Back To Basics

About a month before Mother's Day, I suggested to my 11-year-old son that as a gift for his mother he could learn a song on his guitar. He thought this was a great idea, and together we settled on "Time After Time," the Cyndi Lauper song. I rounded up some sheet music, his guitar teacher wrote out the chords, and he got to work.

The only problem was, he'd only been taking guitar for about three months, and just as it had for me at his age, the idea of the guitar took precedence over the reality. Which is to say, he didn't practice much. So very quickly I realized I was going to have to learn the song with him. And pretty quickly after that I realized that to do that, I was going to have to relearn all the guitar lessons I'd forgotten since I was twelve. Or maybe learn them for the first time, since I was not exactly a brilliant or even very committed student that first time. Amazingly, we somehow got through it. We learned the song, we didn't kill each other, and he played it for his mother on Mother's Day. She was very happy. And I, oddly enough, was hooked on the guitar.

I won't say again, because my first early teenage flirtation was just that, a flirtation that went nowhere. The guitar sat in the closet for thirty years. But now I was the one heading down to the basement every night to practice. Sometimes my son joined me, but mostly it was just me and four or five fiddle tunes that I'd massacre nightly. The interesting thing this time around was that I didn't mind practicing. Everything that was boring when I was kid was fun this time around. It wasn't depressing that there was a lot to learn--more than I'd ever get to, certainly. It felt good to submit myself to a discipline that demanded that I stretch, because I've spent almost all my life since college playing to my strengths and dodging anything that didn't come naturally or easily.

Three or four months after starting, I'd learned half a dozen bluegrass tunes. To keep it interesting, I decided to branch out and learn some blues. So I found an old folk song instructional book and set to work on "My Creole Belle" by Mississippi John Hurt. Hurt's songs are about as close to instant gratification as it gets in the guitar world, because you can learn them pretty quickly, and they sound good right away. The best thing is, though, that they keep sounding good after you've messed around with them for hours or weeks. Simple, yes, but deeply beguiling.

Hurt (1893-1966) was not your standard brand bluesman. Like several blues titans, he came from the northern end of Mississippi, just below Memphis, but unlike, say, Fred MacDowell, Hurt's music bore none of the raw, almost scary intensity that we've come to associate with Mississippi players like McDowell or Charlie Patton or, more recently, R.L. Burnside. There is something wild and incantatory about McDowell's slide playing. Patton is more force of nature than musician. And Burnside's songs recreate the greasy, sweaty ambiance of a juke joint even within the antiseptic confines of a CD. The musician and producer Jim Dickinson, who hails from that part of the country (and whose sons comprise two-thirds of the North Mississippi All-Stars) once was asked why more people didn't dig country blues. He replied (and I'm quoting from memory) something to the effect, why should anyone like the stuff? It's weird, strange music, nothing like what most people listen to all the time. Country blues performers can whang away on one chord for hours, working themselves and an audience into a lather. It's more like a ritual than a concert.

The curious thing is that John Hurt grew up in that world, but his music is completely different. His songs don't sound like anyone else's. It's tuneful upbeat music, and often funny, with blues all mixed up with spirituals, jug band music, Memphis-style ragtime and some Tin Pan Alley influence. Sort of like another North Mississippi genius named William Faulkner, Hurt just soaked up every influence around him and then singlehandedly turned it into something all his own. The word that sums it up best is "serene." You can see why he was such a hit during what James Taylor once impishly called "the great folk scare" of the '60s. His music wouldn't scare a baby. Of course, if you listen to the words, things do get a lot darker. The music may not advertise the pain up front, the way most blues do, but it's in there, just waiting to sneak up on you. It certainly clobbered me when I started learning "Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me," a jaunty little number with a melody borrowed--this is uncharacteristic for Hurt--from Jimmie Rodgers's "Waiting for a Train."

Lyrically things go from bad ("Blues all on the ocean, blues all in the air") to worse ("I do not work for pleasure, earthly peace I'll see no more) to downright despairing ("My wife controls our happy home, my sweetheart I cannot find./ The only thing I can call my own is a worried and a troubled mind"). But there is redemption, because all the verses end with the same gallows humor refrain: "When my earthly trials are over, cast my body into the sea, / Save on the undertaker's bill, let the mermaids flirt with me." John Hurt surely suffered a lot in his life, but he certainly bore it with panache.

Hurt was one of those bluesmen who were discovered twice. He recorded 13 songs for the Okeh label in the late '20s, then faded back into obscurity. By the time of the folk revival four decades later, most people assumed he was dead, but a musician named Tom Hoskins went south and found him in Mississippi with the help of a Hurt lyric--"Avalon, my home town..." Hurt by then was a farmhand. He didn't even own a guitar. Things improved quickly, though, and by the end of his life, he was playing steadily on tour and at a Washington, D.C., coffeehouse, where his weekly takehome pay of $200 was more than he'd often made in a whole year for most of his life. Equally important, he was recognized in his own lifetime as one of America's great musicians.

When you're practicing an instrument, you've got plenty of time to think, because your mind is not all that engaged; it's your fingers and your ears that are trying to learn something. One of the things that keeps clonking me on the head while I practice is how far back this music goes. Hurt perfected his sound in the '20s, and in the case of those bluegrass fiddle tunes, some of the music is several hundred years old, having traveled here originally from Ireland and Scotland and England and points east. You can't help but be humbled a bit when you stick your oar in a current that strong. What buoys you up is knowing that now you're not just a consumer any more; you're part of that tradition because you're learning it, one note at a time.

Another thing that I wonder about while practicing is that there is no biography of Mississippi John Hurt. For that matter, most blues musicians are similarly ignored. This is especially strange to someone like me, who comes from a primarily literary world, where everyone, and I mean everyone, no matter how obscure, gets a biography. But most of what we know about musicians we know through their music. And maybe that's as it should be. Whatever an artist does--music, painting, sculpture, whatever--that's the artist putting his or her best foot forward.

In Hurt's case, though, the more I know, the more I want to know. By all accounts, he was an easygoing, unprepossessing soul. Guitarist and teacher Stefan Grossman, who knew Hurt, called him "Christlike and almost perfect," and went on to say, "He had a gentleness that could penetrate walls and a voice that could relax your soul."

His music was certainly that of a man in control of his art and at peace with the world. No matter how tired I may be at the end of the day, a little time spent navigating Hurt's music lifts me right up. And in playing, I discovered the truth of something else Grossman has said: "To a beginner, John Hurt seems really simple. He's playing like a piano, with treble on top of a boom-chick, boom-chick bass. But when you dissect them, every one of his arrangements has something unique--he'll stop the bass, or the bass isn't where you'd expect it to be. He has unusual chord positions. He'd play set arrangements, but there would be little variations each time." It's fun to listen to, and at least twice as much fun to play, although I use the word "play" advisedly. Nothing I do on a guitar entertains anyone but the guitar player at this point. Nevertheless, I wouldn't hesitate for a second to say that going to school on this man's music has given my some of the greatest pleasure of my life.