Artists-On-Albums: AOA#12 (Geoff Farina on 1928 Sessions/Avalon Blues)

Geoff Farina (Karate, Secret Stars, Glorytellers) on…

Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 Sessions / Avalon Blues (LP and CD release respectively, various labels/years)

Mississippi John Hurt - 1928 Sessions / Avalon Blues

John Hurt was known as a musician for only a short time during his long life. He enjoyed brief popularity in 1928 when he recorded these 13 classics for Okeh, and again during the few years between his “rediscovery” by Folklorist Tom Hoskins in 1963, and his death in 1966. In these brief periods, Hurt recorded over 8 albums worth of endearing country blues that has had a lasting influence on guitarists and songwriters. Hurt’s music is always poignant and clever without pretensions, but his charm shines brightest in the 13 songs he recorded as a young man.

Unlike most early blues musicians whose styles were tied to local and regional influences, Hurt’s guitar style developed in relative isolation. A Delta native, Hurt’s syncopated approach shared more with the Piedmont guitarists William Moore, Gary Davis, and Blind Arthur Blake, than with the gutsy styles of Son House, Charlie Patton, and his other Delta neighbors. While the Delta blues tended to cross-pollinate at local juke joints and weekend fish fries, Hurt learned to play by eavesdropping on a teacher’s suitor, an amateur guitarist, and by covertly borrowing his guitar late at night to practice [1].  Consequently, Hurt never developed the hard picking, hollering Delta style that cut through the din of dance parties and noisy nightclubs. Instead he coaxed his guitar with bare fingers and sang in a disarmingly airy tenor that was more Nick Drake than Bukka White.

As a teenager and aspiring musician in the mid-’80s, I learned Hurt’s versions of “Frankie And Johnnie” and “Stack O Lee” from a mix-tape a friend had made me. At first I thought I was hearing two guitars, but I soon realized that Hurt’s right hand was picking out two melodies at the same time: one with his thumb on the bass strings, and the other with his fingers on the treble strings. I sat for hours with my guitar, manually slowing down the cassette and listening over and over again, discovering different nuances with each pass, and realizing that Hurt’s intricate music would not give up its secrets easily. I first learned the two parts separately on the advice of a drummer-friend, but through trial and error I learned to play both at once with a single refined right-hand motion, involving the fingers, wrist, and a gentle sway of the forearm.

Over the past 25 years, I have at one time or another learned, forgotten, and relearned almost every song John Hurt recorded in 1928, along with countless other Piedmont-style tunes by Robert Wilkins, William Moore, Elizabeth Cotten, Sylvester Weaver, Doc Watson, Sam McGhee, Gary Davis, Etta Baker, and others. Learning Hurt’s music also prepared me for the more complicated arrangements of Blind Arthur Blake, who could play three different voices at once on the guitar, and who reveled in the contrapuntal freedom of great ragtime pianists like Eubie Blake and Jelly Roll Morton. The music of Hurt and other fingerpickers has ultimately taught me to think of harmony as counterpoint, treating every voice like a melody with both vertical and horizontal purpose.

Hurt’s storytelling was as influential as his guitar playing. He was one of the first to personalize the folk narratives that had been passed around the South for decades. While countless musicians recounted John Henry’s race against technology from a safe distance [2], Hurt took it personally: “Take this hammer and carry it to my captain. Tell him I’m gone…John Henry left his hammer, all over in red. That’s why I’m gone…  It’s a long way from east Colorado to my home, that’s where I’m going.” In songs like “Spike Driver Blues”, “Coffee Blues”, and “Ain’t No Tellin’”, Hurt revived stock blues lines with vivid details from his own world, and practiced Dylan’s ‘don’t sing it unless you’ve lived it’ ethos decades before the unfortunate term “singer-songwriter” was coined. Had Hurt not sang the fortuitous line, “Avalon’s my hometown, always on my mind” in 1928, Hoskins would not have found him 35 years later and convinced him to record again.

My Avalon Blues CD seems to find its way into my luggage for every tour, and it’s usually sliding around the dashboard of my van when I’m home. Whenever I’m in a musical rut, there’s always a John Hurt song to humble me, bewilder me, and make me feel like I’m starting all over again.


[1] Although Hurt did play his share of parties and country dances, he credits his guitar style to William Carson during an appearance on Pete Seeger’s short-lived TV show, Rainbow Quest: “I stole the music in a way… I wasn’t allowed to bother Mr. Carson’s guitar. I would wait until he fell asleep…then I would slip his guitar into my room and try to play. There I learned to play the guitar at the age of nine years old.”

[2] “Nine Pound Hammer,” written by fiddler Charlie Bowman and first recorded in 1927 by the Hillbillies, is another example of a first person narration of the John Henry folk tale.

Notes On The Artist:

Geoff Farina

Like his on/off/on collaborator, Chris Brokaw, Geoff Farina has amassed such a vast and divergent discography over the last two decades that he probably has to check his own website from time-to-time, to keep track of where’s he’s been.  Although best known as the singing/guitar-playing fulcrum of jazz-inflected art-rock trio Karate from 1993 to 2005, Farina has also cut a plethora of parallel and subsequent career paths.  Since 1992, Geoff has been one-half of occasional lo-fi folk duo Secret Stars; a sporadic solo artist across three albums and a scattering of singles/EPs; the leader of balmy ruralised art-pop trio Glorytellers for two LPs and counting; and a member of Luther Gray’s free-jazz outfit Lawnmower.

Most notably and most recently, Geoff has teamed-up with his aforementioned sparing partner Chris Brokaw, for the thoroughly enjoyable pre-WW2 covers collection, The Angel’s Message To Me, available on Damnably (UK/Europe) and Capitan Records (US). The twosome will continue playing shows together in support of the long-player throughout the rest of 2010, in Italy (June), other parts of Europe (October) and the UK (November/December).

“In The Evening” (Leroy Carr cover) by Chris Brokaw & Geoff Farina