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Mississippi John Hurt
February 8, 2003 1:15 AM   Subscribe

John Hurt: Although it was not John (wrong sex anyway) who through a gentle voice and pleasant demeanor (yet he had this about him too) served as my primary impetus to play the guitar, it was nevertheless he, and others who played like him - but mainly he who provided me with my first technical model (emotional model to some extent also) for playing the guitar. He was the first I heard who played in the three-finger, non-choking, "picking" style, and he was one of the best. He was in his quiet way, a very great man, and I deeply mourn our loss of him.          John Fahey

                                Mississippi John Hurt

"I just make it sound like I think it ought to"                              (more)
posted by y2karl (41 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
Mississippi John Hurt was truly a remarkable man.

We have your excellent biography by Ed Ward, rock historian for National Public Radio's Fresh Air, courtesy Vanguard Records, whose 3 CD box set is the definitive collection of his all too brief folk revival career. If you have the patience, this page from MSN has song clips, although it does require a walk through with their radio set up. But it'll give you a taste. And here, for the living room guitarist, is the Mississippi John Hurt Tab Book. His songs are easy to learn and yet it is very hard to come close to his sound--but oh so well worth the effort.
posted by y2karl at 1:16 AM on February 8, 2003


I know, I know--it looks wack now, but it'll rectify and look fine when it moves past the sidebar. I was experimenting.
posted by y2karl at 1:18 AM on February 8, 2003


I just heard Hurt's playing for the first time this afternoon--and loved it. Thanks y2karl.
posted by hippugeek at 1:25 AM on February 8, 2003


I cherish my Best of MJH, which is not a best of but rather a live recording of a 1965 show, a very well-recorded one at that. If you love the sound of one guitar and one voice, and the spaces inbetween, it's a delight. It includes "Stagolee," his version of "Stagger Lee/Stack-o-Lee," a song as worthy of a book as "Louie Louie."
posted by planetkyoto at 1:44 AM on February 8, 2003


I had that in college, and I'm always tempted to get it again, just for You Are My Sunshine. I got Avalon Blues (1963) for Casey Jones, which is the only disc with his version this song. I first heard it by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman's Shady Grove, a lovely version there, for sure.
posted by y2karl at 2:09 AM on February 8, 2003


(been to his gravestone)

(+5 scene points)
posted by cadastral at 3:13 AM on February 8, 2003


Great post.

Missippi John Hurt is a masterful, magically skilled musician (I'm listnening to 'Corrina' at this very moment, an archetype of a song, widely improvised upon), and his style and delivery is unmistakably warm, comforting and utimately listenable.

I just wish we had more (any?) examples of his recorded early work.

For example, Son House's early recordings (and self) were forgotten until the blues revival in the 1960s, and if you compare his early songs to the later, the feeling is completely different. In the early recordings, which were basically a road map for the technically superior younger disciple Robert Johnson, Son House fumbled and mumbled and damn well lived and breathed fire into those songs, crudely recorded and performed as they were. The songs recorded later in his life in stereophonic hi-fi were renditions of the earlier, but more cleanly recorded, (and probably sober).

Three things, and I'll get to the point.

Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground", based on a well-known spiritual, pure feeling with 78 rpm sound quality.

Charley Patton's "Mississippi Bol Weevil Blues" (or any Carlie Patton tune), unforgettably stark and powerful recorded horribly (78 rpm?).

Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Shuckin' Sugar" (or any, including a take on "Corrina"), utterly riveting and recorded on sandpaper.

Here's the thing which lots of contemporary musicians have exploited in a good way, recently and most notably Tom Waits, Hasil Atkins, and other lo-fi stars : presentation.

What is it about recorded hiss and interference that seems to add to the gravity, distance and resonance of the songs? And this doesn't only apply to blues, but also the haunting Roaring 1920s dance hall band crooners, and flapper-style recordings, among others.

Just wondering.
posted by hama7 at 6:18 AM on February 8, 2003


Thanks, y2karl. Of all the "Stagger Lee" recordings, the one I keep coming back to is MJH's. So apparently simple, so fathomlessly deep. A great, great musician.
posted by languagehat at 6:39 AM on February 8, 2003


cadastral, there's a picture of his grave on the Dead Blues Guys site.

There's also a link to the liner notes for The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt by blues photographer and erstwhile blues promoter Dick Waterman:

John Hurt was every sort of a paradox rolled into one. He was a brilliant musician but he held this in no regard. He was a lovable flirt and a straight-laced prude. He paid little mind to money and he doubted the credit of the University of Chicago. He was innocently naïve and he was a Super Hippie. He was so completely unique that this tired and bickering world is indefinitely poorer that he is gone.

