Mississippi John Hurt’s “If You Don’t Want Me Baby”

John Hurt

John Hurt

John Smith Hurt’s life (1893-1966) was like many others in rural Mississippi at the turn of the last century. He lived in Avalon, a flyspeck town on the Delta’s edge too tiny to show up on modern maps. He became a farmhand and sharecropper, like many others. If he set himself apart in any way it was by learning the guitar at the age of nine. Andres Segovia once said, speaking of the great classical guitarist John Williams : “God has laid a finger on his brow.” I believe that God then moved on to Avalon, Mississippi.

Growing up, John Hurt played for dances and parties, singing to his magnificent fingerpicking style, which sprang from a common source that produced both blues and country music. He was a link to a long ago past that still echoed in his playing : not blues, not country and yet both. His song “If You Don’t Want Me Baby” which I play here is a classic example of that genre. It’s lyrics are also so endearing, full of intimacy and longing. A simple sentence like “I tried so hard to do my father’s will” clearly states, without actually saying so, that the dutiful son did not succeed.

Willie Narmour

Willie Narmour

His music made Hurt popular with white and black Mississippians alike. In 1923, he met a white fiddler named Willie (William Thomas) Narmour (1889-1961) and they became a popular local attraction. In 1928, when Narmour won a fiddling contest and a chance to record for Okeh Records, he recommended John Hurt to his producers. After an audition, Hurt recorded two sessions, in New York City and in Memphis, which yielded 20 sides, only a few of which were ever released. The songs were issued under the name Mississippi John Hurt. Hurt never cared for the Mississippi label, which white producers believed would bestow authenticity on the performer, in much the same way as the designation “Blind” was believed to add respect and admiration to the artist. Sales of John Hurt’s records were poor during the Great Depression and Okeh Records went out of business in 1935, although it was revived a number of times in later years. John Hurt went back to the obscurity of his ordinary life in Avalon, Mississippi.

In 1952, a few of John Hurt’s early recordings were included in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, which generated considerable interest among many folk enthusiasts in New York City. Ten years later, a full blown folk revival took over and many artists of the past resurfaced and enjoyed tremendous popularity during their later years.

John Hurt à Newport 1965

John Hurt at Newport 1965

Armed with the sole clue that Hurt had left about his life : a reference to “Avalon, my home town,” on a song called “Avalon Blues,” two white musicologists went to Mississippi in search of its author. They fully expected to find that he had died. With much difficulty, they located the village of Avalon and John Hurt’s cabin. Then 69, Hurt was astonished that anyone was looking for him. He didn’t trust white people in suits, always bad news back then, and had no inclination to leave his home town. Eventually, the musicologists encouraged him to move to Washington, D.C. and perform for a broader audience. His performance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival caused his star to rise with the folk revival purists of that time. A creased and tiny man with wide and joyful eyes, Hurt was ushered onto the national stage to universal acclaim. However, by then he was a senior citizen with just three more years to live. He performed extensively at colleges, concert halls, and coffeehouses and appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He also recorded three albums for Vanguard Records and much of his repertoire was also recorded for the Library of Congress. If the man from Avalon had any idea how important he was, he never let on. John Smith Hurt returned to his home in Avalon in the autumn of 1966 and died of cardiac arrest on November 2nd of that year.

Many guitarists who came of age in the 1960s and many others that followed were touched by the magic of John Hurt’s music and his warm personality. I was one of them but learning Mississippi John’s fingerpicking style also gave me a great deal of self worth that was otherwise lacking in my life. I owe him so much.

Le musée Mississippi John Hurt

The Mississippi John Hurt Museum

In 2003, John Hurt’s grand-daughter, Mary Frances Hurt Wright, having not visited Mississippi in quite some time, was suddenly taken with the need to revisit her grandfather’s home. As she stood there, contemplating the forces that had brought her back home, the man who currently owned the land that her grandfather’s house sat on remarked that “God had told him” that Mary would be there that day. He gave Mary the house. With $5,000 donated to her by a local Carrollton banker who remembered “Daddy John” playing guitar for his mother, Mary had the house moved to a two acre plot of land just up the road, restoring the house as a museum and a beacon to musicians and fans alike. Many of these fans travel to Avalon every year for the Mississippi John Hurt Music Festival.

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, percussion (foot)

If You Don’t Want Me Baby

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Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell”

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

Throughout his career, Bob Dylan has been a very prolific songwriter. The writing of songs often occurs at a much earlier date than the studio recordings and the songs have to be stored for later access. The lyrics aren’t a problem – Dylan usually writes them down on a sheet of paper. The music is quite another thing and very few artists have the knowledge required to actually write out the sheet music for a song. The easiest way is simply to record it, even if it’s just with one instrument, and any arrangements can be worked out later during the formal recording.

“Blind Willie McTell” was first recorded in 1983 in a rough demo version with Dylan singing and playing piano, accompanied only by Mark Knopfler on guitar.. It is a singular irony that this song, whose stature has grown steadily and which is sure to be remembered as one of Dylan’s most perfect creations, never appeared on a studio album. It was removed from the “Infidels” album (1983) for unclear reasons and the original demo version surfaced in 1991 on the third disc of Dylan’s so-called “bootleg series.” The Band, long-time associates of Dylan, started performing the song during their live concerts and Dylan himself followed suit. All these live versions are played at a generally uptempo pace. My arrangement is played as a funereal dirge out of respect for the song’s musical antecedent, “St. James Infirmary.”

