Aug 13

Where “A Lot of It” Came From

mississippi-john-hurt 2When I was in college I discovered the Lovin’ Spoonful and their kind of music.  I’d loved the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, but somehow these guys were different and special to me.  If John Sebastian, the band leader, was wearing broad stripped shirts and funky little wire rims, that’s what I wanted to sport as well. I helped form a band, and their music was the first that we attempted to copy.  We looked at their album covers, and the looks on their faces, and we tried to put the same looks on our faces.  But what was it that we were really attracted to?

Well, we sure tried to find out.  Reading on the back of their first album that the band got its start playing at a club called the Night Owl Cafe in Greenwich Village, we put a trip to New York City on the agenda.  The joint was still there but the Lovin’ Spoonful weren’t.  There was a group playing called the Raggamuffins, with a girl lead singer named Sharon the Seal. For the moment, that was just about as good.  Their vocal harmonies, ride cymbal, and chiming guitar on “Four Days of Rain” induced a feeling in me close to ecstasy. If I was a Buddhist, I was in Angkor Wat.  If I was a Hindu I was with Krishna and his gopis.  This place had that kind of mystical aura for me.  And now Sharon is singing, “Come and find me in the morning rain:”  Hey, what’s the matter with right here?  I was contemplating the holy sacrament of matrimony.

Well, quite a bit later and after a couple of marriages, I still had not found that thing that I was looking for back then.  I’d almost given up, but not quite.  Being asked by one of my daughters to teach her guitar confronted me with just how far away I was from finding it. But there was a light at the end of a long dark tunnel. I bought a new guitar and signed up for the first ever Blues Week at the Swananoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College near Black Mountain, NC, where I lived. That week changed everything.  Guys, and gals, with little wood and metal guitars played prewar country blues music that hit me in the same spot where the Lovin’ Spoonful had touched years ago.  My life direction changed and the pursuit began.  In this particular pursuit though, you never actually actually get there, but you have so much fun on the trip, you don’t care about getting anywhere.

The first piece of music that I dedicated myself to master was Mississippi John Hurt’s “Shake That Thing”, which I found in a book transcribed by Stefan Grossman.  I’d never heard of John Hurt but I’d heard of Stefan.  I had one of his albums in the 60’s that was produced somewhere in Europe.  He was obscure, but credentialed. I plowed into that song.  I only found out much later that John Hurt himself probably spent a lot more time with a plow, than a guitar.

John was a sharecropper that recorded a few songs for some traveling techs from Okeh Records in 1928.  The recordings were not a commercial success and John went back to farming until 1963 (quite a row to hoe, so to speak) when some blues enthusiast (that’s en-theos, or God Within) named Tom Hoskins shows up in Avalon, Mississippi and convinces John to move to Washington, where he is shortly thereafter, recorded by the Library of Congress.

joh and the boys 1

John Sebastian, left, with Carlos, Michael, and Mark

A couple of years ago, during my annual Thanksgiving visit with family and friends in Pennsylvania, my old friend Mark treated us to a concert with John Sebastian.  He was playing a club in Bucks County as a solo.  I’d heard that Zal Yanovsky, the Spoonful’s lead guitarist died some years ago, and who knows where the rest of those guys are today. But John put on a great show by himself.  Although his voice is completely shot, he still has the same ole “magic” and great guitar chops. Towards the end of his captivating show, he talked about how the Lovin’ Spoonful got their name from a Mississippi John Hurt song of the same name.  He said that John Hurt was one of his heros and told us how he would play just down the street from where Sebastian and his parents lived in Greenwich Village. Mississippi John Hurt, who was revered as a genial, gentle soul, could spot the budding guitar enthusiasts in the audience and would say, “I can see that you’re watching my fingers.”  Ah, so that’s where a lot of it came from, uh? Mississippi John Hurt.  And thank God for video, and the internet, we can still all watch those fingers.

This is him playing Spike Driver Blues on some TV show in the 60’s that was not on any of my channels, Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest. John Henry, the mythical spike driving railroad builder, is referring to the “captain” and reconsidering his employment options.  Give him my hammer, he says, supposedly to another co-worker, and tell him I’m gone.  Can’t you just imagine how many listeners, back then, and even today can relate to that.  Here’s your hammer, dude, I’m outa here.


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