Great topic, as always, y2karl - thanks!
posted by madamjujujive at 6:44 AM on February 8, 2003


Hey Y2! I don't exactly always like your topics, but this one brought back fond and rich memories of youth. I worked on a Mississippi tug for a couple of years right after high school, and got introduced to delta blues by an old deckhand who had a beat-up guitar that was nearly always out of tune, but somehow still managed to sound exactly right when he played it. He used a beef rib as a slide. I played the blues harp (very badly) but he didn't care. He said the blues was about the experience of playing, not about what it sounded like to anyone else (an attitude that would probably strike terror in the hearts of today's Sony execs ...). Started taking me to dirty bars and old shacks whenever we were ashore in the south. Even once went to Clarksdale - at the infamous "Crossroads" (of Highways 61 and 49 - where Robert Johnson alledgedly sold his soul to the devil for fame). (Though I've heard it's now kind of a tourist trap, this was the 70's).

But here's to the masters ... to Lightnin' Hopkins, and Willie Dixon, and Junior Wells, and John Lee Hooker, and Pinetop Perkins, and, and, and ....

And while authentic blues rarely gets recorded anymore, it still does get played. I think it's returned to it's roots ... bluesmen jamming live, with little thought about who's listening, or what they think. Best festival (IMO) is the Mississippi Delta Blues & Heritage Festival,
held yearly in Greenville, Mississippi.

Great memories. Great post Y2K.
posted by MidasMulligan at 9:10 AM on February 8, 2003


Well damn, if this thread doesn't show the awesome power of music to serve as a bridge over troubled waters, what does? MidasMulligan, hama7 and y2karl all jawboning over some blues? That's some pretty strong mojo going on!

MidasMulligan, thanks for bringing Pinetop Perkins to mind, a true great that can still be seen on tour. He'll be 90 years old this July, I do believe. I saw him about two years ago at the wonderful Rosa's Lounge, arguably the best and certainly the friendliest blues bar in Chicago. (Mama Rosa and her son Tony Manguillo run this club, highly regarded by musicians, and they host some great shows and stellar blues artists.) It was a true thrill to hear him perform, and despite his advancing age, he wasn't beyond flirting with me when I took his hand to thank him during a break. It was a thrill to see him.

Dave Honeyboy Edwards is another real deal who is perhaps only a year or two younger than Pinetop, and as of last year, could still be seen on the concert circle now and then.
posted by madamjujujive at 10:05 AM on February 8, 2003


This post is great. "Goodnight Irene" and "C.C. Rider" are two classic covers, but the way MJH performs them, he makes them his own. Madamjujujive, I saw Honeyboy Edwards in concert a couple of years ago. Thanks for mentioning him. Another of my favorites is Snooky Pryor. Pinetop Perkins plays on the album I linked to.
posted by Frank Grimes at 10:36 AM on February 8, 2003


What is it about recorded hiss and interference that seems to add to the gravity, distance and resonance of the songs? And this doesn't only apply to blues, but also the haunting Roaring 1920s dance hall band crooners, and flapper-style recordings, among others.

I have thought about this often. I think it has to do with the distance in history as in sound--clean copies of old 78s, played on the right cartridge--and yes, they make highend 78 cartridges for the collector market--and equipment will have a lot more range than you'd think. There's still that uncanny part: you're hearing into the past, much the same way as deep field telescopes gaze at far galaxies in the kindergarten of creation at the edge of the universe.

My best guess is that it has to do with the evolution of the rhythm and beats of, I don't know what to call it--popular music? American vernacular music?--the underlying pulse, which keeps shifting and getting more complex.

Before the introduction of 78s, local musicians, in, say, the South, were that: local musicians. The style in which they played and the repertoire they knew was limited, finite. Then come records, and they people in the next state, Hawaii, the world. The repertoire grows as well, innovation and novelty abound and, presto, you have an increasing movement to greater complexity.

Incidentally, this is something you hear about Robert Johnson all the time--someone would be talking to him and there'd be a record being played. And sometime later he'd play the guitar just like that record. I'm inclined to think that something people had to learn to do after records were introduced.

Older music is at the far end of the curve--you hear the oldest beats. Which, incidentally, is why modern blues bands of any ilk, unless they come forth from the lineage of the core musicians and core audience--or you're some nut that rejects everything recorded after, 1950, and practices guitar for eight hours a day when you're eighteen.

I had some friends that solved that problem by having a drummer, originally from New Orleans, who was the real thing, who subbed for Earl Palmer in LA in the 50s, who could play all those beats just like they sounded on the record but, you, live and alive.

And, there is, too, that the earliest stuff is acoustically recorded--cone to cutting stylus to the wax blanks they used to mold the masters--there's no microphone and everything sounds so far away because, well, it is. Or, at least, some of it.

I had a friend who plays pre-war blues with that lod touch. It was sort of OK. You might have fooled some people. Or do what Fahey did--he just put a 1928 Curly Weaver and Sylvester Jackson sides on one of his albums.

Midas, I do envy you your teenage summer job. I wonder if you heard those sounding songs as on the river boats. There's a really lovely one on an Alan Lomax collection I have. It's startling to hear mark twain used in the original sense.

I'm thinking of that drummer, Leslie--he's the door at an oncology of an oncology clinic here. I wish people like he, Henry Townsend or Robert Jr. Lockwood were treated the way cultural treasures are in Japan--honored and underwritten. Clarksdale built a museum as did all the towns who had any musician of note. John Hurt's heirs bought his ancestral cabin, for example. Brownsville made a museum for Sleepy John Estes but they didn't know who he was when he was alive and up until the last few years of his life, lived in a house you where could daylight through the walls.

