In the late 1950s and early ’60s, prewar acoustic blues guitarists such as Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and Reverend Gary Davis earned late-in-life fame as new audiences eagerly devoured their music through performances at events like the Newport Folk Festival and LP reissues and compilations on labels like Folkways and Yazoo Records. Acoustic guitarists, many of them young and white, became enthralled by this earthy music, recorded in the 1920s and ’30s and previously accessible mainly through old and rare 78 rpm discs. In an era before excellent roots and blues instruction was just a click away, and before the language was common knowledge among guitarists, the music was often inscrutable—the use of, say, a bottleneck slide or open tuning not always apparent to even the most attentive listener.
Among the young musicians who fell under the spell of the blues in the 1960s were Happy Traum, Stefan Grossman, Rory Block, and Steve James, names no doubt familiar to readers of this magazine. All four spent their formative years in New York during the folk and blues revival, which saw a lot of action in the clubs of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, and in that neighborhood’s Washington Square Park. As such, these guitarists were able to seek out the old masters, befriending them and learning their secrets firsthand.
The prewar blues legends are long gone, but their former apprentices have spent decades passing on what they learned while promoting American roots guitar in general—in addition to their own performing and recording, Traum, through his Homespun Music Instruction; Grossman with his Guitar Workshop videos, audio recordings, and books; and Block and James through their various videos and books. Here they offer their reflections on the 1960s blues revival and how it shaped their lives in music.
Finding Brownie McGhee
What was your path to the blues?
I started out being very influenced by Pete Seeger. He was my big hero when I first started to play, and so I often found myself in Washington Square Park, where I met all kinds of people who played with varying degrees of competency. I got to see people like Reverend Gary Davis, both in concert and on the street. He was literally a street singer for many years. And then in the late ’50s, I was in college and spent quite a lot of time with Brownie McGhee, who was really my main guitar teacher. Any blues stuff that I do nowadays could be attributed to him.
How did you find Brownie McGhee?
Basically I met him because I had been listening to this record that he made—it was a ten-inch called Brownie McGhee Blues—and I was just completely smitten. I knew that he lived in New York somewhere, so I got the idea to just call him up and see if he’d give me lessons. He asked me to come show him what I could do, as kind of an audition, and I became one of the few people at that point who were studying with him.
What were the lessons like?
I would go to his apartment, which was in East Harlem, on 125th Street—just a little walk-up. Sometimes I would have dinner with his wife and kids, waiting for him to show up. The lessons were five dollars each and could last anywhere from one to three hours. We would just start playing a song together and then I’d stop him to ask what he’d just done. He’d show me, and I would incorporate that lick into my playing. And he was a real stickler for a rhythm. Whatever sense of time I may have, I got from Brownie and any sense of time I don’t have, he’s not responsible for [laughs]. But the main thing that I learned from Brownie was moving my thumb in a really steady rhythm on the bass strings and picking licks on the treble strings. That’s been my main style ever since.
Who are some of the other legends you encountered during the blues revival?
As the ’60s progressed, people were bringing in some of the blues guys that we had only heard on records. Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell, Mance Lipscomb, Son House, Lightnin’ Hopkins—they all came to the Village and played in Gerde’s Folk City or the Gaslight Cafe or the Bitter End. So we got to hear these amazing guys while they were still alive and could still play.
What was it like to meet them in person, presumably after you had worn out their albums at home?
It was completely eye-opening. You might have only heard somebody on a record that was made in the late ’20s, like Mississippi John Hurt, and you didn’t even know what he looked like or if he was still alive. And then suddenly there he was in this little club, and you’re sitting three feet away and watching him play. It was quite a revelation to many of us.
Bridging the Big Gap
You, like Ernie Hawkins and others, spent your formative years taking lessons from the Reverend Gary Davis. How did you connect with Davis in the first place, and what was it like to have him as a teacher?
I had a friend, Bob Fox, who had been going up to see Reverend Davis up in the Bronx. He said, “Well, here’s his phone number—give him a call.” And so I rang and Reverend Davis said, “Come on up . . . bring your money, honey.” That meant five dollars a lesson. My parents drove me there the first time, ostensibly because my father needed to buy a pair of shoes in the Bronx. But it was all a fabrication, because where Reverend Davis lived was considered one of the most dangerous blocks in America. He had a little shack behind these derelict apartment buildings that looked like Dresden, Germany, after the firebombing [in World War II].
