The Saturday night lineup at the 1963 Philadelphia Folk Festival included Elizabeth Cotten, Mike Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, and Mississippi John Hurt. In the audience that night was 12-year-old John Miller. The music that made the biggest impression on him was that of Hurt, so much so that weeks later, after listening repeatedly to one of Hurt’s albums, he picked up his older brother’s guitar and the first thing he played was a fledgling version of Hurt’s “Casey Jones.” Miller’s interest in acoustic country blues grew quickly and, with the help of his brother and other family members shuttling him to concerts and shows, he was able to see and hear many of the original masters of the form, including Son House, Reverend Gary Davis, Skip James, and many others.
Miller recorded two solo albums during his college years for Blue Goose Records, an offshoot of Nick Perls’s Yazoo Records, the era’s major source of country blues reissues. Those albums, How About Me and First Degree Blues, are now sought-after collector’s items. Miller cut three more albums in the 1970s for Rounder Records and expanded his musical vision to include jazz and original compositions.
After a move to the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s, Miller’s opportunities for teaching multiplied as he became a regular instructor at music camps like the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop, Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Week, Guitar Intensives, and others throughout the U.S., Canada, and the UK. During the past decade he has recorded several albums, including solo offerings This Old Hammer and Hey There and collaborations with mandolinist John Reischman and violinist Ruthie Dornfeld, and put out a series of instructional DVDs for Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop.
Miller’s latest project is a book of blues transcriptions and instruction titled John Miller’s Country Blues Guitar Collection. He maintains a private teaching practice in Seattle, Washington, where we met between lessons to talk about his book and country blues.
You put out a book of transcriptions of early country blues artists. What were your criteria for the artists you chose?
I wanted to choose some who were not represented in books already out in the market. I was interested in getting a mix of commonly known players and some who were less well known. I also wanted to get players from different regions because, especially in the early years, there tended to be specific regional playing styles. It didn’t take too long after people started making records for that to begin breaking down a bit. I tried to get a variety of sounds by choosing people that played in these regional styles that were more distinct from each other. In keeping the music alive, I think it’s good to highlight some who are not as well known. Buddy Moss is a good example. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Buddy Moss transcribed and he was just a fantastic player and a great singer. The book includes a CD with all the original performances, so people can hear Buddy Moss, Geeshie Wiley, and Luke Jordan. One thing I found very challenging when working on Buddy Moss’s stuff is he almost never keeps strict time with his thumb. His thumb will just disappear for a while, either playing brush triplets up in the treble [Example 1] or single-note runs in the bass [Example 2]. He has a very exciting, dynamic playing style, a wonderful player.
One of the artists identified with the Piedmont style is Blind Boy Fuller. Can you give us a taste of his guitar style?
Yes, one of his great tunes was “Weeping Willow Blues.” He has a sort of signature lick he does behind his singing [Example 3]. It’s a beautifully harmonized walkdown. Then, it’s kind of cool, he goes to a iv (“four minor”) chord [Example 4]. He returns to the signature lick and then to the iv again, but this time he harmonizes it with a major third in the bass [Example 5]. Once more to the A and then he walks up to an E partial. He wraps his thumb over to get an F in the bass for a D9, back to the E partial and then slides up to a B7 to start the finishing lick [Example 6]. That iv over the major third in the bass is especially grungy!
Mississippi John Hurt is probably the most popular country blues artist you’ve included in the book. You’ve done other instructional material on his playing. Why did you want to have him represented? Well, I think John Hurt is interesting. One of the things about him that I don’t think is adequately appreciated is how subtle he was. He’s often cited for his alternating bass playing but, in fact, he had a lot of ways to approach bass lines. Sometimes he’d double up on the same string, he’d omit beats, he’d mix in brush strokes. He’d leave his left-hand movements the same but would change his right-hand picking so notes would arrive in slightly different orders or differently relative to the pulse.
I’m thinking of his “Coffee Blues.” It’s an eight-bar blues and he starts it with a lick over what we call the long A chord, reach- ing up with your little finger to get the A note on the first string. I transcribed four passes of this one lick and he never once struck exactly the same notes going from the A to the A7 [Example 7a–7c]. He has this passion for variety that flies in the face of the idea that he’s playing a set piece. In fact, he’s changing it all the time
Who is one of the most obscure artists you’ve transcribed for the book?
Geeshie Wiley is pretty darn obscure. She’s only recorded a few sides. I think the only place people may have heard her before is in the documentary film Crumb, about the cartoonist R. Crumb, in which her song “Last Kind Words” was featured in the soundtrack. It’s a super-intense song. There’s no other song I’m aware of that shares its form. It’s hard to say what key it’s in because it rocks back and forth between an E and a Bm7 instead of a B7 and the singing line starts over an Am, so you could see it as being in A minor or perhaps being in E and starting on the IV chord. Here are the first few bars [Example 8].
Does this genre of country blues playing still have a place in today’s music world?
It is part of our musical heritage as Americans and, like bluegrass or old-time, it’s roots music at its most fundamental level that attracted many superb musicians. I suspect there’s some music within the genre that you have to be an initiate to appreciate, but then there’s other stuff that’s just so strong, so singular, that people who have never heard country blues before will be stopped in their tracks.
A tune like that is Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” with fantastic slide guitar playing and wordless, moaning vocals. That was put on a record and sent out into space on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977 to represent something powerful that this species on Earth was able to achieve. Truthfully, I don’t think that’s overestimating its status by any means. It’s completely amazing.
Bo Carter and his fretboard wizardry
“This lick is from ‘Pretty Baby’ by Bo Carter,” John Miller says. “Carter made many recordings and seemingly had the ability to play in more keys and tunings than any other Mississippi guitarist. He used an interesting G tuning—D G D G B E—that allowed him to use a lot of chord voicings from standard tuning on the top four strings while having a root-fifth in the bass in the key of G.”