Yank Rachell et Sleepy John Estes

Yank Rachell and Sleepy John Estes

Playing “Blind Willie McTell” also gives me the opportunity to play some blues mandolin, not a common choice of instrument when looking at the genre. James “Yank” Rachell (1903-1997) created the vocabulary of the blues mandolin during his long association with Sleepy John Estes (1899-1977). In the 1970s and later years, the blues mandolin was raised to an art form by the magnificent work of Ry Cooder.

Blind Willie McTell

Blind Willie McTell

William Samuel McTier (1898-1959) not only recorded as Blind Willie McTell but under several other names – at the time, record companies thought that a known artist using a different name made him a “new” artist and the public always wanted something new. The artist himself, particularly any black artist, had no say in this policy. Black artists were viewed and treated as the company’s “property.” Consequently, McTell also recorded as Blind Sammie (for Columbia Records), Georgia Bill (for Okeh Records), Hot Shot Willie (for Victor Records), Blind Willie (for the Vocalion and Bluebird labels), Barrelhouse Sammie (for Atlantic Records), and Pig & Whistle Red (for Regal Records). “Pig & Whistle” referred to a chain of barbecue restaurants in Atlanta and McTell often played for tips in the parking lot of the local Pig & Whistle.

Born in Thomson, Georgia, McTell was blind in one eye at birth and lost any remaining sight while still a child. He came from a musical family and learned the guitar from his mother, eventually becoming fluent in the Piedmont and ragtime fingerpicking styles. Unlike his contemporaries, he used a 12-string guitar exclusively so he could be heard through the city noises. He is best remembered for the classic “Statesboro Blues,” which launched the career of both Taj Mahal and The Alman Brothers Band. Except for a couple of excursions to record up north, McTell rarely left his native Georgia. In his last years, McTell was a preacher at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Atlanta and he died in 1959 of a stroke brought on by diabetes and alcoholism. He never had the chance to be “rediscovered” during the folk and blues revival of the 1960s.

As for the lyrics, Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell” is a palette of cryptic images, suggesting the Deep South of the 19th century, the Civil War and the horrors of post-war Reconstruction, a policy whereby Abraham Lincoln attempted to bring the southern states back into the Union. Following Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson became president and he and the Southern Democrats adamantly opposed any attempts at civil rights for freed slaves, thereby negating much of what Lincoln had tried to achieve.

L'hôtel St. James

The St. James Hotel

The lyrics of “Blind Willie McTell” establish New Orleans as the book ends of the song. The city is mentioned in the first verse and the last verse makes a reference to the St. James Hotel, a well-known New Orleans landmark. This also forms a link with “St. James Infirmary,” an American folk song of anonymous origin on which Dylan’s song is based. The song “St. James Infirmary” is also frequently associated with Louis Armstrong, New Orleans’ most famous son.

Dylan started out singing the song with a first verse reference to Jerusalem. Over the years, this changed to “New Jerusalem,” a biblical reference to the Jewish mystical understanding of heaven. The “Blind Willie McTell” lyrics offer up many stark images, like those that refer to the American Indian (First Nations) Wars and the slave trade. The reference to “taking down the tents” conjures up the traveling medicine shows that Blind Willie McTell played in as a youth. These shows went from town to town, offering free entertainment while peddling fraudulent and often harmful patent remedies. The reference to plantations burning evokes General William Sherman’s Civil War sweep through Georgia and the Carolinas. “Sherman’s March,” as it came to be known, was the world’s first experiment in total warfare. Its aim was to break the morale of the citizens and their will to resist by destroying roads, railways, factories, mills, barns, and thousands of acres of cotton and other crops.

In my arrangement of Dylan’s song, I play a 12-string guitar to honour Blind Willie McTell and his instrument of choice. Alrick’s eloquent bass solo towards the end of the song is a two-verse rendition of the “St. James Infirmary” melody.

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic 12-string guitar, mandolin
Alrick Huebener – upright bass

Blind Willie McTell

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Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'”

I was lucky to be born into my family, at that time and in this part of the world. Unbelievably lucky. My brother Bob and a lot of our friends growing up feel exactly the same way. We all had perfect childhoods. If there was a downside for me, it’s that I was sheltered and completely ill-equipped emotionally for the brutal realities of the world outside my Prescott and Russell paradise.

Those brutal realities started piling up with the death of my brother Gabriel, everyone’s favourite, in 1959. Then I heard of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The world was on high alert – even my sleepy little village of Rockland started testing the big screeching alarm that was on top of the post office at that time. I had barely started high school when Kennedy was assassinated. And then, our neighbours to the south went completely crazy. The white ruling class declared all-out war on the black population.

In fact, this war had been going on for centuries but it was the increase in media coverage, especially television, that brought the horrors of the fire bombings of churches and the lynching of black men and women into our northern living rooms. I understood none of this because I didn’t grow up with prejudice and racism. My mother and father were way too busy keeping a household of nine people afloat to even think of such nonsense. When I was five, my brother Gabriel introduced me to his world of music, populated by black and white artists alike. My brother didn’t care – he loved them all. He was as crazy about Chuck Berry as he was about Jerry Lee Lewis. For every Elvis Presley record he had, there was an Ivory Joe Hunter record in his collection. For every record by the Everly Brothers or Buddy Holly, there were records by Little Richard, The Coasters or Fats Domino. I loved my brother and I grew up loving everything he loved. Consequently, my heroes have always been black and white. They still are.