Reverend Davis opened the door without his sunglasses on—he had one bulbous eye and the other was all white—and just sucked me in. It was such a fantastic atmosphere, and he was just amazing. And that was the beginning of two or three years of solid lessons. Reverend Davis had just done a record for Prestige, Harlem Street Singer, and he taught me the album song by song. Each lesson was as long as you wanted it to be; I would stay up there for hours and hours. Eventually I realized the enormity of his repertoire and started bringing a tape machine to document what he was playing—not just so I could later hear all the tunes I wanted to learn, but to help Reverend Davis publish and copyright his works.
It must have been an amazing time to discover blues and blues musicians, especially in person.
Yes—you had all these incredible musicians, some of whom played as well, if not better, than they did in the ’20s and ’30s. On a good night down in the Village, you could hear Reverend Davis at Gerde’s Folk City; the Gaslight might have Mississippi John Hurt, and the next week Skip James.
How would you describe your dynamic with the blues musicians?
All the musicians were very open and helpful in showing us how they played guitar, telling stories, and answering the many questions that we had about the blues scene in the ’20s and before. I started to transcribe from the old records, and when I would meet someone like John Hurt, I would say, “Hey John, is this the way you played it?” He was just so chuffed to see this kid who could play exactly how he used to. It bridged the big gap between an elderly black man from the South and a Jewish teenager from Brooklyn.
The one thing that no one bothered to ask the musicians—these guys from Jim Crow Mississippi, and all the crap that came with it—was how they felt. Can you imagine how weird it must have been to all of a sudden be playing at the Newport Folk Festival to thousands of very young and appreciative white faces? But the musicians were completely supportive. And more than supportive, they just felt good about it, and we did, too. It was a real exchange of information.
Feeling a Spiritual Presence
Before you got into the blues, you were immersed in a world of music.
My dad was a country fiddle player as well as a sandal maker. And at a given point in the day, he would be standing there fiddling in his store, Allan Block Sandal Shop. Over time, the word got out that there was this amazing music in the shop, and people brought their instruments. After a while, that meant some of the greatest musicians anywhere.
Who were some of the musicians that you remember the most, blues or otherwise?
Well, Bob Dylan lived two doors away from the shop, which was at 171 West Fourth Street. He would come in when he was starting out as a young man, just to chat with my dad. At one point, my dad rented a room in Pete Seeger’s wife’s parents’ brownstone. On weekends there were these amazing jam sessions in the basement. And then that’s where you would find people like Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly and Josh White, of course Pete Seeger, and many other luminaries. I would hear my parents talking about singing with Theodore Bikel the night before, and I assumed that everyone was hanging with him on the weekend [laughs].
Talk about meeting Stefan Grossman, who would introduce you to the blues.
Growing up, on Sunday afternoons I would go to Washington Square Park and there would be crowds surrounding the bluegrass and jazzy-sounding circles. And then there were random people just roaming around, playing all kinds of great stuff on banjo, fiddle, and guitar. One Sunday I heard this wonderful-sounding, bouncy music. I made my way through the crowd, and there was Stefan Grossman, who was probably 17 or 18 years old at the time, playing ragtime guitar. And I was like, “What is that?”
Stefan was in the middle of a small group of blues connoisseurs. Some were record collectors and were looking for the early blues players, like Dick Waterman, who ultimately found Son House; others were great guitarists, like John Fahey. And that’s when I started playing music. Stefan caught me up on all the stuff that was going on with the reissued early country blues. I would listen to hours of this amazing music on a reel-to-reel tape recorder that Stefan was lending me, falling asleep with headphones on.
When you were 15, you and Grossman hitchhiked across the country on a deep musical journey.
Yes, it was all about the music. Stefan would find old Martin guitars in pawnshops that you could buy for $50 and sometimes less. People thought of them as old instruments that nobody cared about. On the trip, Stefan got a collection of pearl-inlaid Martins that just needed neck resets and a little bit of polish. We finally got to Berkeley, California, and stayed at the little home of Ed Denson, who had founded Takoma Records.
One day there was a knock at the door and it was Fred McDowell, which was surprising and vivid. He gets a chapter in my book When a Woman Gets the Blues. We performed together at the Jabberwock and that’s when somebody jumped up while I was playing and said , “She plays like a man!” And I thought, “What are they talking about? Why should I play a certain way just because I’m a girl? I just play.”
