Search Results for "John Hurt"

My “Stagger Lee,” a resophonic festival and Mississippi John Hurt’s Rediscovery

On January 14, 2012, the Department of Pathology and Immunology at the Washington University School of Medicine hosted An Evening of Music / Winter Concert. It featured some great performances by string quartets, small ensembles and singers. I volunteered to play. With nods to the city of Saint Louis and  favorite Mississippi John Hurt, I chose favorite “Stagger Lee.” I got past the nerves and played it out. H took a video for me that I posted.

“Stagger Lee” (mp3) (video on YouTube)

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This past Sunday, H and I headed to Iron Barley for the 6th Annual Tom Hall Resophonic Extravaganza. I had to return after the blogged last one was so good. The Lulus, another favorite, made fine contributions to the festivities. So did blogged Tom Hall, Geoff Seitz, Brian Curran and many more I have forgotten.

At the benefit, a friend reminded me about the new Mississippi John Hurt album. He later directed me to this post on Black Grooves. It leads to Discovery: The Rebirth of Mississippi John Hurt. Weenie Campbell has this worthwhile thread on it. This new release on Spring Fed Records features recordings that Tom Hoskins made on March 3, 1963 when he journeyed to Avalon, Mississippi in search of the long lost musician. This video from the University Press of Mississippi on Vimeo also appears at the bottom of the album link above. In it starting about 10:20, twice blogged Philip Ratcliffe and author of Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His Times, His Blues discusses how these tapes were found in the bottom of an old cardboard box under Tom Hoskins’ sister’s guest bed. I have been streaming tracks, and I gladly anticipate the arrival of my CD.

Update February 8, 2012: Outlook, the Washington University School of Medicine’s magazine, published this gallery of the Winter Concert. The photograph of me is 17th. You also can see it directly.

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Michael M. on January 31st 2012 in General, Live, Mine, Music, Recorded

New Mississippi John Hurt biography

The University Press of Mississippi recently published Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His Times, His Blues by Philip RatcliffeMississippi John Hurt is a favorite of mine. I met the author, also known as Dr. Phil / Delta Dan, on my 2007 trip to the MJH Festival. He told me then that he was writing the biography. My father saw copies for sale in Square Books and very thoughtfully gave me one for my birthday. Work prevented my getting far into it until vacation this week.

The book was a pleasure to read. It explores the phases of MJH’s life from before his birth through his times in and out of the music business to his death and its aftermath. It also takes a look at MJH’s circumstances in addition to the man himself. He put a lot of work into understanding the familial, geographic and interpersonal relationships of MJH’s community using census data and other old records. For me as a big fan, this level of detail was great. Of course, there are many entertaining anecdotes, too. Through reading them, I came to see how superstitious a man he could be from mythical beliefs about local fauna to timing dental work to the phase of the moon. His personal warmth also came through clearly.

I was thrilled to find my own name on page XVII of the introduction among the people thanked.  I made it into a sentence that included blogged Mike Seeger, Jerry Ricks, Dick Waterman, Steve LaVere, blogged Harry Bolick, Andy Cohen and Larkin Bryant, Patrick Sky and Mike “Backwards Sam Firk” Stewart. I was not sure whether I really had done anything to be included, but Phil confirmed it. At the 2007 festival, we talked about many things including connections between the Avalon/Valley community where MJH lived and the Emmett Till murder centered around nearby Money, and we had a brief email correspondence after. Grover Duke is listed here as a character witness for Roy Bryant, one of the men who murdered Till. He had lived around the Valley store, and he is listed in the liner notes for Harry Bolick’s album Carroll County, Mississippi. One of photographs is in the book is by Jim Steeby, whom I also mentioned from that first festival visit.

This year’s festival is scheduled for September 3. My chances of going are not great, but I might try to make it.

A related project is Mississippi John Hurt: Discovery, a collection of recordings made in Avalon by Tom “Fang” Hoskins soon after he found MJH. I look forward to listening.


Michael M. on August 13th 2011 in General, Music

Mississippi John Hurt Festival

I was a pilgrim. On Independence Day, I awoke early and enlisted the canine assistance of Ralph to wake Lib. Then we headed up to Avalon. I had wanted to go to the Mississippi John Hurt Festival last year, but then I did not feel at liberty to spend the time away. I am a big fan. When I visited home later in the summer, I made a detour. It was too quick. This time, we arrived early and started with a trip to the St. James cemetery that I could not find last year. Then I soaked in the whole afternoon of music. I could have stayed longer.

The music was good, but the people were the real treat. I met Mary Frances Hurt Wright, Hurt’s granddaughter, who heads the foundation. Hurt’s oldest granddaughter was there, too. I tried to catch her reminiscences as she toured the old house that has been converted to the museum. Art Browning, the curator, gave tours and told stories. He even picked a little “Payday” for us.