By 1964, all the talk was about the Freedom Summer project, a voter registration drive aimed at increasing the number of registered black voters in Mississippi. Mississippi was chosen as the site of the project due to its historically low levels of African American voter registration; in 1962 less than 7 % of the state’s eligible black voters were registered to vote. Over 700 mostly white volunteers joined African Americans to fight against voter intimidation and discrimination at the polls. The movement was organized by civil rights coalitions like the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Freedom Summer volunteers were met with violent resistance from the Ku Klux Klan and members of state and local law enforcement. News coverage of beatings, false arrests and even murder drew international attention to the civil rights movement. The South remained segregated, especially when it came to the polls, where African Americans faced violence and intimidation when they attempted to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Poll taxes and literacy tests designed to silence black voters were common. Without access to the polls, political change in favor of civil rights was slow to non-existent.

Goodman, Chaney et Schwerner

Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner

Among the first wave of volunteers to arrive in June 1964 were two white students from New York, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, a local black man. The three disappeared after visiting Philadelphia, Mississippi, where they were investigating the burning of a church. It later came to be known that they had been arrested by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, a Klan member, ostensibly for speeding.
Le barrage de terre

The earthen dam

They were held in jail until after nightfall, while Price organized a lynch mob of his fellow Klansmen. When the three were released, they drove into an ambush where Goodman and Schwerner were shot at point-blank range. Chaney was chased, beaten mercilessly, and shot three times. Six weeks later, the bodies of the missing volunteers were recovered, buried in an earthen dam. On December 4, the FBI arrested 19 suspects, all of them freed on a technicality. So started a three-year battle to bring them to justice. In October 1967, the men, including the Klan’s Imperial Wizard Samuel Bowers, who had allegedly ordered the murders, went on trial and seven were ultimately convicted of federal crimes related to the murders. All were sentenced from 3 to10 years, but none served more than six years. This marked the first time since the abolition of slavery after the Civil War, nearly 100 years, that white men had been convicted of civil rights violations against blacks in Mississippi.

Many of Mississippi’s white residents deeply resented the Freedom Summer activists and any attempt to change the status quo of segregation. Locals routinely harassed volunteers. Their presence in local black communities led to drive-by shootings and the bombing of the homes that hosted the activists. 37 churches were burned or bombed. State and local governments used arrests, arson, beatings, evictions, firing, murder, spying, and other forms of intimidation and harassment to oppose the project and prevent blacks from registering to vote or achieve social equality.

The Times They Are A-Changin'

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Witnessing all this from afar, I became a very unhappy 14-year old. People in my town kept to themselves and there was no one to talk to. Like many dejected young people of this era, I turned for inspiration and hope to the brilliant singer-songwriter who had recently taken North America by storm, Bob Dylan. Dylan was smart enough to know that the barriers built by hatred and bigotry would last all of our lifetimes and beyond. He sang that the answer was blowing in the wind. He saw that the civil rights movement and the folk music revival were closely allied and he wrote a song that he believed would be an anthem for change, called “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” The song lyrics contained biblical references and were structured like some 18th and 19th century English, Irish and Scottish ballads like “A-Hunting We Will Go” or “Come All Ye Tender Hearted Maidens.” Less than a month after Dylan recorded the song, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The song gave its name to Dylan’s next album, released in 1964 amid the fury of the very changes it predicted. Dylan sings the song accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar. My arrangement for “The Times They Are A-Changin’” is much more involved and depends greatly on the talents of my friends Alrick Huebener on upright bass and Roch Tassé on drums.

Alrick Huebener

Alrick Huebener

Looking back to 1964 now, it is very interesting to note that the southern States of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, the hot spots of segregation and the prevention of housing, education and other services for people of colour, were all under the control of Democrats, today’s darlings. That year, on the floor of the U. S. Senate, Democrats held the longest filibuster in U. S. history, 75 days, all of them trying to prevent the passing of the Civil Rights Act.
Roch Tassé

Roch Tassé

The Democratic governors and officials of state and local governments were some of the most evil men of the 20th century. And yet, Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, the man who fought to end slavery at the cost of his own life, was a Republican, today’s monsters. The truth is that evil men don’t care about political affiliations. Democrat, Republican, Conservative or Liberal are meaningless labels to them. Evil men depend on cloaks that hide their nature from you and me. Evil men will lay wreaths on the mass graves of indigenous children or on a memorial for the victims of the holocaust. They will read from prepared statements and repeat that their thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims, always using those exact words, even though their thoughts are most definitely elsewhere and, of course, they never pray.

We must all remember the words of Edmund Burke (1729-1797), an Irish politician who said “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, electric 12-string guitar, MIDI guitar (piano, organ)
Alrick Huebener – upright bass
Roch Tassé – drums

The Times They Are A-Changin’

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Muddy Waters’ “I’m Ready”

Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters

When Muddy Waters came to Chicago in 1943, musicians looking for a bit of money would set up all along the Maxwell Street Market. The Market had stores of all kinds, dry goods, fresh produce, meat and fish, textiles and garments, jewellers and barbers, pharmacies, pawn shops, the back rooms of these stores devoted to card games and dice. Muddy met guitarist Jimmy Rogers there and they became fast friends, both being from the Delta, both raised by their grandmothers. Rogers introduced Muddy to Little Walter, a young fireball who wore the scars of many knife fights on his face. Muddy said that Little Walter “could think twice to your once” and took the blues harp into uncharted territory. They formed a band with Baby Face Leroy on drums and played clubs like the Zanzibar, the Chicken Shack, the Purple Cat, Silvio’s and the Du Drop Inn. The clubs were very violent, recalls Rogers. “Some guy would get mad with his old lady and they’d fight. Somebody would get cut or get shot.”

