From the July 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY STEVE JAMES
In the close, dimly lit quarters of the subterranean Gaslight Cafe, on MacDougal Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, a lot of what is now music history and legend happened as the basket was passed and the upstairs neighbors called in noise complaints. Besides hosting germinal performances by now-famous and not-so-famous names during the folk music boom of the 1960s, the Gaslight was a place where veteran masters of vintage songs and playing styles passed on music to younger singers and players.
Two of these budding musicians were Happy Traum and John Sebastian, exponents of a new generation of folk guitarists who were into fingerpicking and blues. A principal object of their musical attention was a diminutive farmer, newly arrived on the New York folk scene from his home in Carroll County, Mississippi. His name was John Hurt.
In the crowded guitar cosmos of the mid-1960s, the soft-spoken septuagenarian with the flannel shirt and derby hat was an unlikely star in the firmament. In terms of musical influence, however, his star burned just as brightly as that of any rock hero ever silhouetted against a light show. Traum and Sebastian are emblematic of uncounted players, this writer included, for whom Hurt was a guitar guide on that twisty path that winds through the realms of blues, folk, and that twangy hybrid now called roots music.
A Late Discovery
For John Smith Hurt, the long road to the Gaslight started in rural Teoc and Avalon, Mississippi, where he was born and raised. (Biographer Phillip Ratcliffe cites Hurt’s birthdate as March 8, 1892, rather than the long-circulated July 3, 1893.) These small farming communities are close to the bustling rail and cotton locus of Greenwood. Also a blues hotbed, Greenwood was the birthplace of Hurt’s contemporary Furry Lewis and the home to Robert Johnson at the time of his death.
Largely self-taught, Hurt began playing at age nine on a guitar he called Black Annie. His local popularity led to a musical friendship with Carroll County fiddle wizard Willie Narmour, who brought him to OKeh Records in 1928. Sessions in Memphis and New York yielded 14 masterworks of blues, balladry, and gospel—none of which sold. So, Mississippi John Hurt returned to farming and social music.
In 1952, a couple of his rare OKeh titles, “Frankie” and “Spike Driver Blues,” appeared on Harry Smith’s iconic Anthology of American Folk Music, sending a rarified coterie of fingerstyle guitar cognoscenti back to the drawing board. Then, in 1963, record hound Dick Spottswood encouraged his fellow musical adventurer Tom Hoskins, who was headed south, to check out the locale mentioned in Hurt’s “Avalon Blues.” And there he found the guitarist himself.
In a matter of just months after this “rediscovery,” Mississippi John Hurt had played the Newport and Philadelphia Folk Festivals, appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and recorded for the Library of Congress. He also became a mainstay at folk clubs around the country. Among these was the Gaslight, where guitar-playing brothers Happy and Artie Traum were regulars, and John Sebastian would hasten over from across the street between sets playing harmonica for singer and songsmith Fred Neil.
An Enduring Legacy
More than a half-century later, Happy Traum and John Sebastian, like many of their colleagues, are still emphatic and enthusiastic when recounting not only the good times they had with Mississippi John Hurt, but also the transcendent value of what they learned from the guitarist. Traum started his Homespun music teaching series with a book of transcriptions of fingerstyle guitar arrangements and a handful of cassette tape lessons. The Homespun catalog now contains hundreds of video titles—including Traum and Sebastian’s The Fingerpicking Blues of Mississippi John Hurt—and is a leading multimedia information source for players of folk and roots music worldwide. Traum also continues an active live performance schedule and hardly ever does a set without calling up the Hurt sound and spirit.
When John Sebastian formed a definitive folk-rock combo in the early 1960s, he described the sound as a “combination of Chuck Berry and Mississippi John Hurt,” and named the group The Lovin’ Spoonful after a line in Hurt’s “Coffee Blues.” Like his old friend Traum, Sebastian rarely does a gig, if it’s jug-band music or rhythm and blues, without raising a thumb to his mentor.
Not long ago, Sebastian, Traum, and I decided to meet at Sebastian’s Woodstock, New York, home to continue the party and the lesson. Levon Helm Boulevard—as the Highway 385 approach to Woodstock has been renamed, after the late member of the Band who lived nearby for decades—is clear for driving, but the frozen reminders of a lingering winter in the Hudson Valley are still piled on the roadside. It’s three days before the beginning of spring, but green is conspicuously absent, with hardly a bud or bloom to be seen.
The directions are circuitous (make a left, an immediate right, down the hill, cross the creek, and it curves), but once at the Sebastian household, we’re soon settled down for show-and-tell with freshly brewed coffee and a succession of instruments. These will include Yank Rachell’s Harmony H-35 electric mandolin; a Gibson J-200 that belonged to Reverend Gary Davis; and Sebastian’s signature model Martin, a jumbo whose fanciful crescent moon-and-stars fingerboard inlays are a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt.
Traum recalls the folk music community of Greenwich Village in the early ’60s: “I became more interested in fingerpicking when I heard Tom Paley [of the New Lost City Ramblers] doing it,” he says. “We were playing in Washington Square Park. There was a jug band here, a songwriter there, a banjo player. . . . None of us thought we’d make a living at it. Then record labels, managers, and agents began to get involved and the whole thing became more commercial and competitive.”
