Archive for July, 2021

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.

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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