I had a good time talking to some people from the forum. Novalis was down on a tour of musical sites. Jonathan Beech, who posts on the forum as Manchester Jonny, made the festival the center of his American vacation. Early in the festival, he stepped on stage to tell us about how he came to the music, and he played us a few fine tunes. He called it “a dream come true,” and it was great seeing him up there. A professional illustrator, he presented his depiction of “Louis Collins” to the foundation later in the day. He posted it on his blog. He also posted about its role in one of Frank Delaney‘s projects. I have wondered about “Louis Collins” for a while. Hurt seems to have made the song based on a local murder. Reportedly, Delaney has found some census records and other material that will soon shed light on the story behind it.

Also playing country fingerstyle were Lost Jim Ohlschmidt and Andy Cohen. Lost Jim played his tribute “Dear Daddy John.” An earlier recording is on the mp3 page. He recorded a whole album of MJH tunes. Cohen played a wide variety of fingerstyle music with a Hurt tune or two toward the end. A fellow named Donald Kincaid who has sung with the Jackson Southernaires also performed.

Super Chikan played some of his contemporary electric blues on his folk art painted guitars made from recycled objects. As announced at the festival and in this post on his agent Charley Burch‘s blog, Chikan will record some Mississippi John Hurt songs. On stage, he talked about hearing his father fiddle. I was intrigued. I have been curious about the huge role of African-Americans in country music and the enduring affection of many African-Americans for country music for a while, my latest focus being the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Between his sets, I asked Chikan about it. He never learned to fiddle. He said that somebody, I think his grandfather, played banjo. He lacked guitar skills at the time to second well and had only played along a little on his diddley bow. He could not remember any tunes they played. It was a disappointing part stuck in a terrific day.

I also spotted a few Mississippi folks, familiar and new. Lib and I talked to the Ellen and Jim Steeby, parents of a high school friend of hers. I found this post on, the blog of Robert Neill who lives near Avalon, that features one of his photographs of the festival. I also found this post from a fellow named David Rosen who must be spending the summer as an intern at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. I believe we toured the museum with him and his friend. I had a good talk about Mississippi roots with a newspaper reporter covering the festival, but I have not found her article yet. At the end of the day, a lady came to hand me a flier for a store. I had helped her adjust the arms of her chair at the beginning of the afternoon. I only recognized her at the end of the day. She runs the Little Big Store in the old Raymond train depot. Two people from the Mississippi Old Time Music Association sat down behind me. One I had played with on Sunday. The other had not been at the jam, but I remembered his name, Tim Avalon, from the society’s CD. He will publish a book on Mississippi fiddle music that I look forward to reading.

I talked to a man wearing a Carroll County t-shirt with fiddler Willie Narmour on it, trying my best to encourage him to follow his desire to take up fiddling. Harry Bolick designed the shirt. He also made an album about his ancestral home, Carroll County, Mississippi. I placed an order for the t-shirt and the CD. I have listened to snippets of the album, and now I want to hear the whole thing.

Musicians love to talk and play just a little more. After the festival, Andy Cohen and I traded a few fiddle tunes in the twilight. I played “Carroll County Blues” there within the eponymous territory. Art Browning and I traded a few MJH tunes along with Novalis. After a brief conversation earlier in the afternoon, I visited more with Phil “Delta Dan” Ratcliffe about the MJH book he is writing, swapping notes with him and Mary Wright and the lady from the Little Big Store. Mary invited us in, but it was past time. The light had gone from the sky.

Now that I am back from vacation, I have to watch myself. The trip so affected me that I will expound if I sense the opportunity and the denial is not too harsh. I quickly become animated. When I told Rebecca about my journey, she brought up Schultze Gets the Blues, recommended to her by her parents. This review of it mentions Genghis Blues. I am not much of a moviegoer. I never have belonged to Blockbuster or Netflix. These movies were small films in the American market. Somehow, I have seen both of them. A German friend in my old research group loaned me Schultze. I borrowed Genghis Blues from the library after stumbling across it while browsing. I do not know why I neglected to blog about them until now. Now I, too, have traveled an isolated rural path seeking the roots of the music I love. Fictional Schultze became entranced by zydeco and headed for the bayous. Paul Pena‘s love for throat singing led him to Tuva. I rode my passion to Avalon.

Update July 23: Jon Beech posted his reminiscence of the day.


Michael M. on July 10th 2007 in General, Live, Music

Mississippi John Hurt visit

I explored Avalon, Mississippi on a trip down home and took a few photographs with my hacked PV2. I snooped around the Mississippi John Hurt Museum and played a little on the front porch after driving past it a time or two without seeing it. It was hard to find the sites. I think I located St. James Church on the very edge of the Delta, but the building was unmarked. I did not locate its cemetery. I did find Hurt’s old house, now a museum at a new location near its original one. The map was helpful, but it was very difficult going on little gravel roads. I also must have passed through Teoc, his birthplace. As I blogged previously, Teoc is also the ancestral home of the Fighting McCains of Carroll County. John McCain‘s ancestors owned Hurt’s mother, and Hurt was born on that plantation in 1893. I hope to post soon about the other musical parts of my visit.