Muddy Waters Blues Band circa 1954

Muddy Waters Blues Band circa 1954

When drummer “Elgin” Edmonds joined the band with pianist Otis Spann, Muddy had a real blues band on his hands. The photo on the right shows Muddy, Henry Armstrong, a sign painter who helped the band make posters, Otis Spann at the piano, Henry “Pot” Strong on harp, drummer Elgin Edmonds in the background and Jimmy Rogers on guitar. Henry Strong was nicknamed “Pot” because of his fondness for reefer. Sometime after this photo was taken, Jimmy Rogers gave Pot a ride home. Muddy had gone on before and was already there. A scuffle broke out between Pot, a ladies man, and his jealous wife Juanita, who stabbed him through the lung. Muddy found Pot bleeding on the lobby’s marble floor, wrapped him up in a quilt and drove him to the hospital but Pot died on the way. He was 25 years old.

It was at this time that blues music, previously rural, became urban. The electric instruments, and especially the drums, conquered the unruly crowds and the solid beat sent everybody to the dance floor. The blues was now dance music and its popularity skyrocketed.

Harmonica player Willie Foster recalls visiting Muddy’s apartment and Willie Dixon answered the door. Muddy was shaving in the bathroom and stuck his head out, asking Foster “Are you ready?” to which Foster replied “Ready as anybody can be.” Muddy and Willie Dixon looked at each other and the song “I’m Ready” was written in a few days. A little later on, pianist Sunnyland Slim introduced Muddy to the Chess brothers. On the first of September 1954, they cut their first session at the new Chess studios, yielding the hit “I’m Ready.” The recording features Little Walter on chromatic harmonica, Otis Spann on piano, Willie Dixon on bass, Fred Below on drums, Jimmy Rogers on guitar, with Muddy signing. The song hit number 4 on Billboard’s charts.

In an article titled “Pop Music Rides R&B Tidal Wave,” Billboard wrote that rhythm and blues was no longer restricted to a black audience. Used juke box records were being snapped up by white neighborhood kids, in particular records by Muddy Waters, Ruth Brown and Willie Mabon. The popularity of the blues was crossing over to white audiences. Down in Memphis, record producer Sam Philips started Sun Studios and the talent he recorded was stellar : Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf and, of course, Elvis Presley. A disc jockey named Alan Freed (1921-1965) came to the forefront of the “crossover” music he played on the radio, calling it “rock and roll,” a phrase originally used in Billboard magazine as early as 1946. By the time I was five, I had a front-row seat to this new music, thanks to my talented and generous brother Gabriel. He patiently introduced me to the music of his time. It was by listening to this music that my obscure world solifified into something clear and so real.

Richard Séguin – voice, electric guitars
Alrick Huebener – electric bass
Roch Tassé – drums

I’m Ready

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“Rollin’ Stone” by Muddy Waters

Muddy en 1950

Muddy in 1950

In February of 1950, one month after I was born, Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield, 1913-1983) stepped into a Chicago studio to record his composition called “Rollin’ Stone.” The recording was odd because it featured Muddy singing and playing an electric guitar, nothing else. It marked the start of the transition from acoustic rural blues to electric urban blues, now universally known as Chicago Blues. The song spoke of rootlessness, independence and post-war angst. Like existentialist thinkers, bluesmen of the 20th century explored issues related to the meaning, purpose, and value of human existence.

Muddy was born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and his parents never married and never lived together, as was common in the South at that time. Raised by his grandmother, she named him “Muddy” because he frequently carried the Mississippi River mud into the house as a boy. The “Waters” part was added on later by some friends. His grandmother saw that he was raised in the Baptist tradition, singing spirituals, an important part of Muddy’s development as a singer. Big for his age, he started working on a plantation when he was eight years old. He picked cotton, beans, corn, plowed behind a mule and, on good days, drove a truck. As a result, Muddy was illiterate all his life, the kind of forced illiteracy that was the fate of most black men and women in the South at the turn of the 20th century.

Muddy worked at Stovall’s plantation, which was, by most accounts, one of the better places to work in Mississippi although the surrounding region knew its share of lynchings. Stovall’s was 4,000 acres, no running water or electricity and they paid their employees in scrip or tokens, exchangeable for goods sold only at the company store. The same belittling practice was adopted by the Edwards lumber mill during the early days of Rockland, my home town.

Stovall’s was a regular stop for many musicians and Muddy remembers learning how to play the guitar by watching Son House, Charley Patton and the Mississippi Sheiks, a local string band. By the time he was seventeen, Muddy was a fixture at Stovall’s plantation, as a bootlegger and as their most popular musician.

In August of 1941, Muddy got word that a white man was looking for him. This was never good news and he immediately thought that they had come to arrest him for selling whiskey. When he met the white man, Muddy, like any southern black man who knew his place, said “Yassuh?” to which the white man replied “Hey, hey, don’t yassuh me. I want to hear you play guitar.” This white man was Alan Lomax (1915-2002), who was scouring the South to record songs and interviews for the Archive of American Folk Song, of which he was the director, at the Library of Congress in Washington. But Alan Lomax was no “ordinary” white racist. At one point, he asked Muddy for a drink of water and drank out of the same cup Muddy used. Nobody had ever heard of anything like that in the segregated South.

Muddy avec Son Sims

Muddy with Son Sims in 1941

Lomax hooked up his portable recording equipment, ran a microphone into the house and recorded Muddy, occasionally backed by other plantation musicians like Son Sims, a fiddler who had played with many bluesmen, including the great Charley Patton. Lomax came back in 1942 and recorded some additional songs and both sessions were released in 1966 on an album entitled “Down On Stovall’s Plantation.”

