Howlin' Wolf lead guitarist Hubert Sumlin was the first blues legend I snagged an interview with for my book, The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu. Even though Sumlin (who passed away last December at age 80) was the soul of kindness, with courtly Southern-gentleman manners, I was pretty nervous. To warm up, I pitched him a softball question about the title of Wolf's great Chicago blues standard, "Killing Floor."
I expected Sumlin to simply verify the longstanding notion that "killing floor" refers to a slaughterhouse. To my surprise, Sumlin, who was not only Wolf's guitarist but also his close friend from 1954 until Wolf's death in 1976, politely demurred. Instead, he recounted a detailed (and hilarious!) story about Wolf's inspiration for "Killing Floor" that I'd never read anywhere.
As a (rock) musician myself, this got me thinking -- perhaps we blues fans spend too much time talking to each other, and not enough talking to the artists. I resolved from that moment on to interview as many elder blues artists as I could for my book -- and to talk less and listen more.
It's true that many southern African Americans who flooded north during the Great Migration found work on the blood-slick killing floors of Chicago meat-packing slaughterhouses. So it's understandable why even Wikipedia reports that "Howlin' Wolf recorded 'Killing Floor' in 1964. The song's title refers to the active area of a slaughterhouse. Wolf uses it as a metaphor for his relationship predicament."
One might argue that Wolf picked up the use of killing floor to mean slaughterhouse from "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues," which was recorded by influential Delta bluesman Skip James in 1931. Yet James had never been up north until he was brought to Grafton, Wisconsin, in 1931 to make that recording for Paramount. There's no indication in the lyrics to "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues", either, that he's singing about a slaughterhouse.
When I asked Sumlin if Wolf's title referred to a slaughterhouse, Sumlin replied: "No, what happened was... Wolf had seven wives. 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."
In "Killing Floor," Wolf sings:
I shoulda quit you, baby, a long time ago
I shoulda quit you, and went on to Mexico
Lord knows, I shoulda been gone
And I wouldn't have been here, down on the killing floor
"Down on the killing floor -- that means a woman has you down," Sumlin explained. "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, ostensibly to buy groceries so she could cook him a welcome-home feast. While he was gone, she ransacked the tour bus for evidence that her man 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 Helen went out and searched the bus before he gets back. One of the boys in his band messed up, you know. 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 woman trouble that could depress the mighty Wolf, who was 6'3" and weighed almost three hundred pounds. Wolf 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 down there to do his voice and finish it."
It's possible that Wolf picked up this use of killing floor to mean depression from the Skip James song, which is a haunting ode to the killing stress of severe poverty. James sings:
Hear me tell you people, just before I go
These hard times will kill you just dry long so
To be "dry long so" is to be out of money for so long that you feel like you're not going to survive. James also sings:
These hard times can last us so very long
If I ever get off this killin' floor
I'll never get down this low no more
Sumlin's stinging guitar licks on "Killing Floor" have a lot to do with its staying power as a blues standard. They are building blocks of electric guitar, earnestly cranked out by guitarists of varying competence at blues jams around the world.
I asked Sumlin how he came up with such memorable lines. "I guess I found myself," Sumlin replied modestly. "I found my voice on account of Wolf fired me so many times, sometimes for two minutes, three minutes, five minutes, twenty minutes. But he hired me right back. Boy, he didn't like it when nobody missed no notes. 'Go on find yourself' he would say, and I guess I did."
That's what real friends are for -- and if they can set the record straight for you in return, after you've gone, that's all right, too.