I should plug my friend Jack Cook--he's the friend who plays pre and postwar blues with that old time touch and feel--here for the mefi locals. He's really good, has that sound and a huge old timey to 50s repertoire. When he was 19, in the 70s, he drove his Datsun station wagon down to the South and met everybody who was still alive--Sleepy John Estes, Furry Lewis, Gus Cannon, Mager Johnson, the brother of Tommy Johnson and on and on. He has a Harvey Pekar's American Splendor's worth of stories, too. He's the best locally, the guy Pine Top Perkins wants to play with when he comes to town. And he's a great guy.

And on preview--yes, yes, madamejujujive, David Honeyboy Edwards, by all means. I know you got your Fat Possum roster but these guys were present at the creation.
posted by y2karl at 11:12 AM on February 8, 2003


By the way, this--from here--intrigues me:

His only son, John William "Man" Hurt, still lives in Grenada, where he performs pieces popularized by his father and '50s-style juke blues by John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf.

Why hasn't anyone recorded him, I wonder?
posted by y2karl at 11:42 AM on February 8, 2003


What is it about recorded hiss and interference that seems to add to the gravity, distance and resonance of the songs?

Those "flaws" and imperfections remind that the music was made by humans, whereas even a lot of very good and soulful modern music sounds, somewhat sterile due to the lack of it. But it's something you can't add back in without sounding fake. Also since the tape hiss and static is audible even when there's no notes being played, it seems to add to the momentum somehow, creating this weird feeling of movememnt without useless flash and clutter. Some latter-day musicians manage to get that feeling somehow, like Love(listen to "Always See Your Face" to see what I'm [hopefully] getting at. Also "You Are The Light" on Lone Justice's first album has a similar effect. Maybe that's cause voaclist Maria McKee is half-sister of Love's Bryan Maclean.

But I digress.

MidasMulligan - I worked on a Mississippi tug for a couple of years right after high school..

Aaach! Life is unfair. But then again, while you were hearing the blues, I was working as a busboy, grocery stocker, and night shift baker, jobs so miserable, that I shoulda used the experience to my advantage and written a few blues songs about it..

hama7--Aften listening to you wax rhapsodic about 78's, I'm reccomending you buy the novel Going Going Gone by Jack Womack, a neat "alternate history" novel, which features the narrator raving on over his collection of blues 78's especially Geechie Wiley's "Last Kind Word Blues" (featured on the Crumb soundtrack) that makes it worth the price of admission alone.
posted by jonmc at 12:25 PM on February 8, 2003


I always try to plug Blues World, which is simply the best there is, with a bias towards the old and real. It's like a private universe of home pages of musicians, 78 collectors, historians and researchers. Check out the Gayle Dean Wardlow pages and read the interviews--he is just a treasure trove of information of Delta musicians.

Then there's Harvey Pekar's Ridin' The Dog, an illustrated story about the time he rode the bus with Sun Ra from an old American Splendor. Can you believe they've made a movie of American Splendor? You know I'm going to see that--I am so stoked!

Another place to go to is Ole Miss's Center For Southern Culture. Man, The Blues Today: a Living Blues Symposium looks interesting.
*reads speaker and musician list, drools like Homer Simpson*
posted by y2karl at 1:21 PM on February 8, 2003


Midas, I do envy you your teenage summer job. I wonder if you heard those sounding songs as on the river boats. There's a really lovely one on an Alan Lomax collection I have. It's startling to hear mark twain used in the original sense.

What is it about recorded hiss and interference that seems to add to the gravity, distance and resonance of the songs?

I really do thank you Y2K, I've had an entire afternoon of extremely pleasant reverie. It was weird - I actually really heard the blues live before I had any records (though after the first couple of months of knowing my friend on the boat, and listening to him play, I certainly started buying albums like mad). I'll always associate the blues with the Mississippi delta. It's a stange place - quite spooky at night. When I think about the essence of the blues I always wind up coming back to a single night in the woods. My buddy had borrowed an old bass boat with a putt-putt motor, and took a convoluted route through the sloughs of the delta. Docked at this cabin out in the middle of nowhere on the edge of a swamp. A single house, no electricity or anything, and a group of old men on the porch (that night was also the first - and last - time I drank corn whiskey).

These guys had some of the weirdest ass instruments I'd ever seen. I don't think a single guitar there actually had all of it's strings. But man, what they managed to do was utter magic. Nobody actually started a "song" ... they were just bullshitting, and at one point a bunch of hounds started chasing something in the distance, howling and barking - which is a strange thing to hear echoing through a moonlit swamp. A guy on the porch started howling and barking back at the dogs at the top of his lungs. Another fellow started stomping his foot, hard, on the porch. The howling and stomping turned into a sort of beat. My buddy picked up a guitar and started a simple blues riff. A couple of others joined in. Finally an old cajun with a voice about as full of gravel as a voice can get started just making up lyrics about being a dog on the hunt. That damn song lasted close to three hours, with people dropping out to drink and eat and coming back in. But it seemed to go way beyond a group of "musicians" playing a "song" - it was more like the delta itself, full of snakes and bugs, full of scents that were equal parts fragrence and putrification, full of moonshine and voodoo and thick moist air - was just using these guys to sing its own song. It was so raw and primodal that it approached what I suppose would be called a peak experience.