Down On Stovall's Plantation

Down On Stovall’s Plantation

That record became a mainstay of my collection as a young man. The sound of Muddy on those recordings reveals an able guitarist and certainly one of the most powerful, moving singers I’ve ever heard. Also, consider some of the lyrics to Muddy’s “Country Blues No. 1”: on fate and its inevitabilities, he wrote “Brooks run into the ocean/ and the ocean runs into the sea.” On the drudgery of daily life on the plantation, he wrote “Minutes seem like hours/ and the hours seem like days.” Plain, natural country poetry.

Muddy thought his recordings were something of a modern miracle and wanted to record more songs but he realized he would have to go up north to do so and for that, he needed money. He began to do odd jobs, playing blues all night for 50 cents and a sandwich, even trapping furs, like my father did when our family was young. When cotton was not in season, Muddy moved around to other harvests, rambling all the time. It was a dangerous business. At the time, the police arrested all blacks travelling alone and charged them with vagrancy. These men ended up as free labour on penal farms – this is how southern highways were built. It was during this period of restlessness and constant motion that Muddy wrote “Rollin’ Stone” and indeed, he gathered no moss.

After a brief and unsuccessful stint in St. Louis, Muddy finally moved to Chicago in 1943. New York and Los Angeles were also popular destinations for southern black men searching for their place in a world where they had previously been chattel. By the end of the forties, the average annual wage for blacks in Chicago was $1,919. In Mississippi, it was $439. Muddy started working in a paper factory and a glass factory, driving a delivery truck. At night, he played the South Side clubs but it was still the jazz era and nobody wanted to hear blues singers. In fact, no one could hear Muddy and his acoustic guitar in a room full of dancing, liquor, arguments and fights. Musicians often played behind a curtain of chicken wire to protect themselves from flying beer bottles. The solution came with technology and the newly developed electric guitar. Muddy soon added bass, drums, piano and harmonica and his band, one of the best ever assembled, could now be heard above the shouting, yelling and ruckus of any crowd.

The 1942-1944 musicians’ union strike with the record companies over royalty payments had three major consequences: the rise of small independent record companies, the decline of the Big Bands and the rise of the vocalists. This made it possible for several creative artists to forge the exciting new sounds of rhythm ‘n blues (R&B) and it also opened the door for singers like Muddy Waters.

The Chess brothers, Leonard (1917-1969) and Phil (1921-2016), who were to play an integral part in the recording and distribution of past-war blues, were Jewish immigrants from Poland who settled in Chicago. The brothers started the Macomba Club and bought an interest in Aristocrat Records, a struggling venture. Aristocrat became Chess Records in 1950 and Chess started to record the new electric blues becoming more and more popular in clubs all over the South Side. Nobody knew anything about the electric guitar or how to record it but it was a period of beautiful experimentation and surging popularity. Every porter, Pullman conductor, beauty salon and barbershop was selling records. Simultaneously and silently, events convened like clouds on the horizon and the perfect storm that was to be Rock ‘n Roll loomed inevitably.

Muddy’s 1950 recording of “Rollin’ Stone” for Chess is loosely based on “Catfish Blues,” an old song they’d been singing for years in the Delta, but it never sounded like this. If I had to choose a single song as the embodiment of post-war blues, it would be “Rollin’ Stone.” The song gave its name to the influential sociopolitical magazine “Rolling Stone” and, of course, the name of the rock group The Rolling Stones. The song also provided a well of dissonant tonalities that Jimi Hendrix visited often during his career. A year later, Muddy recorded the song with added instrumentation and released it as “Still a Fool.” My arrangement of “Rollin’ Stone” borrows from both recordings.

Richard Séguin – voice and electric guitar

Rollin’ Stone

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“Swimming Song” by Kate and Anna McGarrigle

Kate & Anna McGarrigle

Kate and Anna McGarrigle


The McGarrigle sisters, Kate (1946-2010) and Anna (b. 1944) are Canadian singer-songwriters and multi-instrumentalists from Montreal, Quebec. Although associated with Montreal’s anglophone community, they grew up in the Laurentian Mountains village of Saint-Sauveur-des Monts and are perfectly bilingual. Born of French-Canadian and Irish parents, the sisters studied piano at the local convent. Elder sister Jane completed the family singing sessions around the living room piano, a regular occurrence.

Kate studied engineering at McGill University, and Anna painting at the École des Beaux-Arts in Montreal. Kate learned the banjo after watching Pete Seeger and joined Anna and two friends in 1962 to form the Mountain City Four, a group specializing in roots music, particularly the songs of the Carter Family. After earning an engineering degree from McGill, Kate moved to New York to continue her musical career while Anna stayed in Montreal. Kate performed in the clubs of Greenwich Village and in 1971 married singer Loudon Wainwright III, who wrote “Swimming Song.” They have two children, Martha and Rufus Wainwright, both well established musicians.

Over the years the McGarrigles’ songs have been recorded by Judy Collins, Marianne Faithful, Emmylou Harris and Nana Mouskouri, among others. The sisters also performed and recorded with the world-renowned Irish group The Chieftains, folk music icon Joan Baez and Quebec’s legendary songwriter Gilles Vigneault.

Kate et Anna McGarrigle

Kate and Anna McGarrigle

In 1975, the sisters released their first album, simply titled “Kate and Anna McGarrigle.” Thanks to their songwriting skills, the close ties they had cultivated throughout the North-American music industry was repaid with the participation on this recording of some of the world’s best musicians, including bassist Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel), guitarist Lowell George (Little Feat) and studio professionals like drummers Steve Gadd and Russ Kunkel, saxophonist Bobby Knight, guitarists David Spinozza, Hugh McCraken, Tony Rice, Amos Garrett and Andrew Gold, and the extraordinary mandolin of David Grisman. The album won Melody Maker’s Album of the Year Award.

