Archive for March, 2020

Mississippi John Hurt’s “Sliding Delta”

Mississippi John Hurt

Mississippi John Hurt

The welcoming page for my site identifies it as “Yesterday’s music, revisited.” I’ve loved yesterday’s music since I heard Bert Jansch playing 300-year-old Celtic melodies in the 1960s. To me, this was a real time machine – I was able to hear the same thing people were hearing 300 years ago. It felt like I was there.

Today, I am fascinated by the past and specifically the music that was created between the world wars, that period in America where roots music began to flourish, with its simplicity, its spirituality and its antiquity. Roots music is history and there is no greater teacher than history. In a time when more and more people carelessly surrender control of their life to technology, history and its teachings loom even larger in importance. As Edmund Burke said in the 1700’s, “Those who don’t know history, are doomed to repeat it.”

The two decades between the world wars were given catchy names – “The Roaring Twenties” and “The Great Depression.” The 1920s saw scholars and collectors from northern States seek out musicians to record in order to preserve folksongs and styles that they feared would disappear amidst the rapid pace of social, economic, cultural and technological change then engulfing America. At the same time, northern businesses saw the tremendous potential for profit from rising sales in phonographs and records. These businesses organized roots music into categories based on the colour line- race records for black musicians, hillbilly records for white musicians – even though the colour line didn’t exist among musicians. Musicians had to eat and they played what people wanted to hear. A black bluesman might have to play for a country barn dance or a bar mitzva; a white string band might have to make black people dance at a run down roadhouse.

The record companies made the investment so they decided which songs would be recorded, how and where they would be distributed and marketed, and who would share in the profits. There was tremendous growth in the music industry in the late 1920s but, as everything was flourishing, the Great Depression dealt the recording industry a devastating blow, sending phonograph sales plummeting from 987,000 in 1927 to 40,000 in 1932. In the same time, record sales plunged from 104 million to just 6 million. By 1935, the eleven companies that specialized in blues and other roots-based styles had all been driven out of business.

Taj Mahal & Mississippi John Hurt at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival

Taj Mahal & Mississippi John Hurt at the1964 Newport Folk Festival

Mississippi John Hurt (1893-1966), like many musicians of this era, was caught in the middle of this “perfect storm.” Through his collaborations with Willie Narmour (1889-1961), a popular white fiddle player, he got a chance to record for Okeh Records in 1928. He recorded 19 songs but only 13 were released. “Sliding Delta” was one of the six other songs that were not released and were lost in history’s dust. Mississippi John’s records came out at the wrong time, didn’t sell well, and he went back to what he always was – a farmer and sharecropper in Avalon, Mississippi. Thirty-five years later, Mississippi John was convinced to play again, this time for northern audiences who welcomed him with open arms. He became a very important figure in the Folk and Blues Revival of the 1960s and he was the musician who influenced me more than any other, convincing me to strive for the higher ground of guitar playing.

“Sliding Delta” is one of many songs that spoke of the devastating floods which continually torment America. It conveys the disturbing image of the ground being carried away by water. The song was saved from obscurity and finally recorded by Mississippi John in the 60s, both in the studio and in live performances. The song was also later recorded by Doc and Merle Watson – Doc was a big fan and friend of Mississippi John’s, often calling him “uncle John.” It is to be noted that a song called “Sliding Delta” was recorded in 1930 by bluesman Tommy Johnson (1896-1956), but it is a different song with different lyrics.

There is no information anywhere concerning the meaning of Mississippi John’s lyric about the “big Kate Allen.” He never mentioned it and no one asked him about it. After some research, I believe it is a reference to a locomotive, always given the feminine gender in the English language. Certainly, there were a lot of Allen locomotives at the time, named after Horatio Allen (1802-1899), the American engineer who designed them. “Kate” is almost certainly a reference to the Katy (K.T.), the name given to the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railway, which Taj Mahal points to in his brilliant composition, “She Caught the Katy, Left Me a Mule to Ride.”

Several blues songs of this era feature a reference to a man’s entire worldly possessions fitting into a suitcase and a trunk. People did not own homes and many worked in servitude. I first heard this reference in 1964 when The Animals had a huge hit with “House of the Rising Sun”, which laments “The only thing a gambler needs is a suitcase and a trunk.” It takes me a whole room in my house just to accommodate my guitars.

Barbecue Bob

Barbecue Bob

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith

Ironically, as Mississippi John was recording “Sliding Delta” in 1928, his home State of Mississippi was recovering from the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The flood broke 145 levees, flooded 27,000 square miles of land to a depth of 30 feet, killed approximately 500 people and left 700,000 homeless. There are indications that “Sliding Delta” was part of Mississippi John’s repertoire as far back as 1907 but many songs were specifically written for the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, including “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues” by Barbecue Bob (Robert Hicks, 1902-1931) in 1927; “Backwater Blues” by Bessie Smith (1894-1937), also in 1927; “When The Levee Breaks” by Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas, 1897-1973) and Kansas Joe McCoy (1905-1950) in 1929; and the very influential “High Water Everywhere” by Charley Patton (1891-1934), also in 1929.

Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe McCoy

Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe McCoy

Charley Patton

Charley Patton

 

The great flood was also the inspiration behind Randy Newman’s majestic 1974 hit, “Louisiana 1927”, featuring these haunting lyrics, delivered in the Cajun dialect :

 

 

What has happened down here is the wind have changed
Clouds roll in from the north and it start to rain
It rained real hard and it rained for a real long time
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

Louisiana’s Evangeline Parish, which I visited in 1999, is in the heart of Cajun country. It takes it’s name from the French word “évangile”, meaning “bible.”

Mississippi John Hurt’s grand-daughter Mary Hurt recalls that “Daddy John”, as she called him, wrote home when he was going to appear on The Tonight Show in 1964. Unfortunately, the family had no TV set. A white neighbour, Miss Annie Cook, invited everyone to come over and watch on her TV. Johnny Carson invited Mississippi John to sing “You Are My Sunshine”. By the end of the song, the audience was in tears of joy, as was Johnny Carson. The audience gave him a standing ovation, unheard of for a TV studio audience.. When Mary’s father saw his own father on TV, he couldn’t believe it. It was a great moment for the whole community of Avalon.

Today, Mississippi John is buried next to his old cabin, which Mary Hurt maintains as a museum. She also runs a summer camp in Avalon where underprivileged urban kids can get out to the country and learn about music.

 

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar

 

Sliding Delta

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