This is the latest installment of our weekly series, The Language of the Blues, in which author/rocker Debra Devi explores the meaning of a word or phrase found in the blues. Grab a signed copy of Devi’s award-winning blues glossary The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to ZuZu (Foreword by Dr. John) at Bluescentric.com. Also available as an eBook from Amazon Kindle.
To be down on the killing floor is to be feeling very depressed, according to guitar legend Hubert Sumlin, whose licks on Howlin’ Wolf’s legendary 1964 single “Killing Floor” are building blocks of electric blues guitar.
Some scholars have asserted that in “Killing Floor,” Howlin’ Wolf was referring to the filthy, bloody floors of Chicago stockyards and slaughterhouses, where many African Americans who migrated North from the Delta found employment during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.
“No, not really,” Sumlin told me during an interview backstage at Chicago B.L.U.E.S. in New York City. “What happened was…Wolf had seven wives [girlfriends]. One was named Helen. She shot him with a double barrel shotgun with buckshot. Out the second floor window. This woman, oh man, he wrote that song about her! Reason I know it is every song he wrote, they was real.”
“Down on the killing floor–that means a woman has you down,” Sumlin continued. “She went out of her way to try to kill you. She at the peak of doing it, and you got away now.” He paused, then added, “You know people have wished they was dead–you been treated so bad that sometimes you just say, ‘Oh Lord have mercy.’ You’d rather be six feet in the ground.”
According to Sumlin, when Wolf arrived home in West Milford, Arkansas, from a lengthy tour, Helen sent him to the corner store with a promise to cook him a welcome-home feast. While he was gone, though, she searched the tour bus for evidence that Wolf had been fooling around on the road.
“She sent him to the store to get some food, about a half block up the road,” Sumlin recalled. “Some potatoes, tomatoes, and all this stuff. Well, somebody left her underwear in this bus. Some woman. And she [Helen] went out and searched the bus before he gets back. One of the boys in his band messed up, you know. And she found these things in the bus and she thought it was Wolf.
“She did shoot him, too, full of buckshot. They picked shots out of him for a whole week. She got him from behind. He looked up in the window and she pulled the trigger. By the time he turned his back, oh boy, he was full of buckshot. Man if he’d been a little closer, she coulda killed him!”
According to Sumlin, it wasn’t only problems with women that could drag the mighty Wolf down. He was even more passionate about his music. “He did one album that he didn’t like, and he went home and got in the bed and stayed three days before he would come back and finish it,” Sumlin recalled. “They finally got him back there to do his voice and finish it.”
The Skip James song “Hard Time Killing Floor” lends credence to Sumlin’s assertion that Wolf was using the phrase “killing floor” to refer to depression. James recorded this haunting slow blues in 1931. In it, he paints a grim picture of desperate, grinding poverty, and sings that if he can ever get off “this old hard killing floor/Lord I’ll never get down this low no more.”
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“Killing Floor”- Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett)
“Hard Time Killing Floor”- Skip James (Nehemiah Curtis James)
Howlin’ Wolf – “Killing Floor”
Skip James – “Hard Time Killing Floor”