February 15, 2020

Mississippi John Hurt


This is just a short post on one of the musicians Jerry Garcia admired. While Mississippi John Hurt had only a small influence on the Grateful Dead, he was a giant figure in American traditional music, widely loved by many modern folk and blues musicians. Garcia looked up to him and made sure to cover some of Hurt’s songs in his acoustic bands. So I thought I’d try to sketch a brief outline of Garcia’s connection to John Hurt.

The story starts with a little 45-second tuning ditty the Grateful Dead played after Cumberland Blues on 12/31/69:
At first, I thought the tune was Ain't Nobody's Business, as done by John Hurt: 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Fwwf1PH3-0
But other listeners identified it as Blue Moon of Kentucky. Whatever the tune (and it may be one of those casual Garcia melodies reminiscent of, but not quite, a particular song), it’s done John Hurt fingerstyle, with an alternating bass and a chord progression similar to several of his songs.

The Dead occasionally teased little fingerstyle-blues pieces like that in tunings at the time – for instance Weir starts off 10/26/69 with a snatch of Doc Watson’s Deep River Blues.  A year later on 11/8/70, they play a brief 20-second fragment of John Hurt's Stagolee Blues, before Wake Up Little Susie. Weir stops it saying, “Sorry, that one hasn’t passed the hotel-room stage yet. We don’t know all the words.”
Here's one of Hurt’s ‘60s performances of Stagolee:

The Dead never did get around to playing John Hurt’s Stagolee, although years later they would write their own song based on the story. But these little fragments got me to wondering – just when did Garcia get into John Hurt, and what would he have heard?


Hurt had originally released a half-dozen 78s on the Okeh label back in 1928-29, then disappeared into obscurity for the next three decades. Okeh releases were discontinued a few years later during the Depression, so Hurt’s original 78s weren’t reissued and became extremely rare. Possibly a few thousand copies of his first record, Frankie, were issued in 1928 (some say only a few hundred sold), but by the ‘60s far fewer survived. (And it was the best-selling of Hurt's early records! Today a copy can sell for thousands.)

Garcia, like most folkies in the early ‘60s, first heard Frankie and Spike Driver Blues on Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music (an impressive compilation of pre-war 78s released on the Folkways label). Hurt’s other early records would have been pretty scarce and hard to find at the time. Hurt’s old 78s weren’t collected onto a single album until the ‘70s; but over the course of the ‘60s a number of them were released individually on various blues compilations that Garcia might have found. Otherwise, it’s unknown whether Garcia would have been familiar with Hurt’s original recordings during the ‘60s.

Garcia did have access to old 78 records, though, from other collectors. 78s may seem incredibly antique today, but they had been the primary record format up to the ‘50s and were still relatively easy to find (somewhat like cassettes today). For the most part, 78s were the only format that any pre-war music could be found on, since few LP record-album reissues of older music had been done by the ‘60s.
Once Garcia dived into folk & bluegrass music around 1961, “I met guys who were into 78s and collected them. So then I had access to them and I could mine that resource.” Most of the 78s Garcia collected were old-time and bluegrass artists, but Blair Jackson mentions that "Barbara Meier's father had given him a stack of rare blues 78s, which Jerry dutifully studied." Pigpen’s father also “had a fantastic collection, including a lot of old blues 78s;” Garcia recalled that when he visited Pigpen, “I sat in his room for countless hours listening to his old records.”
After the Mother McCree’s jug band formed in 1964, much of their repertoire was taken straight off 78s. Weir remembered, “I was at a friend’s house and discovered his folks’ collection of old Bluebird ‘race record’ 78s and it was a treasure trove of obscure down-home blues.” So Garcia may have learned quite a few songs from rare and obscure 78s in the early '60s. (Quotes from here.)

Garcia's "Race Record Dream"

Garcia might also have heard John Hurt on tape. Tapes of Hurt’s old 78s circulated among blues collectors; Garcia wasn’t really in these circles, but may have known people who did have them. Garcia collected tapes of bluegrass shows, and even recorded some himself: “I met all these people who had live tapes of bluegrass.” David Nelson recalled, “You had to know some real big-time collector. One lived up at Stanford… We would go over there and pester him to play tapes for us because he had a collection like the Dead tape system now. People would give us copies and we’d trade tapes of different bluegrass gigs.”
This particular collector was Brooks Otis, who got tapes of old-time & bluegrass music from his friend Mike Seeger (of the New Lost City Ramblers). Also, Blair Jackson writes, he was “hooked into a community of serious record collectors, including Bob Pinson (now archivist at Nashville's Country Music Library) and Chris Strachwitz, founder of Arhoolie Records... Between them, they had hundreds of rare 78 records from the '20s, '30s and ‘40s by mainly obscure pickers... So between the tapes that Brooks got from Mike Seeger's travels through the South, and the massive collections of 78s at his disposal, he and his friend Eric Thompson were able to compile a series of tapes that they then shared with their friends, Garcia included.”