What was it like to meet other blues legends, like Son House and Mississippi John Hurt?
He was really beautiful, Son House, and just had this glow. I felt like I was touching a piece of the past just sitting in his presence, as if Robert Johnson’s spirit was around him. Son House was unbelievably inspiring to me the way that he played, the way he snapped the strings, the way he threw his head back. The passion of it affected me deeply, and I knew that’s the way the music should be played—it wasn’t going to be polite or laid back. And that’s the way I’ve played the blues ever since, really laying into the strings, and what I pass on to my students.
As for Mississippi John Hurt, one day Stefan and I got on the train, went to Long Island, and walked right into the back room of this beautiful old theater. There was Mississippi John Hurt, another blues god. I had already been working on “Frankie,” which was my favorite Mississippi John Hurt song, but I never thought I’d get to see him play it up close and in person. That type of inspiration really can’t be put in words. I just felt a spiritual presence, as I did with all of the early players that I was fortunate enough to meet.
What was your gateway to the blues?
Lead Belly and boogie-woogie piano and stuff like that are crib memories for me. I grew up in a house with 78 rpm records. When I was still quite young, my family moved from the Bronx to Yonkers, and that’s where I took up the guitar. In 1962 my dad gave me his 1948 Harmony Patrician, one of their higher-end archtops, which I wish I still had. Not long after that I started taking lessons from a gospel guitarist from White Plains, New York, who would go from house to house in surrounding communities. He taught me how to fingerpick. He was a real big guy with a real high voice, and he said, “Lose the pick, you’re just wasting the guitar.” I was in a band playing electric bass when the Beatles broke around the same time, and though I liked the Beatles, I was much more interested in Mississippi John Hurt.
What was it like to hear these semi-obscure records from the 1920s, without the greatest sonic fidelity, and then hear and meet the bluesmen in person?
Even as a teenager, I remember it as almost like a miracle. I was at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966. I had just turned 16 and I had a Gibson J-50. I hitchhiked up there with my childhood friend and fellow traveler in music David Lusterman [the founder of Stringletter and AG’s publisher and editorial director]. We were there for two days and heard live performances not just of Son House, Skip James, Bukka White, Howlin’ Wolf, and Lightnin’ Hopkins but also Doc Watson, Kilby Snow, and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. I was almost in a state of shock the whole time. When Skip James raised his head, looked out at the audience and then started to play “Hospital Blues” [“Washington D.C. Hospital Center Blues”], it was a phenomenal experience.
And this was at a time when tablature and method books were not as readily available as they are now. When I first heard Bukka White live, at the Little Carnegie Hall of all places, I said, “What is he doing?” What he was doing was playing bottleneck slide guitar. And I had to play it myself right away.
How did you learn?
I was kind of on my own. But fortunately it was easy to get on the bus or the subway and go to concerts. I began to gather little bits of crucial information—like, to make your guitar sound like Bukka White you’ve got to use this open tuning.
Did you, like Happy Traum, Rory Block, Stefan Grossman, and others make frequent treks to Washington Square Park?
That was a little pilgrimage I would make quite frequently. There was plenty of phenomenal stuff going on in a lot of different places, but I would often wind up in the Village and go hear whoever was there, like the Reverend Gary Davis at the Gaslight on one memorable occasion. More than once I stood in the doorway of Allan Block’s sandal shop and listened to whoever happened to be playing, even if I didn’t know who they were. Turns out that the young girl who was playing so doggone well one day was Rory Block [laughs]!
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You spent much of your adult life in Tennessee and Texas, and in the 1970s sought out old rural blues musicians.
At a certain point, I made the calculation that many of the musicians wouldn’t be around much longer. So when I was down in Tennessee, I met some people who knew some people and the next thing you know, there I was, sitting in Sam McGee’s living room. We spent hours together telling stories, and he taught me everything he could. It was late when I left, and I said, “Well, I’ll see you again—I can’t wait to come back.” A couple of months later he was dead.
Subsequently I moved down to Memphis, and I was playing with Furry Lewis, as sort of his attaché guitarist. It wasn’t like he was at death’s door, but I was looking at him and going, “God, this guy is 80 years old.” More and more, I was getting the idea that things were finite.
What did you take away from these blues legends?
The main advice that I got from Furry and others wasn’t so much how to form chords—although they were good for that—but basically this: “What you’re doing here is expressing yourself. So don’t copy me. Express yourself. That’s what your guitar is for.”
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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