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Michael M. on August 27th 2006 in General, Music

John Hurt videos

I linked to some John Hurt YouTube videos recently. This thread on Mudcat includes discussion of the John Hurt episode of Rainbow Quest. The thread has posts from Hedy West, the person who sat next to Hurt on the show.

The Mississippi John Hurt Blues Foundation now has forums. This discussion about Hurt videos led me to the Mudcat forum. It lists several other videos that I would like to see.

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Michael M. on June 11th 2006 in General, Music

John Hurt page

I came across a good page on John Hurt at Vanguard Records that I want to share. I have blogged about him two times before.

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Michael M. on March 23rd 2005 in General, Music, Recorded

John Hurt’s murder ballads

I checked out everything I could find recorded by John Hurt from the library. I blogged about him a while back. It is all wonderful. The original 1928 recordings, despite their low recording quality, are my favorites. I am happy the folk revival found him and he shared more of his gifts with us.

While listening to his music tonight, I started wondering about “Frankie and Albert,” a murder ballad he recorded. It often is titled “Frankie and Johnny.” I learned a different version here in Saint Louis. It happens that the murder took place in Saint Louis in 1899 when Frankie Baker killed Allen Britt. Coincidentally as I am research and writing, a version is playing right now on KDHX‘s Suffragette City. DJ Rene said it was by Joe Callicott from Not the Same Old Blues Crap 3 released by Fat Possum Records in Oxford, Mississippi.

I lived in Oxford. I saw a raccoon or two there, but no possums that I recall. I did see a possum crossing Maryland Avenue near West End Terrace about 1 AM Saturday. While not especially fat, it was not in any hurry. It went next to the apartments. I turned around and pointed my headlights at it, but I lost it before I could take pictures.

Schlafly head honcho Tom Schlafly reports in this editorial that Frankie Baker shot Allen Britt over his infidelity with Alice Pryor on October 15, 1899 at 22 Targee Street. The movie Frankie and Johnnie was made about the incident. This source reports that Baker sued and settled for $200,000 in 1939, and this one that she died in a Portland mental institution in 1950. Another source has the lawsuit against Republic Pictures being dismissed in 1942. I found a claim and another that the song may have earlier origins in a very similar murder that happened a few decades earlier in the same neighborhood. Allen Britt‘s grave is in Saint Peter’s Cemetery. This summary hits the high points of the story.

A page at the library reports that Targee Street was the name of a section of the current Johnson Street between Clay and Market Streets before 1903 to honor fireman Thomas Targee killed in the Great Saint Louis Fire of 1849. As best I can tell, the Savvis Center, or maybe the Kiel Opera House, sits on the site today.

Searching for information, I came across this post at a fine blog called TRICKSTER! I appreciate his sentiments and just want to share. It got me curious about Mystery Train, a book on images in rock music with a section on Stagger Lee. Lee Sheldon shot Billy Lyons here in Saint Louis at 11th Street and Morgan Street, now Delmar Boulevard, on or around Christmas, 1895 at or near a bar. This story in the Riverfront Times, our local free weekly, got me restarted on Stagger Lee a few years ago. I still have a clipping of it. Versions of the song, Lloyd Price‘s and John Hurt’s, make 8% of my iTunes Top 25. I also really like a different a capella version I have on Prison Blues of the South. Stagolee Shot Billy is a whole book about the incident and the song that I ought to read. The website for the book linked in the previous sentence looks good, too. Here is a good review. I skimmed this page on the song. It reports that Lee Sheldon lived at 911 N 12th Street, now 911 N Tucker Blvd. Here is a story from the December 28, 1895 St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat. Billy Lyons is also buried in Saint Peter’s Cemetery.

William Lyons, 25, colored, a levee hand, living at 1410 Morgan Street, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o’clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan Streets. by Lee Sheldon, also colored. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. The discussion drifted to politics and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Sheldon’s hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Sheldon drew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. He was removed to the city hospital. At the time of the shooting, the saloon was crowded with negroes. Sheldon is a carriage driver and lives at North Twelfth Street. When his victim fell to the floor Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away. He was subsequently arrested and locked up at the Chestnut Street Station. Sheldon is also known as “Stag” Lee.

The parcels around the old 11th and Morgan Streets are 1005 Convention Plaza, northeast corner government offices, 1116 Convention Plaza, northwest corner city building, 721 North 11th Street, southwest corner part of a parking lot, and 1018 Convention Plaza, southeast corner part of a parking lot. There is no 1410 Delmar Boulevard that I could find, but there are 1400 and 1422.

I want to go see these places for myself.

I mainly have been wondering about “Louis Collins,” another beautiful murder ballad recorded by Hurt. My wishful thinking was that it occured in Saint Louis, Mississippi or some point between, allowing me to stake out the story sometime. According to the only information I found, Hurt said that he composed the song himself based on stories he had heard.