“I grew up in the Village,” adds Sebastian, son of John Sebastian, Sr., one of the world’s foremost classical harmonica players. “I mean, like, eating dirt in Washington Square Park with my childhood buddy John Hammond! We learned how to play together. His father was putting together that first Robert Johnson album [King of the Delta Blues Singers], so it was like: ‘Hey, listen to this!’ ‘Come On in My Kitchen.’ And we were like, ‘What is he doing?’”
Traum evokes a similar mystery surrounding John Hurt’s music that was resolved in part when he appeared at the Gaslight. “We had heard these two songs on the Harry Smith anthology, but we didn’t even know what these people looked like! He made it seem so simple and accessible. All these years later and I’m still hearing new things in his playing.”
This assessment is from a guitarist who at the time was also learning from such senior folk and blues pioneers as Brownie McGhee and Reverend Gary Davis. Often echoed by other players, Hurt’s accessibility refers to the basic, melodic quality of his music when compared to McGhee’s jazz-informed chordal sophistication or Davis’ dense and idiosyncratic multi-voiced gospel blues and ragtime inventions.
Sebastian concurs, remembering performers like Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker, who had been major blues recording and performing stars long before they dressed down and took to the folk circuit, and lacked the rural egalitarianism Hurt displayed in his character. “He’d show you stuff! And if you didn’t get it, he’d show you again,” Sebastian says.
Sebastian also remembers some of the less cheery exponents of blues guitar style who were part of the ’60s folk rediscovery and revival, referring in particular to the dark wizardry of Skip James. “Some of these guys were kind
of scary, but John Hurt had this sort of Meher Baba quality,” he says, referring to the late Indian spiritual master.
Indeed, John Hurt took to his sudden and considerable fame with equanimity and made friends easily. These included the managers of the Gaslight—Clarence Hood and his son Sam—who were fellow Mississippians. He formed bonds with contemporaries Elizabeth Cotten and Sonny Terry and also befriended young folk singers like his frequent companions Patrick Sky and Buffy Saint Marie. Everybody from Tom Paxton to Dave Van Ronk had a John Hurt story and cadged a John Hurt guitar lick.
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 in the hospital in nearby Grenada on November 2nd of that year.
Get stories like this in your inbox
What He Played
At the time that he resumed performing and recording in 1963, Mississippi John Hurt did not own a guitar. Photographs from this period show him playing a refinished Gibson J-45 with a crescent moon inlay on the fingerboard, on loan from Tom Hoskins. The blonde, slotted-headstock guitar Hurt used for his groundbreaking set at the Newport Folk Festival, in 1963, has recently resurfaced. It was made by the early 20th-century company Emory and also belonged to Hoskins. Additional footage from the festival shows Hurt playing “Casey Jones” on a Harmony Sovereign 12-string. The instrument he played on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest show was made for him as a gift by Pennsylvania luthier John Alderson.
In 1964, the Newport Foundation gave Hurt carte blanche to obtain an instrument of his own, and he made the purchase at Marc Silber’s Fretted Instruments in New York. Silber relates that, although he encouraged him to buy a Martin, Hurt selected a less expensive Guild F-30 with a sunburst finish, saying that he always wanted a guitar that was “two colors at the same time.” Photographs show Hurt with the Guild and a variety of other guitars, including a National and a Dobro.
For his Vanguard recording sessions, in 1965, Hurt played a 1930 Martin OM-45 loaned by Stefan Grossman. (See Grossman’s website, guitarvideos.com, for a host of instructional videos on Hurt’s playing.) Hurt’s sunburst Guild F-30 was curated in the 1990s by Harry Tuft at the Denver Folklore Center. The strings, unchanged since Hurt’s passing, were a light-gauge bronze wound set. —SJ
The Odd Fate of Hurt’s Guild F-30
Hurt played in Philadelphia many times between 1963 and 1966, and when he was in the area, a guitarist named Jerry Ricks helped him get to venues and gave him a place to stay. After Hurt’s death, Ricks acquired his Guild F-30 and later moved to Denver, where he got a job working for Harry Tuft at the Denver Folklore Center. Ricks ended up selling the guitar to a friend of Tuft’s, David Ferretta, and as the unofficial executor of Ferretta’s will, Tuft took ownership of it after Ferretta died unexpectedly in 1994.
In the fall of 2017, Tuft received a call from pop star John Oates, of Hall & Oates fame, inquiring about the guitar. As luck would have it, Oates had taken guitar lessons from Jerry Ricks back in the day and knew the guitar well. Ricks even brought the F-30 to New York when Hall & Oates were recording their first two albums, and according to Oates, “If I’m playing acoustic guitar on Abandoned Luncheonette or Whole Oats, it’s Mississippi John Hurt’s guitar.”
As Tuft recounts, “Oddly enough, he [Oates] was the only one who could authenticate its provenance. We arrived at a figure fair both to him and to David’s daughter, and I had the Folklore Center ship it to him. I can’t emphasize the serendipity of the experience too much. Without selling it to him, it became just another F-30 Guild from 1964, which was in only fair shape.” Oates currently owns the guitar and played it on his latest album, Arkansas, which began as a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt. —Bill Evans