The McGarrigles recorded 13 albums during their career. In 1980, they permanently endeared themselves with the entire Quebec population by releasing the album “Entre la jeunesse et la sagesse” (Between Youth and Wisdom), which was sung entirely in French. In 2003, they released a second entirely French album titled “La vache qui pleure” (The Crying Cow). They have appeared in concerts and festivals in all parts of Canada and the United States, in England, Ireland, Scotland, Denmark, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong. They were appointed Members of the Order of Canada in 1993 and received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award in 2004.

In 2006, Kate became progressively ill with clear cell sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. She died in 2010 and, in gratitude for the care she had received, she endowed a fund at McGill University to support cancer research and care in Montreal. Emmylou Harris, a very close friend, wrote and recorded the ballad “Darlin’ Kate” in her memory.

La fille en skis

Ski girl


Kate’s tombstone is, not surprisingly, a work of art. The front is embellished with one of Kate’s most famous drawings, never titled, but known affectionately as “ski girl.” The back is engraved with the image of a banjo and the words to one of the sisters most moving songs, “Talk To Me Of Mendocino.”

Let the sun set on the ocean
I will watch it from the shore
Let the sun rise over the redwoods
I’ll rise with it till I rise no more

Situated on the shores of the Pacific Ocean in California, the community of Mendocino is known for its natural beauty and its artist colony.

Anna McGarrigle is married to Canadian journalist and author Dane Lanken. The couple have two children, Lily and Sylvan, and live in North Glengarry, Ontario, just west of the Quebec border.

 

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, electric bass guitar

Swimming Song

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Son House’s “John The Revelator”

Son House

Son House

The folk and blues revival, one of the most important cultural phenomenons of the 20th century, started in the 1950s in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village, a bohemian district of New York City. The first showcased artists were the so-called “beat” poets, who would occasionally complement their verse with the rattlings of a drum kit or the low rumblings of an upright bass. Local musicians followed, including now famous names like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Josh White, Lead Belly, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, the Kingston Trio and the Reverend Gary Davis. In the 1960s, young, white musicologists also searched the southern rural areas, looking for the great bluesmen whose careers were mostly cut short by the Great Depression. Some had died but many were found and came to New York City to play in front of young, white, educated audiences in the coffee houses, colleges, universities and folk festivals throughout the eastern United States. For the first time in their lives, these artists were revered and praised like they never had been in the South, where segregation still ruled.

When Eddie James “Son” House (1902-1988) came to New York City in 1964, he brought with him a repertoire of songs that straddled the sacred and the profane. A Baptist minister in his early years, Son House devoted himself to religious music and openly rejected the blues as “the Devil’s music.” Things changed with the Great Depression and House’s friendship with bluesman Charlie Patton (1891-1934) led him to the bars and roadhouses of the South to earn a living.

I heard Son House and saw him on TV in the late 60s and was completely conquered by his immense talent. I was especially moved by his masterpiece, “Death Letter,” which I recorded in 2019 with Roch and Alrick. To hear the results, click here.

House was a door to the past and the pure fire of his religious songs left no one indifferent. Chief among these, for me, was “John the Revelator.” an apocalyptic text and the final book of the New Testament, secured by seven symbolic seals, the opening of which brings on the Apocalypse. The identity of the author of the Book of Revelation has been in much dispute throughout history but is often attributed to John of Patmos. The song was described by critic Thomas Ward as one of the most powerful songs in all of prewar music.

Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945), himself an evangelist, recorded “John the Revelator” during his fifth and final session for Columbia Records in 1930. Son House recorded several powerful a cappella (without instrumental accompaniment) versions of “John the Revelator” in the 1960s. House’s lyrics, very different from those sung by Blind Willie Johnson, reference important theological events like the Fall of Man, the Passion of Christ and the Resurrection.  I added the last verse about Moses, which comes from the Blind Willie Johnson version.

The Book of Revelation contributed vastly to our popular culture through the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, viewed as harbingers of the Last Judgment. They are said to bring with them war, infectious diseases, famine, economic collapse and death. Over the centuries, the Book of Revelation was interpreted by many sects and I would caution that they be taken with a grain of salt. One interpretation insisted that the First Horseman was the Antichrist, specifically Napoleon Bonaparte. We see the influence of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in all aspects of our culture, including movies, literature, music, comic books, television and video games.

Alrick Huebener

Alrick Huebener

My arrangement of “John the Revelator” was inspired by the “beat poets” and Peggy Lee (1920-2002), and her famous recording of “Fever,” a song originally recorded in 1956 by the great R&B singer Little Willie John. Lee’s version (1958) featured only her voice, an upright bass (played by Joe Mondragon, who probably played on every jazz album issued on the West Coast in the 50s and 60s), finger snaps and very limited drums. In my arrangement of “John the Revelator,” I handle the vocal and finger snaps but the star of the show is Alrick, whose outstanding upright bass has elevated the sophistication of this site for a number of years.

Richard Séguin – voice and finger snaps
Alrick Huebener – upright bass

John The Revelator

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Doc Watson’s “Cypress Grove Blues”

Doc Watson

Doc Watson

“Cypress Grove Blues” was part of Skip James’ 1931 recordings for Paramount Records, a session which yielded 18 songs, many of which became blues standards. I learned the song from a 1976 recording by Doc Watson, accompanied by his son Merle and a full band. My arrangement is closer to Doc’s version but I play it in the more traditional blues style. Just as Doc changed the lyrics used by Skip James, I’ve changed Doc’s lyrics, adding the “jumper” (overalls) verse, which I took from Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside (1926-2005).