That's what I think of first when I think of the blues. A song that came out of nowhere and was only played that night ... played by musicians that may not even have known what a record label was. The blues, I think, are just a thing that permeates the hot air of the southern Mississippi. Chicago blues always seemed to be a slight step removed - missing an undefinable something, but still carrying an undercurrent of its roots (the blues migrated - like some species of animal, up the river). Early rock & roll was two or three steps removed, but still had a wiff of the delta in it.

I think the reason why the blues sound more authentic on old recordings ... on records with scratches and pops ... is because they sort of mimic a necessary background that was part of the original blues. There is never silence in the delta. There's always the sounds of the river, of insects, of birds ... and the old bluesmen not only always listened to the world around them ... they integrated it into everything they played. (I noticed this trait with my friend even when he was sitting on the front of a barge strumming ... the big twin diesels in Mississippi tugs have a distinct rythmic pulse to them ... and whenever he played on the boat that pulse was his percussion section).

Hell, I'm starting to think a spring trip to MS or LA may be in order.
posted by MidasMulligan at 2:47 PM on February 8, 2003 [2 favorites]


MidasMulligan: Where exactly were you going, and how far? The Mississippi Delta (outside of its cities and towns) is almost totally fields, planted atop land cleared decades ago, with intermittent tiny bits of swampland. There isn't much left as far as woods or swamps go, really, outside of what's controlled by the federal and state governments. And the link discusses the "last wilderness" in the Delta of the 1950s, in the most sparsely populated corner of the region. The Delta's not the freakin' Atchafalaya Basin.
posted by raysmj at 4:00 PM on February 8, 2003


One of my current favorite "blues" musicians (and the quotes are certainly needed in this case) is a guy by the name of Frank Morey. He's a white guy outta Lowell, MA, but he wraps . He performs with a stand-up bass player and a drummer who makes do with a lot of found objects. Frank's stuff is more er, rehearsed than the old stuff, but man, is it fun to listen to. If he's in your area, don't miss him.
posted by notsnot at 4:33 PM on February 8, 2003


There's a story in John Fahey's How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life, (review) that's in a sort of eerie resonance with that story of yours, Midas, albeit, it's in Maryland and not Mississippi, and at least only until the dancing cat people appear in Fahey's story.

I would say it's in the landscape, the blood, a meme in the collective unconscious, that groove of which you speak, plus I'll bet you heard a one chord drone boogie, analogous to what John Lee Hooker. That's music as meditative state when you play--you get into that drone and you can just hover, enter into what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow.

...People in a state of 'flow' are those who feel feel they are engaged in a creative unfolding of something larger; athletes call it ‘being in the zone’, mystics have described as ‘ecstasy’, and artists ‘rapture’.

You and I may recognise our flow experiences as simply those activities (work, a hobby, some kind of service) which seem to make time stand still. The book’s best definition of flow comes from the ancient Taoist scholar Chuang Tzu. In a parable, Ting, the esteemed court butcher of Lord Wen-hui, describes his way of working: ‘Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants.’ You stop ‘thinking’ and just do.


Which was where those you and those guys on the cabin porch were, but in deep. Lucky you.

Next to great sex, playing an instrument even rudimentarily, is another great way to get to flow. You get to the place where the clanking assemblage of parts, starts and stops becomes, at least for a while, music. And then there are levels beyond and plateaus to reach. You should take that harmonica back up.

Stefan Grossman's Vestapol Videos has almost all the available footage from the Newport Folk Festivals, Alan Lomax and more--it's wonderful to see Skip James or Son house. But, more to the point, The Land Where The Blues Began has Napoleon Strickland & the Como Drum Band. That's ancient before-the-blues hill country music, very dare I say African in flavor. Just drums and fife. It's got a really spectral, plaintive quality--you should check out that video.

And like at your jam,when they play, they go all day and all night, have a big country picnic with eating and drinking and they just keep beating those drums.

Whoa, the sample clip is of Jack Owens of Bentonia, Skip James's hometown. There definitely is a Bentonia sound, as you can see and hear.

Upon review--depends on which Delta he's talking about, don't it, raysmj?--the Yazoo Delta counties or the actual Mississippi delta down by Bay St. Louis and New Orleans and all. This was my hypothesis.