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Michael M. on February 2nd 2005 in General, Music, Recorded

John Hurt, Scissor Sisters and Apple Store

This John Hurt is a person, not a sentence. I had it on my mind for a few years to listen to his recordings. 1928 Recordings was a terrific library find. Although his music, life and career parallel many blues stories, I found something new. His guitar style shares much with ragtime or stride, and his voice is high and sweet. Accounts I found portray him as a slight, gentle man. The songs include familiar folk songs and his original compositions. The lyrics follow some fun trends. Some are double entendre; others are religious. I have to stop by the library to borrow some additional CDs I requested.

I saw the Scissor Sisters last night at the Pageant. It was a fun show. They were entertaining and thoroughly raunchy. I feel like their show will gain steam with time as they develop more showmanship. The show is already a spectacle. I think they have room for more.

The Apple Store Saint Louis Galleria grand opening is today. I plan to see the store later this afternoon while running errands. An iPod was going to be my big Christmas present. With MacWorld coming soon, I probably will wait to see what new products Apple announces.

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Michael M. on December 18th 2004 in General, Live, Recorded

Little John

Time magazine published “Little John” about favorite Mississippi John Hurt. It has some inaccuracies, but the story is interesting for its timing. The dateline is September 27, 1963. Hurt was rediscovered in the spring of that year.

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Michael M. on November 27th 2008 in General, Music

John Prine

Sometimes a thing hits at just the right time. In the case of John Prine, it had to bounce off a few times first. This article in the Washington Post from 2005 gives his recent history. The article mentions a Library of Congress event. The stream is an enjoyable mix of song and storytelling. About the same time, high school friend Jonathan Barlow posted a YouTube video of himself singing “In Spite of Ourselves,” and the song came up in this discussion on the Mississippi John Hurt forums about music influenced by MJH. I found this video of Prine singing it with Iris DeMent for Sessions at West 54th. The light clicked on–Imagine me saying “own,” not “ahn.” The wiring just took a long time.

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Michael M. on June 19th 2007 in General, Live, Music, Recorded

Hurt on Tonight Show unlikely

New urban legend story Balls Up at Snopes led me to a sad realization.

Since nearly all the kinescopes, videotapes, and films of the Tonight Show (both the Steve Allen and Johnny Carson versions) made prior to 1972 were subsequently destroyed, and much of what was broadcast live on television in the 1950s was either never recorded or similarly destroyed afterwards, whether this humorous faux pas ever played out in real life is unlikely to be definitively proved or disproved.

I had expressed my wish to see Mississippi John Hurt’s appearance on the Tonight Show, but now I know that it probably is not possible.

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Michael M. on June 7th 2006 in General, Music

Joy of Hurt

I have been taking a class in fingerstyle blues guitar at the Folk School from Tom Hall. He is a great guitarist, and the lessons have been good fun. Our first two songs were “Creole Belle” and “Shake That Thing,” both by Mississippi John Hurt. I got hooked on on his music not so long ago. It has been absolutely wonderful to learn how to play a little of it. After the class ends, I might tackle the DVD I got for Christmas, The Fingerpicking Blues Of Mississippi John Hurt.

Playing his music inspired more research. I found the Mississippi John Hurt Blues Foundation. I probably found the foundation through the Wikipedia entry. There is a small museum that I hope to visit on one of my Mississippi trips. I have been to nearby Grenada many times. I found a story about visiting the museum. The museum site mentions Steve Cheseborough. We lived around the corner from one another several years ago although we did not really know one another. I remember that he played country blues, but I was not so interested at the time.

Several other good resources came up in my searches. Trail of the Hellhound, a government project on the blues, has this page on Hurt, and I also found this page with many good links. On the sad side, this article in The Memphis Flyer covers the fight over his royalties. The All Music Guide entry has an overview of Hurt’s life and career. In mentions Hurt’s early recordings with OKeh. The company sought Hurt based on the recommendation of white Carroll County fiddler Willie Narmour of Narmour and Smith.

Last August, I undertook the great task of learning to fiddle. My classes at the Folk School have been a lot of fun. I found an interview in KWMU‘s Cityscape archive with Colleen Heine, Folk School director and my fiddle teacher, and Keith Dudding, board member and banjo teacher. She also plays as part of the Grass Pack, a band that includes two school friends of mine. My own first fiddle performance is upcoming. If all goes well, I will play with my fiddle class and possibly my guitar class at the Folk School Student Showcase scheduled for March 16 at the Schlafly Tap Room. I probably will grow more nervous as the date approaches, but right now, I look forward to inflicting my music on the public.

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Michael M. on February 12th 2006 in General, Live, Music, Recorded

The Hodges Brothers, Jesse James’ Women, and the Nations Brothers

The journey to Clifftop renewed my interest in old-time music, and a recent search reminded me of this post on Bogue Chitto Flingding, an old album by the Hodges Brothers. Arhoolie has re-released the album Bogue Chitto Flingding on CD. I await the arrival of my copy. Watermelon Hangin’ on the Vine is available on eBay. The band had slipped my mind for several years. I decided to repeat my search for more information on the band.