Doc Watson et Gaither Carlton

Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton

Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson was born in 1923, in Deep Gap, North Carolina and became blind before the age of two due to an eye infection. His nickname comes from the literary character of Doctor Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick in the novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

He was exposed to the music of the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers at an early age and demonstrated a natural musical talent. While still young, he played with Gaither Carlton, a banjo and fiddle player also from Deep Gap. Doc married Gaither’s daughter Rosa Lee and they had two children, son Merle and daughter Nancy. Doc also played with Clarence Ashley, whose 1928 recordings of “The Coo Coo Bird” and “House Carpenter” for Gennett Records were featured on the Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection that played a major part in the folk and blues revival of the 1960s. Ashley also played with the Carolina Tar Heels, a famous roots music string band. The “Tar Heel” nickname comes from the tar, pitch and turpentine production in North Carolina but was also applied to NC troops during the Civil War, who, it was said, never retreated.

By 1960, Doc was a master of the guitar and banjo, with a powerful clear voice. As a solo artist, he became one of the stars of the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. Watson recorded his first solo album in 1964 and began performing with his son Merle, who was then 15, the same year.

Doc et Merle Watson

Doc and Merle Watson

I saw Doc and Merle in concert in Ottawa sometime in June of 1980. Their musicianship was off the charts but what shone through was their love and respect for each other and for the music of those who came before. As a teenager and a young man, my musical sensibilities were molded by four people – my style of playing came mostly from Mississippi John Hurt; Ry Cooder revealed to me the music of different cultures with his remarkable talent on numerous instruments; Doc Watson taught me to respect the music of the past; everything else came from Dylan.

Merle Watson died in a farm accident in 1985 at the age of 36. He was driving a tractor to a nearby house when it slipped down an embankment and crushed him. Merle was widely recognized as one of the best guitarists of his generation. MerleFest, one of the world’s largest and most-prestigious folk music festivals, is held annually in Wilkesboro, North Carolina and is named in his honor. Doc soldiered on after Merle’s death and performed until 2012, when he died of complications following surgery at the age of 89. Doc’s wife died the same year and is buried with Doc and Merle in the Merle and Doc Watson Memorial Cemetery in Deep Gap.

Doc Watson recorded over 50 albums, won seven Grammy awards as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and received the National Medal of Arts. He was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor in 2000.

Festival folk de Newport, 1964

Newport Folk Festival, 1964


From left to right, the Reverend Robert Wilkins, Gaither Carlton, Skip James, Arnold Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, Yank Rachell, Sleepy John Estes, Hammie Nixon and Doc Watson. Arnold is Doc’s oldest brother. Yank Rachell (mandolin), Hammie Nixon (harmonica) and Sleepy John Estes (guitar and vocals) played together for many years. Sleepy John was a major influence on several bluesmen and many of his songs are blues standards.

For more information on the Reverend Robert Wilkins and his music, click here; for Skip James and his music, click here; for Mississippi John Hurt and his music, click here, here, and here.

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, percussion (foot)

Cypress Grove Blues

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The Bentonia Blues – Jack Owens’ “It Must Have Been The Devil”

Le fameux disque de Jack Owens et Bud Spires

The famous LP by Jack Owens and Bud Spires

Sometime around 1975, I found myself in Treble Clef Records on the Sparks Street mall in Ottawa, the only significant record shop in the area at that time, which unfortunately went out of business a few years later. I had money in my pocket and was leafing through their collection of “long-playing” (LP) records lined up against the wall when I came across the LP pictured at the right. It said “Mississippi Country Blues by Jack Owens and Bud Spires” and had a nice photo of Jack Owens and his horse on the cover! I had no idea who Jack Owens or Bud Spires were but Mississippi Country Blues was right down my alley. The title was enough to stop me right
there – “It Must Have Been The Devil.” I was raised Catholic and I knew many dreadful tales about “the Father of Lies”, more so since I was an avid horror movie enthusiast, where Mephistopheles frequently showed up uninvited. I couldn’t resist and bought the album on the spot.

When I listened to the LP at home, I loved the laid-back sound of the songs but the title song, “It Must Have Been The Devil”, stood apart from all the others. Its tonalities, harmonies and resonance were haunting. For more than nine minutes, the guitar kept weaving hypnotic patterns and Jack Owens’ powerful, all-out vocal was like a force unleashed, unlike any other singer I knew. This was some of the eeriest, loneliest and deepest blues sounds I’d ever heard.

Of course, I tried to learn the song but all I could get was that it’s in the key of E! At that time, I knew just about every open guitar tuning that existed, thanks to Bert Jansch, Davey Graham, John Renbourn and all those tremendously talented guitarists that had spearheaded the British Celtic Revival. I tried and tried but I could not play the notes Jack Owens played in any tuning that I knew! Facing a brick wall, I eventually discarded the song, extremely disappointed that I had failed at discovering its secrets. Years went by and my Jack Owens/Bud Spires LP remained stored in my voluminous collection, out of sight and out of mind.

Fast forward many years to the digital age and the seemingly endless amount of information available to us at the click of a mouse. I had heard Skip James during the 60s Folk and Blues Revival and I learned that he was from Bentonia, Mississippi and played his guitar in an open D Minor tuning (sometimes called “crossnote tuning), which was extremely odd since the songs he sang were all in major keys! To hear me play Skip James’ classic “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” in crossnote tuning and to learn more about Skip James, click here.