But on that topic, here's Gayle Dean Wardlow chiming in on the changing landscape of the Delta and it's relationship to the blues there:

Especially 'round about 1900. Early 1900s, late 1890s they were clearing these swamps, there were bear, there were panther up there, and they killed a lot of both of them. And drained the swamps. They set the land up and they started planting cotton. So the blacks came in there `cause in the hill country they made very little money. They'd work for a white man in the hill country, but earned practically no money. H.C. Speir said a sharecropper might make a quarter a day in the hill country, but over in the delta a black man could make a dollar or more a day.
posted by y2karl at 5:00 PM on February 8, 2003


Yes, it does depend on which Delta you're talking about. But when Midas was mentioning Greenville's bluesfest (which really isn't the best anymore and hasn't been for some time, maybe a decade or so - try Helena, Ark.'s King Biscuit Blues Festival instead; the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale is also a goodie, by the way, although the Greenville festival isn't bad), I'm strongly presuming he's talking about the alluvial plain known as the Mississippi Delta, (which could more accurately be called the "Yazoo-Miss. Delta" but seldom is) and not the Miss. River Delta proper. This "delta" can also, as hinted at above, include parts of Arkansas and also northeastern Louisiana, western Tennessee and the bootheel of Missouri. Even in most of these parts, however, the "delta" flatlands were drained fairly early on, especially the parts nearing the Mississippi River. Those are good lands for planting, after all. So-called "backland" swamps in Louisiana were drained with the assistance of the federal govt. in the '60s and '70s. (The Miss. Delta itself was drained even more then too, and had been the focus of a major federal drainage program undertaken in the '40s.)

Meantime, I associate the Miss. River Delta more with shipping to or out of New Orleans. Very few people live in that area, regardless.
posted by raysmj at 5:44 PM on February 8, 2003


*crinkles Vulcan eyebrow in look of bemusement*
posted by y2karl at 6:20 PM on February 8, 2003


If you ever go to Clarksdale, be sure to stay at Mississippi's oldest B&B (bed & beer), the Shack Up Inn

The shacks are cheap and the guys who run the place are great (although the folks at the commissary might give you funny looks if you order anything other than Budweiser)
posted by stefanie at 8:06 PM on February 8, 2003


Where exactly were you going, and how far? The Mississippi Delta (outside of its cities and towns) is almost totally fields, planted atop land cleared decades ago, with intermittent tiny bits of swampland.

Yes, this is true I suppose ... The particular night I was talking about was in southern Louisiana ... south of Baton Rouge, north of New Orleans - but we didn't leave from a city, or go to a city. Landmarks look different from the river, and it's not always easy to get a fix on exactly where you are. And (as you must know, since you're obviously familiar with the river) during high water all sorts of sloughs open up, and become accessible in a small boat, that are just dried stream beds at other times of the year.

...People in a state of 'flow' are those who feel feel they are engaged in a creative unfolding of something larger; athletes call it ‘being in the zone’, mystics have described as ‘ecstasy’, and artists ‘rapture’.

I read that book a few years ago - and you're probably right. It never occured to me to try to categorize the experience tho.

Next to great sex, playing an instrument even rudimentarily, is another great way to get to flow. You get to the place where the clanking assemblage of parts, starts and stops becomes, at least for a while, music. And then there are levels beyond and plateaus to reach. You should take that harmonica back up.

Actually, one of the few regrets I have in life is that I never did learn to play an instrument with any degree of competence. I do know a lot of musicians - everything from blues to classical - and really envy the experience you're talking about - and that I can only imagine ... of reaching that point where everything gels. But it does take real commitment to learn to play something well, and I've never wound up having the time.

But when Midas was mentioning Greenville's bluesfest (which really isn't the best anymore and hasn't been for some time, maybe a decade or so)

You're probably right about that. It's been a good decade or so since I've been there.
posted by MidasMulligan at 8:42 AM on February 9, 2003


What about that massive levee system between New Orleans and New Madrid, Missouri? Just south of Baton Rouge, I believe, the banks are even paved with concrete. The Mississippi is the most heavily regulated waterway on Earth. Those sloughs you're talking about are decidedly more likely to be navigable from the river at its upper end.
posted by raysmj at 10:07 AM on February 9, 2003


No, the lower Miss. River levee isn't longer than the Great Wall of China, but it's pretty impressive.
posted by raysmj at 10:16 AM on February 9, 2003


raysmj, thanks for the Atchafalaya Basin link which led to this wonderful Encyclopedia of Cajun Culture - a nice resource! It brought back memories of an all day swamp tour I took from McGee's Landing somewhere near Breaux Bridge a number of years ago. My friends and I were lucky enough to be the only other passengers on a day when some documentary film makers were taken out to get some Bayou footage - made for quite the nice trip, tho I never did see any film from it.
posted by madamjujujive at 2:11 PM on February 9, 2003


I'm late to the party (took the weekend off), but let me thank you, karl and the other posters, for a wonderful thread. Mississippi John Hurt, Charley Patton...
You can't do better than that.
posted by matteo at 4:33 PM on February 9, 2003


John Hurt was suretainly a bhudda incarnate.
posted by Satapher at 5:52 PM on February 9, 2003


so was buddha.
posted by Satapher at 8:50 PM on February 9, 2003


I'm reccomending you buy the novel Going Going Gone by Jack Womack, a neat "alternate history" novel, which features the narrator raving on over his collection of blues 78's especially Geechie Wiley's "Last Kind Word Blues" (featured on the Crumb soundtrack) that makes it worth the price of admission alone.

