brings out the division between her upbringing and her adult beliefs. But “letting the mystery be” takes a leap of faith too. And, as in many of the best gospel songs, it highlights a beautiful struggle in a beautiful song.

    Some say they’re goin’ to a place called Glory and I ain’t saying it ain’t a fact.
    But I’ve heard that I’m on the road to purgatory and I don’t like the sound of that.
    Well, I believe in love and I live my life accordingly.
    But I choose to let the mystery be.

    See our other posts in our series of Gospel Songs by Pops Singers.

    What is your favorite Gospel song by a pop singer? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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