Crossnote tuning originally came from Henry Stuckey, an unrecorded bluesman who had learned it from Bahamian soldiers while stationed in France during World War I. He brought it home to Bentonia after the war, a town of less than 500 people located on the edge of the Delta, between Jackson and Yazoo City, Missisippi. All the bluesmen from Bentonia eventually ended up playing their guitars in this crossnote tuning. Henry Stuckey taught the tuning to Skip James, who taught it to Jack Owens who, more recently, taught it to Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. Skip James was certainly the most famous of these artists and it is fairly certain that he also taught the tuning to Robert Johnson, who used it to play his composition “Hellhound On My Trail.”

“It Must have Been The Devil” has a chronology of its own and the song changed over the years. It was first recorded by Skip James in 1931 under the title “Devil Got My Woman.” These early recordings, made in the midst of the Great Depression, sold poorly and drifted into obscurity, as did James himself. James was rediscovered in 1964 and made new recordings of most of his repertoire, including ‘Devil Got My Woman.” He died in 1969 at the age of 67 and the following year, musicologist David Evans met Jack Owens during a field trip to Bentonia. In 1970, he recorded Owens and blues harp player Bud Spires playing a number of songs on Owens’ porch, including the landmark recording of “It Must Have Been The Devil”, a song about isolation, betrayal and the supernatural. Evans was later quoted as saying “Hearing Jack Owens singing out across the fields late at night is one of the most moving experiences I have ever had.”

Jack Owens et sa guitare "12 cordes"

Jack Owens and his “12 string” guitar

Owens did not seek to become a professional recording artist. He farmed, sold bootleg liquor, and ran a weekend juke joint in Bentonia for most of his life. Originally set in Owens’ home, the juke joint became so popular that it moved to a separate and larger house across the street. Festivities lasted from Friday evenings until Sunday mornings, with non-stop barbecue, bootleg, music and dancing. Sometimes the music came from Owens’ own juke box, but it was mostly played by Owens and Spires themselves. Jack Owens learned to play especially for the raucous dancers at his juke point, using a thumb pick to be heard above the din of the celebrations, stomping his boots on the floor for rhythm. He played on any battered instrument he could find, even an old 12-string guitar body fitted with the usual six strings, sometimes using a pencil clamped over the strings with elastics for a capo. Over the years, Evans recorded Owens playing in seven different guitar tunings.

Jack Owens died in 1997 at the ripe old age of 92, a tribute to the restorative qualities of bootleg, barbecue and the blues.

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, percussion (foot)

It Must Have Been The Devil

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Mary Gauthier’s “Mercy Now”

When I was a teenager, a lot of guitarists hated country music – I know I sure did. Harlan Howard (1927-2002), a popular songwriter, was asked in the 1950s what constituted country music, to which he famously replied “Three chords and the truth.” I had no problem with the truth but I hated those three chords. Three chords is what guitarists played if they couldn’t play anything else. Three chords was a capitulation. In all fairness, country music at that time featured some horrible songs – Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man”, on its own, set women’s rights back 100 years. I eventually changed my mind when a few artists started writing true, honest songs like Merle Haggard’s (1937-2016) “Mama Tried” or Kris Kristofferson’s (b. 1936) “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.”

Mary Gauthier

Mary Gauthier

These days, artists from diverse backgrounds are writing credible songs that resonate with very diverse groups. One such artist is Mary Gauthier (b. 1962), who chose a very circuitous route to end up where she is now. Born in New Orleans to a mother she never knew, she was adopted at the age of one but struggled with many demons growing up. Drug and alcohol addiction ruled her life. At 15, she ran away from home and spent the next several years in drug rehab centres, halfway houses or living with friends. She spent her 18th birthday in a jail cell. She eventually opened a Cajun restaurant in Boston but was arrested for drunk driving on opening night in 1990. However, she has been sober ever since. She wrote her first song at the age of 35, sold her share in the restaurant, and used the money to finance her second album. From then on, her career has climbed steadily – she appeared at many folk festivals, was nominated for three Gay and Lesbian American Music Awards and named new artist of the year by the American Music Association in 2005.

Her most famous song is “Mercy Now”, which she wrote at a time when she felt that she wasn’t getting the artistic attention she deserved. One of her friends reminded her that, considering her life up to now, what she deserved was perhaps the last thing to hope for. Her friend suggested that she might pray for mercy instead.

My version of “Mercy Now” only uses the first two verses of the song. I wrote the last two verses myself to avoid singing Gauthier’s last verses, which glorify America, her Church and State, among other things. I am not an American and I look at America from beyond its borders. What I see is the genocide of the American Indian (First Nations), the systemic racism, segregation and murder of African Americans, the large scale adoption of slavery, and state-sanctioned hand guns and assault weapons which contribute to an endless stream of mass murders. As for the Church, there are over 4,000 religions, churches, denominations and faith groups in the U. S., which dilutes any notion of faith. We should also all keep in mind the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas, where the FBI and the sect clashed for 51 days in 1993, leading to the deaths of nearly 80 people. Not to be outdone, Jim Jones founded the Peoples Temple which ended on November 18, 1878, when 909 people died in a mass murder/suicide at its remote settlement of Jonestown, Guyana.

All this being said, I find that “Mercy Now” is the perfect song for this time of year and for all those who have witnessed the pandemic. We all need a little mercy now.

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitars, electric guitar, electric bass guitar
Roch Tassé played and recorded the drums at Howlin’ Huskies Studio, Ste-Cécile-de-Masham, Que.

Mercy Now

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