Thanks, jonmc. I will look it up.

Again, great thread, great links, great descriptions. Thanks.
posted by hama7 at 12:00 AM on February 10, 2003


That's some pretty strong mojo going on!

I think it might be a good dose of madamejuju too, you know!
posted by hama7 at 3:22 AM on February 10, 2003


The Chunky Rythm and Blues Festival used to be rather nice (can't find any info on if this is still even going on?), no, not a blues fest catering to the portly spectator or weighty artist, the festival was named for the Mississippi town and river of the same name (not far from Tuscaloosa, ray).

Midas is right though, there's nothing like sitting back in a lawn chair with a "Mr.Turkey Leg," grilled corn, tamales and a cold beer and watching Lattimore sing in a purple three-piece zoot suit despite the blistering indian summer heat, wishing that cloud would finally dump the afternoon rain you know its going to because you just realized you finished off your last beer and its only 12:30 and LORD is it hot, but at least you know you can stagger over to the side stage where there is shade and even better music played by blind old men who go by "Rev." so-and-so or J. J. (or some such initials) "Snowman" (insert nickname here) Walker (or Taylor or King or one of the other handful of last names blues musicians always seem to have), this is not the music heard in Subway in Jackson on a drunken Saturday night, its the sounds you heard as a kid when your parents sent you out in the country on summer breaks to "get out of mamma's hair" and no body cared that you were up late and out listening on the porch because it was way to hot to sleep in that stifling unairconditioned room anyway. Yeah, Midas, blues fest is a good time.

I'm surprised there hasn't been much talk about Ledbelly from this crowd.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:54 AM on February 10, 2003


Pollomacho: Chunky is long since sadly defunct, as far as I know. I'm not sure that same thing about music heard out in the country goes for P-Funk, though, a Delta Blues Festival headliner in the early '90s, or even Stevie Ray from the mid-'80s (when the fest consistently had top headliners, and the last of the older acoustic blues guys). You should've seen the fest at its old Freedom Village location, if you didn't. Good gosh. It was as if it were thrown together at the last second. All the amps in '86 had "Molly Hatchet" stamped on them. And there was a guy way out in the country giving directions, with two pieces of posterboard saying "Delta Blues Festival" tied together and placed over his shoulders. He pointed yours truly and traveling companion in the direction of the site with a gun (!). As in, "That-a-way, boys."
posted by raysmj at 9:05 AM on February 10, 2003


Oh, and last year's Delta bluesfest lineup was absolutely nothing to sneeze at, as far as the headliners go. Maybe (hopefully, even) it'll keep this up consistently in coming years. It has, however, in recent times been far outdone by the competition.
posted by raysmj at 9:23 AM on February 10, 2003


No, the main stage was never much like the music in the country, unless you happened to live next door to Koko Taylor or something, the side stage always had a little different scene though. I haven't been since '93 or so, but it was always a good time. I was disappointed to see that they only allow 12x12x12 inch coolers now, how are you supposed to carry enough in that? I still have a pavlovian reaction just thinking about Mr. Turkey Leg. I need to go back so bad, people around here look at me funny when I talk about fried pickles and stuff!
posted by Pollomacho at 9:36 AM on February 10, 2003


Something we need to remember about pre-war, as in World War II recordings, Mississippi Delta Blues, is that it is the music of the poorest of the poor, black sharecroppers, and performed under conditions we can only imagine, conditions as to make the Freedom Village Juke look like a theme park, the sort of place to which tours are made, which is not far from the truth.

The reality as noted in an interview on the Gayle Dean Wardlow pages, was otherwise:

Blues was associated with gambling and drinking.

Remember, we had prohibition in the Twenties. If you played blues, you played where people drank and gambled and carried on and committed adultery-all the things that the black church and the white church stood against: gambling, fornication, adultery, violence, murder. A lot of people got killed or stabbed or cut up at a jook house. Or at a house party, somebody would get shot sometimes. See, there weren't any commercial places to go. If you lived in a small town in the Delta, you went to a house party. Some plantation owners might have a place they could open up as a jook on weekends, but most didn't and you played house parties. That's what Hayes McMullen played, that's what Bracey played, Tommy Johnson, Patton-they played dances mainly. Somebody like Patton would be hired for a dance on Saturday night, and he would attract a large audience.


John Fahey refers to the blues singers of the folk revival as murderers for the most part. He exaggerates only slightly--Bukka White and Leadbelly both went to prison for manslaughter, Son House also served time, if I recall correctly and Skip James, who didn't serve time, nevertheless clamied to have killed someone. Mississippi John Hurt was the charismatic beautiful soul all remember, no doubt, but there is no reason to turn him into this.

Consider his lyrics:

Goin' to the old town with my razor in my hand,
Goin' to see if I can catch that man


Hurt was a humble modest man who led , by all accounts, lived a quiet sober life and an excellent musician. But he didn't live in Song of The South. And he wasn't a bluesman as much as what folklorists call a songster, with a repertoire from a generation before the blues. He's definitely not a delta blues musician.

