Mississippi John Hurt Tribute

On January 18th we kicked off the first of a four-concert series at Merkin Concert Hall, with a tribute to the great "Mississippi" John Hurt. Below is an article from the New Jersey Star-Ledger about the series...and a review from The New York Times.

Spirits of America
Concerts tune into four of nation's most influential singer-guitarists
Friday, January 13, 2006
Star-Ledger Staff
Various strains of the blues echo throughout American popular music. Even if they're not as iconic as Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters, such divergent figures as Charley Patton, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt and Elizabeth Cotten reverberate in sound and spirit through so many of the songs people sing and play everyday.
In a four-concert series at New York's Merkin Concert Hall, some of today's top guitar slingers will devote entire evenings to these influential blues artists. Such famous songs as "Devil Got My Woman" (James) and "High Water Everywhere" (Patton) will mix with more obscure tunes, all enlivened by singer-guitarists cutting across the fields of Americana and the avant-garde.
James (1902-69) sang haunted, haunting songs in an otherworldly falsetto and played both guitar and piano in a beautifully idiosyncratic style. Typical of Southern musicians from the minstrel days down to rock 'n' roll, he was torn between preaching the gospel and singing the "devil's music." He made a prized set of records in 1931, but retreated into silence until avant-folk guitarist John Fahey helped track him down in Mississippi's Tunica County Hospital in the '60s. Somewhat reluctantly, James allowed that decade's folk boom to steer him into festival shows and new recordings.
James "struggled with that typical Southern divide between sacred and secular -- it gave his music this weird, wonderful tension," says Mississippi-born, Louisiana-bred slide-guitar star Sonny Landreth, who will be part of the James concert on Jan. 25 along with Cindy Cashdollar, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Gary Lucas.
A legacy of James and other blues originals is the ideal of using tradition as a jumping-off point for individuality. When first learning the guitar, Landreth found it hard to emulate the old masters, but he "took from what they did to find my own way." James' unique cross-note guitar tuning enabled him to toggle evocatively between major and minor keys, which was "inspiring when I was developing my slide thing," Landreth says.
"But another way that all Delta blues made a profound impact on me and so many other people was how these guys used the guitar to support the song and its lyrics," Landreth adds. "The voice, guitar and message were all one package. That's something to shoot for."
On Jan. 18, the gentle, lyrical "songster" style of Mississippi John Hurt will be the big tent accommodating such diverse players as Jorma Kaukonen, Jen Chapin and Brandon Ross.
A far different character, Charley Patton lived fast and died young, but he was one of the first great Delta bluesmen, a hero to the likes of Howlin' Wolf. On Feb. 1, veteran singer-guitarist John Hammond, one of today's reigning blues stylists (and a Jersey City resident), will perform Patton's raw-boned songs alongside Rory Block, Dave Tronzo and others.
The North Carolina-born Elizabeth Cotten was another original, whose eccentric fingerpickin' style impressed budding folk guitarists in the'60s. The left-handed Cotten turned her guitar upside down; she didn't restring the instrument, but played the treble strings on top and bass on bottom, thumbing the melody. She had given up music by her 50s, but Mike Seeger helped make her first recordings while she was living in his family's home as housekeeper. Peter, Paul & Mary, Taj Mahal and the Grateful Dead eventually covered her songs. On Feb. 8, Seeger will revisit such tunes as "Freight Train" along with Mahal and Jolie Holland.
Stepping Around the Pieties in a Tribute to a Bluesman
The New York Times
January 20, 2006
Guitar Festival Review | Tribute to John Hurt
Mississippi John Hurt was a reluctant blues musician, if he was one at all. He lived most of his life in Avalon, Miss., barely traveling; it is said that he never played in juke joints, which would explain why his voice and fingerpicked guitar style never developed the percussiveness he would have needed to cut through a commotion.