The band played old-time and bluegrass, as I knew. To my surprise, they had recorded some rockabilly, too. The blog boppingbopping has this post about their rockabilly singles. The German, but not the English, Wikipedia has this entry on them. Several of their singles have been posted to YouTube, including “Honey Talk,” “My Heart Fell at Her Feet” and “It Won’t Be Long” on Trumpet Records in Jackson, Mississippi and “I’m Gonna Rock Some Too.” It lists Mississippi Records, Box 101, Osyka, Miss. on its label. They recorded many of their tracks at WAPF, the radio station that was still standard morning listening in my home when I was growing up.

I also stumbled across Sippiana Succotash. The blog is dedicated to memories from Brookhaven, Mississippi, the next big town north of my hometown. This blog post Bogue Chitto’s Own Recording Artists — Or Should We Say Ruth’s? pins their origins to the community of Ruth, Mississippi. Sippiana Succotash also has this post on the McGraw Family, a string band about whom little is known. That same blog had this post about Jesse James’ Women. It was filmed in Silver Creek, Mississippi. The whole thing is available on YouTube although it is not a memorable movie.

My YouTube search also led me to this video of coach Mike Hodges of Bogue Chitto on guitar. I do not know the relationship between him and the Hodges Brothers, but I am sure that there is one. Pointing to more connections, the video was posted by nations1992. The Nations Brothers are another string band I like. As far as I can find, the Nations Brothers were the only Mississippi Piney Woods string band recorded in the early era of electric recording. This blog post on Old Time Party reproduces an article about the Nations Brothers from Old Time Music magazine written and published by blogged Tony Russell. The article reports that the Nations Brothers stopped playing music and went on to lives as prominent civic figures in Brookhaven.

The blog Old Time Party is a great find. It has a wealth of information on old-time music that will take me a long time to read. The information includes multiple posts mentioning Mississippi. Old Time Magazine also published “10 Days in Mississippi” (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4), also written by publisher Tony Russell himself. I have searched for the article for years.

This Dock Boggs and John Hurt post on Old Time Party is also excellent. It recounts a double bill concert given by them soon after their rediscoveries that featured Hurt clogging to Boggs at the show’s end. I blogged a while back about when Dock Boggs and beloved Mississippi John Hurt stayed with Mike Seeger. I suspect that it was for that concert. In that post, I mentioned W. E. Myers as a link between Boggs and Hurt. The post points to very similar lyrics in Hurt’s “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me” and the last stanza of Boggs’ “Old Rub Alcohol Blues,” both penned by Myers. These small links are treasures.

I will watch Old Time Party closely from now on.

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Michael M. on August 11th 2012 in General, Movies, Music, Recorded

My fingerstyle guitar class blog

I blogged about teaching Introduction to Fingerstyle Guitar through the Music of “Mississippi” John Hurt at the beloved Folk School. We had our first class last Wednesday, and I had a great time. I think it went well for the students, too. To provide supplementary information and recordings, I started the companion blog Introduction to Fingerstyle Guitar. I will try to update it at least weekly during the class.


Michael M. on July 18th 2010 in General, Music

Teaching at the Folk School

Introduction to Fingerstyle Guitar through the Music of “Mississippi” John Hurt is a new class at the beloved Folk School. I will teach it! I am excited for the opportunity to share music from favorite Mississippi John Hurt. The class will meet Wednesdays from 8 to 9:20 PM from July 14 through August 11, 2010. My plan is to help folks who know their chords, but do not have fingerpicking experience to get their right hand fingers moving. I need at least three people to sign up, and I have heard that I got a first one already. It might be foolish to take on the commitment given my others. I could not let it pass me by, though, especially since I do not know when the chance will happen again. If you know people in the Saint Louis area who want to get started with this music, send them my way.

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Michael M. on June 28th 2010 in General, Music

Nobody’s Business

Several years ago, Justin Branum of Swing DeVille taught me “Alabama Jubilee” on fiddle at the beloved Folk School. I liked it enough to devise a guitar arrangement. Then I found that it had been popular on guitar for a long time. I discovered this version on YouTube by Jerry Reed. If you are like me, Jerry Reed looks familiar because he was in Smokey and the Bandit and he performed the hit from the movie “East Bound and Down.”

Because I watched several Jerry Reed videos, YouTube recommended this video of  “Nobody’s Business.” As a fan of Mississippi John Hurt, I recognized its similarity to “It Ain’t Nobody’s Business” / “Nobody’s Business” / “Nobody’s Business But My Own” / “Nobody’s Dirty Business.” Blogged Frank Stokes recorded a very similar “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.”

Irving Thomas is credited with writing it in several places, including this page. The problem is that he was born in 1914, and MJH recorded it in 1928 or so. Blogged Taj Mahal is listed as a performer of it. He released it on Satisfied ‘N Tickled Too, an album titled after a Mississippi John Hurt song. These things are tangled.

This thread on Mudcat credits Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins, and lyrics are here with the date 1922. That version seems to be the one Bessie Smith recorded at “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.” It is a somewhat different tune.

I cannot tell whether there was a single common source of all these tunes. Perhaps the phrase was just popular. However it happened, similar songs found their ways into quite a few genres and generations.