On another note, here's Wardlow about Robert Johnson:

The first-line singers of the Twenties weren't influenced by records, they were influenced by people they heard playing. Robert Johnson heard a hell of a lot of good records somewhere. He copied Charlie Patton. He took some melodies from Skip James. "Hellhound On My Trail" is the same song as "Devil Got My Woman"; his "32-20 Blues" is the same melody as Skip James's "22-20 Blues." "Preaching Blues" was Son House's song. Son House recorded "Preaching Blues" in 1930. So Johnson was tremendously influenced by records.

Son House was his model on a few songs. House's first recordings are incredibly powerful, in my opinion, and it's sad he wasn't recorded under better circumstances when his voice was at its strongest and his guitar playing was his best. He had to be taught the guitar parts to his songs when he was rediscovered by Alan Wilson--House had forgotten it all.

Still, I saw him in '69 and he sang like a man possessed.

When he played, his eyes rolled back in his head and he went somewhere else. Whether it was Robinsonville in the '30's or wherever, he transported himself back without any trickery and became the essence of Delta. He would then finish the song, blink his eyes, and then reaccustom himself to where he was at the time.

Dick Waterman, remembering Son House.

There's several clips of him in the Vestapol videos that show him in this state. I recommend Devil Got My Woman - Blues at Newport 1966, Legends of Bottleneck Blues Guitar or Delta Blues & Cajun Two-Step.

I used to like Jack Womack but I found his take on blues overly romatnic, his newspeak eventually irritating and I have this problem with his dystopia--if everything's so ultraviolent and chaotic, where's the money coming from? Who's got a job? Who are Dryco's customers? But I had the same problem with Angel and Max Headroom.

However, for a good book on Mississippi blues, I recommend Chasin' That Devil Music by, natch, Gayle Dean Wardlow.
posted by y2karl at 12:07 PM on February 10, 2003


Remember, we had prohibition in the Twenties. If you played blues, you played where people drank and gambled and carried on and committed adultery-all the things that the black church and the white church stood against: gambling, fornication, adultery, violence, murder. A lot of people got killed or stabbed or cut up at a jook house. Or at a house party, somebody would get shot sometimes.

Apparently not a lot has changed in much of Mississippi. The Juke joint descriptions sounds a lot like some of the bars and shot houses in Jackson. Of course though Mississippi didn't legalize alcohol until 1966, (about the same time they started building paved roads there) and some counties are still dry so this description would still fit. You are right that Blues fest should not be confused with the blues of Ledbelly or even that of Rev. Hurt, the Chicago and Memphis sound is a far cry from those days, but don't fool yourself that they were "performed under conditions we can only imagine" when those conditions still exist. Just drive down to Frog Level, a "suburb" just outside of Boligee, AL and see if you can spot the conditions in 2003, or head down to Lower Peachtree or Cox's Quarters (named for where the Cox family had their slave quarters in the very houses where their descendants still live), you might still be able to hear the old style blues down there, as long as it hasn't been drowned out by hip hop and what's on the radio. Thanks for the great post!
posted by Pollomacho at 1:02 PM on February 10, 2003


I would contend the the social and cultural circumstances of Jim Crow Mississippi in the 1920s and Great Depression, under de jure segregation and at the height of the lynching era, are nothing comparable to anything contemporary.

"... I heard two guitars in quiet conversation behind the screen door of a tailor shop. I didn't dare open the door or say a word. I just leaned against the wall to listen as a winy, rather humorous tenor voiced my own sentiments:
--'I walked all the way , from East St. Louis. From east St. Louis here, And I got nobody, no one to feel my care'--
Willie B. stuck his head out of the door...
..."Whyn't you come in where you can here better, mister?". "There's a law that says I can't." "That's right, Willie,"said someone inside the shop."Them new laws." "Besides they don't sell beer in tailor shops."


In the Land Where The Blues Began, Alan Lomax writes of having to hire students from Fish University because black people won't talk to him., when he and Zora Neale Thurston go to the Georgia Sea Islands, she paints his face with walnut juice just to avoid notice because notice meant nothing but trouble. Lomax talks of being spirited down alleyways by Son House and William Brown because for a strange white man seen socializing with black plantation workers simply was not legal.

He recalls meeting and talking to Son House out in a field, and having an angry white man in a pick up show up, convinced Lomax was stealing Son House, a good worker, from him. At one point, he was thrown in jail for shaking hands with a black man. These barrelhouses which Spiers describes to Wardlow had no white people like Junior in Junior's Juke Joint going to them, no white people at all. That world, grimmer and scarier than anything of which Womack has written, is to the present as is Mars.

On another topic, what I find sad is that so few blues had their larger repertoires recorded. From a review of a CD of music Lomax recorded, included here for its clips, here's an example from Lomax field notes:

Playing for a white dance at the Stovall plantation on the nineteenth of June 1943, his band used the following pieces: Corinna, St. Louis Blues, Jingle, Jangle, Jingle, Missouri Waltz, Darktown Strutters Ball, Darkness on the Delta, and Wang Wang Blues.