He made some curiously gentle early recordings in 1928, singing softly as he fixed alternating bass patterns with his thumb and syncopated a melody with three other fingers. They weren't successful. But nearly 40 years later, his luck changed; he was pursued, found and handed a ready-made audience. There was a vacancy for a nonpercussive blues singer, especially one as benign as John Hurt. There was even a name now for what he did: he was a folk-blues singer.
Anyone approaching his music another 40 years after that, as several performers did on Wednesday night at Merkin Concert Hall in a Hurt-centric concert devised by the New York Guitar Festival, faces a tricky job. There are social-consciousness pieties, blues-fan pieties, folk-singer pieties and even guitar-playing pieties to step around. Hurt's work is tight and specific; performers have to take it for what it is, and take themselves for who they are.
The folk singer Bill Morrissey got it right. A Hurt fanatic at 15 who came to perform Hurt's music publicly only much later in life, Mr. Morrissey, now in his mid-50's, is the kind of musician who doesn't show you all he can do. He played absolutely clean guitar, damping strings only where he desired to, working perfect sliding notes into the fingerpicking cycles; without elaborating on those patterns much, he let you hear their economy and beauty.
One got the impression that he secretly had a Hurt imitation down cold, but he sang in his own strange, quiet voice: vowels that came out in winces, flashes of a gargled baritone, each note snuffed out before its pitch became too apparent.
Mr. Morrissey's set included light songs like "Funky Butt," which Jen Chapin also sang during a short performance at the beginning of the concert. But another choice, "If You Don't Want Me Baby," one of the songs Hurt recorded after his rediscovery, got the serious performance it deserves. Its three lyric strains formed a composite statement about serene, lonely resignation; Mr. Morrissey used his full concentration and his power of understatement to transmit its emotion.
Jorma Kaukonen, the evening's big draw, played a far more casual and less satisfying set. Singing and fingerpicking, accompanied by Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin, banjo and tenor guitar, he opened up Hurt's repertory, including "Stack O' Lee," "Casey Jones" and Ernest Tubb's "Walking the Floor Over You," to jamming. It was careful work, but it amounted to letting the air out of a basketball; the tension inside the music collapsed.
More to the point was the guitarist Brandon Ross, who rearranged three Hurt songs compositionally. Mr. Ross, who used to direct Cassandra Wilson's band, seems to hear music as murmurs, or fog. He changed the thumb-pattern intervals so that they lightly clashed against the melodic material; he introduced more complex chords; with a voice that was cool to the point of evaporation, he made the songs both lighter and more droning.
Unscheduled, unvirtuosic and sweetly relevant was Dan Zanes, who appeared in the middle of the show with two adults and five children, some of them preadolescent. Calling themselves the How Not to Get Rich Orchestra, they played one song, "My Creole Belle": it was transparent, joyful and about as folk as possible.
"Blues Fallin' Down Like Rain," a four-concert series within the New York Guitar Festival, continues the next three Wednesdays at Merkin Concert Hall, 129 West 67th Street, (212) 501-3330. Next week's concert focuses on the music of Skip James. For more
photo: hurt1.jpg
Bill Morrisey backstage at Merkin
Concert Hall.
photo: hurt2.jpg
David Spelman with Jen Chapin (and
son Maceo) …just back from doing
Late Night w/ Conan O’Brien.
photo: hurt3.jpg
Jorma Kaukonen and Bill Morrisey
getting acquainted backstage.
photo: hurt4.jpg
Dan Zanes and his “How Not to Get
Rich Orchestra” rehearsing John Hurt’s
“My Creole Belle” .
photo: hurt5.jpg
photo: hurt6.jpg
Jorma and Dan.
photo: hurt7.jpg
Jorma sits in with Bill on Hurt’s “Pay Day”.
photo: hurt8.jpg
photo: hurt9.jpg
Brandon Ross with his Steve Klein acoustic.
photo: hurt10.jpg
Bill doing his afternoon soundcheck.
photo: hurt12.jpg photo: hurt13.jpg
photo: hurt14.jpg
Jen Chapin Trio doing Hurt’s “Funky Butt”.
photo: hurt15.jpg
John Harris, recording engineer forXM
Satellite Radio.
photo: hurt16.jpg
David and Jorma playing a “four hands”
duet on a custom Avalon Guitar.
photo: hurt17.jpg
“The New York Guitar Festival is about
more than just guitars. Built on a firm
foundation of roots and tradition, the
architecture blossoms into an eclectic
building that would have astounded
Frank Lloyd Wright. So many great
artists, so many great visions...I am
proud to be a part of this tradition!”
— Jorma Kaukonen
Photos 1 - 6, and 11 – 14 by Jim McCarthy. All others by Glyn Emmerson.


Bookmark and Share