Michael M. on January 19th 2010 in General, Movies, Music, Recorded

Mike Seeger dead at 75

I heard the news this morning on NPR affiliate KWMU. Mike Seeger, blogged about five previous times, died just 8 days shy of his 76th birthday. I brought him up just the other day when discussing bluegrass, old-time music and their differences. He had an extended illness, but I had not heard about it. He did a great amount of picking, spending time with pickers and teaching new pickers.

Fishing for more information, I came across this post of an interview with Seeger at Down Home Radio. At 59:35, interviewer Eli Smith said, “Dock said that if he could have started again, he might have liked to play guitar like John Hurt.” Mike Seeger replied that Dock Boggs and beloved Mississippi John Hurt both came and stayed with him. He said that the two played some shows together. The statement by Boggs actually came via Seeger, and in the interview, Seeger recalled hearing Boggs make it. It is documented, too, in a couple of reviews at Amazon, one by Tony Thomas.

W. E. Myers of Richlands, Virginia is an earlier link between Hurt and Boggs, also covered in this comment on this MetaFilter post. Myers recorded Dock Boggs on his Lonesome Ace record label. He wanted to record Hurt, but it never worked out. He did send Hurt two songs, “Richlands Women Blues” and “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me,” in the mail. Years later during Hurt’s rediscovery, he was still playing both of them.

According to the Down Home post, Thomas Hart Benton introduced the Seeger family to the music of Dock Boggs. The Bentons were prominent in Missouri. Thomas Hart Benton painted a mural in the state capitol. When I visited several years ago, I could not get into the room to my sustained disappointment. This post at Word on the Street has photographs with a comment by me at the end. I did spot a wonderful ivory-billed woodpecker, a three time subject, in this exhibition at the Missouri State Museum. I used to enjoy seeing all the Benton paintings at the twice mentioned Whitney Museum. When I moved from New York to Missouri, I was excited by the prospect of seeing more Benton paintings. I have found few in Saint Louis, though.

The post documenting the Dock Boggs statement about John Hurt also links to this post about Boggs and this post about Blind Willie Johnson. Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground (On Which Our Lord Was Laid)” is on the record bolted to the Voyager space probes. I blogged about that record two times. The same blog also has this post from soon after the news of Seeger’s terminal illness. With extreme appropriateness, the four posts are part of The Celestial Monochord: Journal of the Society for Astrophysics and the Hillbilly Blues.

By chance, I am listening to American Routes. The episode tonight is about recently mentioned Newport. Hurt’s “Make Me a Pallet” just finished.

Update August 12, 2009: Two blogs I track also marked Seeger’s death. Highway 61 Radio posted about the obituary in The New York Times. NMissCommentor‘s entry links to it and to this one in the Guardian by three times blogged English expert on American music Tony Russell.

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Michael M. on August 8th 2009 in General, Music

BBC Folk America

Last summer, I posted about my encounter with a BBC television crew at the Mississippi John Hurt Festival. They said that the series on American folk music would air the following February. I found Folk America. This review is very favorable. Much, maybe all, of the show is available as streaming video. The BBC, however, does not permit streaming to the United States. I recently found it on Google Video as episodes 1 Birth of a Nation, 2 This Land Is Your Land and 3 Blowin’ in the Wind.

The series features some familiar people. Twice blogged Tom Paley visited the beloved Folk School a few years ago, and I got to jam with him. Twice mentioned expert on American folk music Tony Russell shares some of his great knowledge. The BBC found great folks for this series.

The part on favorite Mississippi John Hurt starts at 34:14 in the first episode and runs to about 38:20. It features his granddaughter Mary Frances Hurt Wright prominently. Several shots show the Mississippi John Hurt Festival last summer. I was there. I appear 34:48-34:51 as the leftmost person wearing a light blue t-shirt and beige shorts. At 35:13-35:15, the shot looking from Hurt’s parlor out at the gathering shows “Lost Jim” Ohlschmidt and Andy Burke of Willie Mae. Other shots feature the Valley Store and more nearby buildings. Toward the end is the story of “Creole Belle” told by blogged Tom Paxton. This long discussion on the old Mississippi John Hurt Forum brought me to the same connection, and I found the old sheet music. The last part of the episode around 56:30 covers the end of Hurt’s first recording career among the many stalls and collapses in the early folk recording industry. It also has a little more footage of the festival.

Third episode Blowin’ in the Wind 30:40-32:58 is about Hurt’s revival career. He was reintroduced to the world at the Newport Folk Festival. The segment includes brief footage of “Candy Man” along with several touching reminiscences about his reemergence at the festival and subsequent gigging in Greenwich Village.

Twice blogged Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas follows Hurt in Birth of a Nation. Blogged Cecil Brown talks about how itinerant musicians lived, and three times mentioned John Sebastian is featured, too. Because Thomas was older than most recorded musicians of his day, his music presumably reaches further back. It is captivating.