I don’t know whether any blues players were included in these tapes. But Garcia didn’t listen to bluegrass alone – in 1961, he’d flipped over Elizabeth Cotten after hearing her 1958 Folkways album "Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar" (recorded by Mike Seeger). This included several songs that Garcia would later play – Freight Train, Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie, and Going Down the Road Feeling Bad – and he would teach his guitar students her finger-picking style.

Garcia could also have learned songs from other musicians in the traditional way, picking them up in person rather than off records. He was certainly familiar with folkies like Jorma Kaukonen who loved playing old fingerstyle blues (though Jorma was mainly a Rev. Gary Davis disciple). Jim Kweskin, whose jug band the Mother McCree’s group saw and copied religiously, was a John Hurt fan who likely played some of his songs live at the time. (Kweskin said recently, “Mississippi John Hurt was my man. He’s the man I most admired and wanted to emulate.”) It's hard to say, though, how many of Hurt's songs were known in the folk scene in the early '60s.

But after 1963, Garcia could have encountered John Hurt directly on record. Hurt was rediscovered in 1963 and immediately made a splash in the folk revival scene. Hurt’s performances at the Newport Folk Festival in ’63-64 were released on several of the Newport festival compilation albums over the next couple years. And in 1963, his first new studio album came out on the Piedmont label, "Folk Songs and Blues." (It was followed by Worried Blues a year later, and a couple more albums on the Vanguard label in ’66-67 which are better-known today. More details in this illustrated discography: https://www.wirz.de/music/hurt.htm) 
Garcia almost certainly heard the "Folk Songs and Blues" album. Later on he would cover three of the songs on it – Casey Jones, Spike Driver, and Louis Collins.

Garcia exclusively played folk and bluegrass songs with his bands in the early ‘60s, so his pre-Dead repertoire barely includes any blues songs, other than a few that had drifted into the bluegrass field. So his stage performances in the early ‘60s give no indication of what blues artists he was listening to. (One exception is a bluesy performance of Sitting on Top of the World in 1962, with the arrangement taken from Doc Watson’s version.) It seems Garcia played few blues songs live until he teamed up with Pigpen. He did, however, teach basic pieces to his guitar students at the time.

One of Garcia's students circa '64-65 later wrote: "I had the great fortune to take guitar lessons from Jerry Garcia. This was at Dana Morgan Studios in Palo Alto. He taught me licks by Elizabeth Cotten (Freight Train) and Mississippi John Hurt (Sevastopol)....which was my introduction to open D major tuning."
“Sevastopol” was a tuning, not one of Hurt's songs (although Cotten had a lovely instrumental called "Vastopol"), so I don’t know what specific Hurt song Garcia would have taught. It’s notable that he was teaching open tunings, though, which as far as I know he never used in the Dead. 

(Cotten and Hurt have similar playing styles - for example, compare his Louis Collins with her Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie or Willie. They were nearly the same age, both born in the 1890s and most strongly influenced by pre-WWI music traditions of the 1900s such as ragtime. They're both sometimes lumped in with the Piedmont blues players; but Cotten’s technique is more gentle, Hurt’s more rhythmic. Her music often carries the air of 19th-century instrumental parlor pieces, while he adopted more of the 'modern' blues themes of the '20s. Part of the difference is likely because he was playing for public dances at the time, while she played only for herself.) 

Garcia might have seen John Hurt play personally: Hurt appeared in the Berkeley Folk Festival on June 25-28, 1964. Garcia had headed east in early May ’64 to tape bluegrass shows, but I think he had returned home by the end of June, so in theory he could have attended. During the festival, Hurt played at the Pauley Ballroom and the Greek Theatre, along with the New Lost City Ramblers and others. (I think if Garcia had been in town, he at least would not have wanted to miss multiple shows by his heroes the Ramblers.)


That was John Hurt’s only appearance in the Bay area. Hurt played on the folk circuit for three years, until his death in 1966, and a number of his shows were recorded or broadcast on the radio. It's possible that Garcia may have heard a tape of one of Hurt's '60s shows; Garcia was actually not far removed from people who’d known Hurt. Country Joe & the Fish were on Vanguard Records (which was also Hurt's record label after ‘64), and their producer was Sam Charters, the famous blues writer who'd produced the "Blues at Newport" albums on Vanguard with Hurt's Newport performances. Not only that, but ED Denson, Country Joe's manager, had earlier been a road manager for John Hurt! (He had, for instance, brought Hurt to Berkeley in ’64.)

However Garcia got to know Hurt’s music, it didn’t show up in the Grateful Dead until they went acoustic in 1970. The only John Hurt song the Dead played was his Casey Jones, in the 1970 acoustic sets:
Garcia introduces it as “a whole other Casey Jones.” There were multiple Casey Jones songs in the early 1900s; Hurt’s song shares some verses with Furry Lewis’ 1928 “Kassie Jones” but is otherwise unique among recorded versions:
Hurt also recorded yet another different Casey Jones song in the ‘60s called “Talking Casey,” a rare performance on slide:

This was a unique (perhaps the only) example of the Dead playing an old 'traditional' alongside their own new rock version. Though the Dead otherwise left Hurt’s songs alone, Hunter & Garcia did write several updated ‘answer songs’ to various folk-song traditions. A few of these were songs that John Hurt sang – Casey Jones, Candyman, and Stagger Lee. The Dead’s original songs are very different from Hurt’s versions, and these were themes shared by many singers, so Hurt wasn’t a specific influence on these songs; but he is one of the folkloric ghosts in the background. As Hunter said, “We based our stuff very heavily on traditional music as a continuity with that tradition.”