The musicians: Muddy Waters and Son Sims.

In race records days, it was because the record companies didn't want to pay royalties, they wanted to collect them--so originals were strongly preferred. In the 60s, it was because these pop songs of the day would have been considered not folk enough, not authentic. Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, these guys knew a lot of standards and I for one wish these could have been recorded.

In 1929 a man named W.E. Myers, a sometime-songwriter, who owned a music store in Richlands, Virginia, formed a record company called The Lonesome Ace. Beneath the company name appeared the promise "Without a Yodel." Myers despised yodeling and had a "no yodel" clause written into each contract...

And one more John Hurt note: Richland Woman, with its tropes on red--

Gimme red lipstick and a bright purple rouge
A shingle bob haircut and a shot of good booze
Hurry down, sweet daddy, come blowin' your horn
If you come too late, sweet mama will be gone


and

With rosy red garters, pink hose on my feet
Turkey red bloomer, with a rumble seat
Hurry down, sweet daddy, come blowin' you horn
If you come too late, sweet mama will be gone


may have been written by W.E. Myers, whose label Lonesome Ace , is mentioned in this Dock Boggs biography. Myers supposedly wanted Hurt to learn Richland Woman so he could record him but nothing ever came of this and there is no lost Mississippi John Hurt 78. At least, in this timestream.
posted by y2karl at 3:08 PM on February 10, 2003


Back in the 60's in Jackson, MS there was a record store, I cannot for the life of me recall the name, but anyway, inside were row after row of dusty blues 78's, the garage "recording studios" in the delta had been dumping their products on this store for the last 50 years and the place was filled with stuff that had collected faster than there was a market for it. One day a rock band, I think it was Bread (I'm not kidding) stopped in on their way from N. O. to Chicago. They had apparently heard of the store and wanted to check it out, after looking through the boxes they asked about the price of the records and when the owner told them how little he wanted they bought them, not just a couple, not a box, ALL of them, they loaded every last record into the bus and took off never to return. The owner used the money to modernize the store and turn it into a schlock pop record store. I always wondered what happened to those records. Were they destroyed in a rock star frenzy? Were they ripped off for the hits of the 70's? Are they locked in a basement collecting mold?

Certainly, things are quite different, in Alabama and Mississippi. I think they may have electricity now in Cox's Quarter, but that is questionable. The economy is better. Since the soil's been leeched they've switched from "chopping cotton" to "cutting pup" or sawing pulp wood logs for the paper mills that stink up the air and pollute the river. The kids still don't have any shoes, though, they still live in the very same rough hewn wood and tar paper shacks that their ancestors the Cox family slaves lived in., they suffer from diseases that most people in the US thought were eradicated in the 19th century and they still don't have much to eat, but, yeah, things are certainly not the same as the depression era, or the 20's for that matter either, heck Lower Peachtree's got a Jr. Food Mart (rural Alabama's version of the 7/11) now and running water, except for when the river runs over it in the spring. Despite all the changes that have occurred, there is a reason that Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana come in last in things like test scores and number of teeth per capita and top in things like heart disease and infant mortality, its POOR down there. People eat dirt (yes, I said eat dirt) and drink manure (like cow poop) tea for health, for Pete's sake, now that's poverty (well ok, or possibly a lack of quality health education along with a cultural tradition, but the health education is certainly a huge factor).
posted by Pollomacho at 8:43 AM on February 11, 2003


I always wondered what happened to those records. Were they destroyed in a rock star frenzy? Were they ripped off for the hits of the 70's? Are they locked in a basement collecting mold?

Still, you never know what you might find at a flea market for a dollar even now.

"He (Smith) was in Nashville and had some time to kill before catching a flight back to Ohio," said Tefteller, the owner of World's Rarest Records in Grant Pass, Ore. "He went into this huge flea market and found a stack of old 78s that weren't even in the sleeves and weren't really in good condition.

“They were priced at $1 each. Smith bought three records, one of which was by Blind Joe Reynolds. He didn’t really know that much about them, but once he got home decided to see if these were really important."

Smith surveyed the Internet seeking additional information on Reynolds. After being referred to a 1998 book by Gayle Dean Wardlow, titled Chasin’ That Devil Music (Miller Freeman), he contacted Tefteller for an appraisal.

"Let’s just say when I found out what he had, I paid him a whole more than $1. It was somewhere in the thousands."


You never know. Gayle Dean Wardlow mentions that many surviving Mississippi blues 78s were collected in Virginia and North Carolina, tobacco country.

Seventy-five cents was a tremendous amount of money for a poor black person in the South. They may have sold a few copies in the cities. The only place the late Paramounts show up is in, like, Virginia, where there was apple money and tobacco money. But where there was cotton money, there was no money anymore-the cotton field was the chief income of the black people.

Of course, chances are good in Ozuakee, Grafton and Port Washington, Wisconsin, too.
posted by y2karl at 12:26 PM on February 11, 2003


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