Other segments in Birth of a Nation cover major figures in the early recording era. The two episodes cover later phases of the American folk music movement. I am on the last one, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” right now. The documentary provides an enjoyable overview with reasonble depth that starts at the beginning of the recording era. I am glad that I finally found a way to watch it.

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Michael M. on June 11th 2009 in General, Music

Take our fortune

For the 4th, I took a Mississippi journey. Coincidentally, I arrived in Oxford on the day The New York Times published “A College Town Where the Streets Are Paved in Magnolia,” which Barlow linked. I dropped off my belongings and headed to the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic. As is common with Mississippi trips, I ran into a couple of people I knew. One was while I was talking to three times blogged Bobby Rush.

Rush was walking through the crowd shaking hands and swapping stories as he often does. I told him that I had enjoyed his show here and asked him whether he had his dancers with him. He said that they were with him, but they would not be dancing. He was going to play a more stripped-down show, stripped-down in terms of the music rather than in the usual terms of the dancers. Then I asked him what he had in the box under his arm. He was selling his own CDs. I bought a copy of Raw directly from the man himself, and he autographed it for me. The next person he talked to asked him about his dancers. I imagine that nearly everybody he talked to asked him about his dancers.

Then I went up toward the stage to experience TModel Ford up close. One approach to making great music is to lose the tune in service of the drive. Ford’s playing embodies it. He often sits on a single chord repeating the same rhythmic strumming. In a live setting, he can push it further than on a recording and stretch out the songs. He was entrancing.

Ford’s latest album is Jack Daniel Time. Being far less of a wild man, I went for a snowcone after he finished. When I was in line, Stud, Ford’s 10 year old grandson and his drummer, was in front of me. I and others in line complimented him on his playing. A little later, the lady behind me said that Ford had not started playing until he was 50. Because his music is more push than technical wizardry, I can believe it, but it is still amazing.

Snowcone in hand, I headed back up to the stage for Bobby Rush. DuWayne Burnside, son of previously mentioned R. L., accompanied him. As he had said, there were no dancers. I thought he might go all acoustic. Instead, he played a Stratocaster in a style close to acoustic playing. Although he did not have his dancers up there with him, he did put on a Bobby Rush show. There were jokes and sight gags. There were stories. He told us about his tastes and predilections. More than a concert, it was entertainment in a way Boby Rush can be counted on to deliver.

Then it was Burnside time. DuWayne Burnside came back out with his band and played a great set. Burnside Exploration was scheduled. The actual lineup was Cedric Burnside with Luther and Cody Dickinson of the blogged North Mississippi Allstars and their twice blogged father James LutherJimDickinson. R. L. Burnside’s progeny continue fueling the flames.

Then the night closed with an all-star jam. Along with many of the people mentioned, Kenny Brown and many guitarists I did not recognized rotated through the jam. Not ready to go home, I wandered a little through the campground looking for more jamming. Finding only a few small ones here and there, I headed back to Oxford to sleep before another big music day.

I made a great find among the older shows of the Mississippi Arts Hour podcast (mp3), a production of the Mississippi Arts Commission, while searching for favorite Mississippi John Hurt on the web. The program features two musical passions of mine, fiddle tunes and Mississippi John Hurt. I put it on my iPod in preparation for the day ahead.

I took a stroll around the square, popped into Square Books and had the snack plate at Abner’s before heading to Avalon, listening to the podcast on the way down Highway 7. The show was hosted by native St. Louisan Larry Morrisey. I mentioned him previously when trying to track down the collection of Mississippi fiddle music Great Big Yam Potatoes, blogged once more. I guess we traded places in a way. He interviewed “Lost Jim” Ohlschmidt about Hurt and USM professor Chris Goetzen about Mississippi fiddling. Lost Jim presented a program at Hill Fire later on the day of the interview. I wish I could have gone. The show put me in the right mind for the Mississippi John Hurt Festival.

I arrived at the festival to find attendees moving from the stage into the museum, Hurt’s old house, to escape the rain. Familiar faces from last year included “Lost Jim” Ohlschmidt and Andy Cohen along with Mary Frances Hurt Wright, John Hurt’s granddaughter and leader of the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation and Art Browning, curator of the museum. We sat in Hurt’s front room with the tunes flowing as the rain beat down outside. Local journalist and historian Susie James, another attendee I met last year, wrote a story for the Greenwood Commonwealth. I wish it were available on the web. She did email me a copy along with photographs, including the ones in this post.

Some fellow kept asking me to move out of his way for camera shots. They were a crew from the BBC. Mississippi John Hurt will be featured in a series on American folk music next February. Maybe I will make it into the background of some scenes. I hope the attention helps promote the music.

Here is the BBC crew in action later in the day after the rain. Art Browning is playing on the left. Ed Levine is behind him. Tamara Grigsby and Andy Burke of Willie Mae are on the porch.