Garcia played Hurt’s songs more often outside the Dead. Part of this may have been because he felt they needed to be played acoustically, which ruled them out at most Dead shows. (And, I must say, Garcia’s performances are quite laid-back even for Hurt’s material.) Hurt was left aside during the 1980 acoustic sets, but Garcia would return to him in the ‘80s, including two of Hurt’s songs on the Almost Acoustic album.

He performed Casey Jones again in the ‘80s, and recorded it with David Grisman in ’91.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmK27qUnNjk – Garcia Acoustic Band 10/28/87

Garcia also played Spike Driver Blues in ’86-87 with John Kahn and his Acoustic Band:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjUhXF_5-VA – Garcia & Kahn 11/14/86
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rhdQdLfsMg – Garcia Acoustic Band 10/28/87

Louis Collins surfaced when Garcia was recording with David Grisman, and was included on Shady Grove (which, like Almost Acoustic, had two of Hurt’s songs).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ksd-oy1PXE – Pizza Tapes (w/ Tony Rice)

After that, the angels laid him away, so we don’t know if Garcia would have kept playing Hurt’s songs as he got older. Nor did Garcia ever say much about Hurt that I’ve found. The only comment I've seen from Garcia on Hurt is from his 1985 interview with Jas Obrecht, briefly discussing country blues singers:
"I have a personal preference for Mississippi John Hurt. His early records sound so smooth, they’re just like magic."

11 comments:

  1. That first song may have been Elizabeth Cotten's I'm Going Away. I love this post. Great work!

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    1. Thanks. I don't hear the resemblance to that song, but it would be funny if it did turn out to be a Liz Cotten tune! Even if it isn't just a variation on Blue Moon of Kentucky, I'm sure it's some old familiar standard.

      Oh, and speaking of Liz Cotten tuning teases, one listener reports that on 7/21/72, deep in the tuning break before Mexicali Blues, Garcia plays Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie....very quietly, for about ten seconds. Now that's a subtle tease, considering he wouldn't play the song live for eight more years!

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  2. Thank you very much - Really neat to check all this stuff out -

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  3. A bit of trivia: both Hurt and Garcia covered Jimmie Rodgers songs.
    Hurt recorded Waiting for a Train in the '60s, and also added new lyrics to the same tune for a song called Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me.
    Garcia played Blue Yodel no. 9 with his Acoustic Band and with Grisman. He also sometimes did Rodgers tunes like Muleskinner Blues with Old & in the Way and his pre-Dead bluegrass bands, although then I think it wasn't so much personal preference as just part of the standard bluegrass repertoire.

    As far as covers of old standards, there was almost no overlap between the songs Hurt played and the bluegrass repertoire played by Garcia in his pre-Dead bands...basically only Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor (with different lyrics). Hurt's Salty Dog Blues is related to, but not quite the same song as, the bluegrass version. Nine Pound Hammer (which Garcia also recorded later with Grisman) has a similar lyric theme to Spike Driver Blues, but is a very different song.

    Spike Driver is my own favorite of Garcia's Hurt covers...Garcia gets a dark, hypnotic feel in it.

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    1. I forgot that Hurt also played CC Rider (covered by the Dead in the '80s).
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFGuXoorp6k
      Little resemblance to the Dead's version, which they picked up from other sources.

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  4. Thanks for this! I fell deep into a MJH obsession after I ran into Stagolee about a decade ago. Excited to hear some of his other songs that Jerry played :).

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  5. give listen to 'overseas stomp' by the jim kweskin jug band and 'lindy' by the GD for an example of 'copied religiously'.

    I-) ihor

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    1. The Mother McCree's tape from 1964 has a number of other songs faithfully copied from Jim Kweskin's arrangements. Garcia at the time believed in closely replicating his sources!

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  6. Bob Weir hasn't played any of Hurt's songs over the years that I know of, but on 11/5/18, he played 'My Creole Belle' with the Wolf Brothers, John Oates & Buddy Miller:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6tfyqHS1BA (interrupted by feedback problems in the first couple minutes)

    Oates sings the song, and it was probably his idea to play it. The song was on Oates' "Arkansas" album that year, which included several of Hurt's songs (including Stack O Lee and Spike Driver Blues) in tribute to "my musical hero."

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  7. Great post. Just a note to remind people that some of the folks mentioned in the article (specifically, Eric Thompson and Chris Strachwitz) are still very active in the Bay Area folk music scene. Just last year, Eric Thompson played a great gig with John Nelson at a benefit for the Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center in Berkeley.

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