Then my new fiddle got its proper blessing. We were talking about Willie Narmour, a fiddler who was a contemporary and occasional partner of Hurt’s. Andy Cohen lit into “Carroll County Blues,” Narmour and Smith’s biggest hit, on his guitar. I rushed to grab my fiddle from the front porch. Standing in the doorway, I joined in. It was a delight. After we finished, a fellow there named Jim Minyard said that he had played with Narmour. With a little convincing, he agreed to play for us. I backed him up on guitar while he fiddled “Fraulein” in the parlor on my new fiddle.

Image yeah

Here I am, apparently a bit absorbed with something, keeping time while Ed Levine plays and Tamara Grigsby of Willie Mae looks on. The two people cut off on the right edge are Andy Cohen and Lost Jim Ohlschmidt. I bought my t-shirt from favorite hometown pianist Bobby Lounge.

The rain abated, and the picking moved to the front porch. Willie Mae played music while Andy Cohen told me some great stories as we lingered in the parlor. I decided to go outside and listen for a while. I talked to Lost Jim about the Mississippi Arts Hour that he had been on, yet had not heard. I met some new folks, too. Pete Robinson from Chattanooga and Ed Levine from New York are fine fingerpickers. Levine and Willie Mae made it to the marker dedication back in February. I sat next to Mose Allison‘s brother.

Art Browning has many great stories, too. He told us about McCain reunion that includes both black and white McCains. Many of the McCains return to Teoc for it, but John McCain has not been. As I have mentioned before, Mississippi John Hurt’s mother’s maiden name was Mary Jane McCain. He said that many of the ones who attend are successful and talented people, that there is something special about them. Later after the festival, we headed over to St. James cemetery were Hurt is buried. Along the way, he pointed to the original sites of the houses of Hurt, Willie Narmour and Shellie Smith all within walking distance of each other and the Valley store. We talked about another visit in the future when he will show me more of the sites. I had to admit that it might be a while before I have the time, but I am ready now.

My pilgrimage was a good one. It was a celebration of independence. I told a friend that I sometimes worry about following my bliss that way. I know few of my contemporary friends undertaking similar vacations of their own. The people who travel to Valley are certainly friends, but they are not my contemporaries. The trip was plain fun, and it enriched my musical interests. I do not understand how it adds up although I have little desire to subtract anything. I doubt I would even if I knew the sum.

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Michael M. on July 16th 2008 in General, Live, Music, Recorded

Chasing fiddles

I spent a while looking for the album Great Big Yam Potatoes: Anglo-American Fiddle Music from Mississippi after learning of it from someone I met at the blogged Mississippi John Hurt Festival. It was released in 1985 on vinyl through the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Herbert Halpert recorded the tunes in 1939 with support from the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers’ and Music Projects and the Library of Congress. Sociologist Abbott Ferriss accompanied him. Using an old army ambulance converted to transport recording equipment, they made over 300 recordings, including 115 fiddle tunes.

Finding a copy of a vinyl album issued in small numbers 22 years ago is no easy task. Folks in the old-time world, however, have been very helpful to an unknown person, me, who contacted them asking for help finding one. Several Usenet discussions mention the album. One included statements that it had been reissued on CD, and another person suggested contacting Cleff’d Ear, which I tried unsuccessfully. The originator of the thread told me that he had found digital versions of the tunes and generously offered to send me a copy, but he had not found the album itself. I corresponded with two people behind the production, Tom Rankin and Gary Stanton. They contributed to a booklet included with the album, as did Ferriss. They told me that a CD reissue has been considered, but it has not happened yet. I also found Tom Sauber who worked on the project. Rankin and Stanton both looked for copies for me, but found none. Stanton did send me a CD with the tunes and photocopies of the booklet. Larry Morrisey, Heritage Program Director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, suggested that I contact County Records. Folks there also looked around for copies, but found none. Finally, I inquired at the Old Capitol Shop, the store of the Department of Archives and History, as Harry Bolick suggested.

The shop had one copy left! It was closing soon for reorganization, though. Partially due to Katrina damage, the store has made several moves lately, and they were planning to close for September and October. It was already late August by the time I found out the copy. In a stroke of luck, my mother happened to be passing through Jackson the next day. I wrote asking the store to hold it for me, and they had it waiting behind the counter for her. Now I have it. It has 42 tracks, all short examples of the tunes rather than fully developed performances with variations because Halpert had to conserve disks. The music is terrific and strange. I hope that someday the whole collection of recordings is released.

More relevant to my current residence, I got Dear Old Illinois: Traditional Music of Downstate Illinois as a birthday present. Garry Harrison and Jo Burgess compiled it. I have only begun to explore the collection, but it is great so far. I have both the CDs and the book, which has notation for many fiddle tunes. It might inspire me to develop my sight reading.

In addition to pursuing recorded fiddle music, I looked into a new fiddle for myself. The Enterprise-Journal, my hometown newspaper, published “Pulling Strings” back in May about two locals men who had become luthiers in retirement. It is missing from their web archives. As part of my playing and listening on my trip home this past summer, I had a great visit with violin maker Robert Causey. Soon I will have one of his instruments for my very own.

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Michael M. on September 24th 2007 in General, Music, Recorded

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States.