Can you discuss your early interests in music, leading up to your own discovery of Mississippi John Hurt?
Dr. Philip Ratcliffe: I was born close to Liverpool, England, in 1943. Much of my time was swallowed up by an interest verging on obsession with New Orleans jazz and folk blues. Before rock ’n’ roll, swing bands and crooners dominated the charts; and apart from old records of Jelly Roll Morton, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, etc., I was enjoying the traditional jazz of Chris Barber’s band. Barber’s banjoist, Lonnie Donegan, was a devotee of blues and American folk music and began to perform a “skiffle” set with the Barber rhythm section. Some of these songs were recorded on a 10" LP and two were released as a single. That record of “Rock Island Line” by the Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group in 1955 had an astonishing impact on me. I had never heard anything like it. I wanted to play that song and immediately put a guitar on my Christmas wish list.
I got the guitar and purchased all of Donegan’s early records until he drifted away from the earthy folk blues and started to do comedy and music hall material. I saw him in concert many times and had him autograph my 5-string banjo in Liverpool’s famous Cavern Club, where I also saw Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, as well as, a year or two later, a locally popular group called the Beatles.
When and how did you discover the music of Mississippi John Hurt?
Sometime around 1970 in a secondhand record store in Wales, an LP caught my eye. It was an Origin Jazz Library LP featuring the Mississippi Blues. I did not recognize any of the artists’ names, but it looked like something good. I bought the record, got home, put it on the turntable, and sat back and listened.
It was an incredible experience and I have not forgotten that moment to this day. The music was superb: Hambone Willie Newbern, Robert Johnson, Skip James, and Bertha Lee with Charlie Patton. I loved Mary Butler singing “Mad Dog Blues.” On the first playing I was just getting used to the greatness of it all when, part way into side two, “49 Highway Blues” by Big Joe Williams came to an end and suddenly the world stood still. It was like being punched between the eyes. Mississippi John Hurt was playing “Stack O’ Lee Blues.” What an incredible sound! How many guitars did it take to do this? What fantastic music. I lifted the pickup arm from the record and carefully dropped it onto the beginning of track three again, and again, and again.
On the album cover the notes read:
Mississippi John Hurt—John Hurt was born in Teoc, Miss., in 1894 [actually 1892]. He lived in nearby Avalon all his life until his rediscovery in 1963. From then until his death in 1966 he played for audiences all over the country. Two other songs by him appear on OJL 5. The song on this album is a “blues ballad” well known in Negro and white tradition, especially in the areas bordering the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Stack O’ Lee (also spelled Stagolee, Stacker Lee, etc.) is a legendary gambler, variously described as Negro or white, usually said to have lived in Memphis (sometimes St Louis) around the turn of the century. Stack O’ Lee Blues—Recorded in New York, Dec. 28 1929 [actually 1928]. Key of D.
I read this brief paragraph over, and over, and over. Was this it? One track and a vague paragraph about this incredible musician? There was mention of two other tracks on another OJL record and I wondered if anyone recorded him during the years of his rediscovery. I had to hear some more of Mississippi John Hurt. Subsequently, I purchased all of the vinyl albums available at the time. I remember being disappointed that I had been totally unaware of John Hurt’s existence or his popularity in the United States between 1963–66, and now he was dead.
Early on, as you became more of a bigger fan and admirer of his work, how did listening to his music influence what else you were listening to and/ or collecting?
Dr. Philip Ratcliffe: Well, who knows why one person likes one thing and somebody else prefers something else? All I can say is that it was jazz and early country blues that really turned me on at first. I made a significant swerve into rock and roll in the 1950s. My favorites were Fats Domino and Little Richard. Into the 1960s I favored the bluesy side of rock n’ roll such as John Mayall, The Rolling Stones and The Allman Brothers, but oddly electric blues was never mainstream for me, even though seeing Muddy Waters in Liverpool was a huge thrill, which I have never forgotten.
What happened next was that I began to search for origins, and of course, listening to Mississippi John led me to the old-timey stuff; Henry ‘Ragtime Texas’ Thomas, Mississippi String bands, Jug Bands and Minstrel music. I also love to hear harmony singing and many of the early gospel singers such as The Fisk Jubilee Singers really impressed me. Anyone interested in early African-American music should buy a copy of Blues & Gospel Records 1890-1943 by Godrich, Dixon & Rye. It was in that book that I realized how much of this music was recorded. More to the point I was able to track down who was recording at the same sessions as John Hurt in 1928.
The excitement of discovering more of this music has never waned and I get as much pleasure today from hearing something new as I ever did. As a matter of fact, I am currently listening to some of the lesser-known women such as Lulu Jackson, Eva Parker, Mary Butler and for some great hot jazz, Sweet Emma Barrett and her New Orleans Music. Fantastic. And, all of this pretty much began with Mississippi John Hurt. It’s all his fault!
What sparked the idea for writing a biography on him?
Dr. Philip Ratcliffe: Interestingly, after discovering Mississippi John, I never even considered trying to play any of his music. I was flat picking in the Donegan and Woody Guthrie style, and it never even occurred to me that ordinary mortals could get close to what Mississippi John Hurt was doing. A third of a lifetime later, I revived my latent interest in the music and began to amass a huge collection of CDs now that this music was freely available east of the Atlantic Ocean.
The Stefan Grossman Guitar Workshop convinced me that maybe I could at least attempt to fingerpick the country blues, and I indulged my passion and bought a Martin OM 42 and a Stefan Grossman lesson. I began to listen, learn, and play. Having realized by now that many of the old bluesmen played prewar Stella guitars, I decided that I must have one, and to my great surprise I found a web site that specialized in old Stellas. It was owned and managed by Neil Harpe in Annapolis, Maryland. Months later, after numerous transatlantic emails that must have really tested Neil’s patience and knowledge of Stella guitars, I bought one from him.
By this time I felt that Neil had become a friend and I announced to him that I was intending to make a tour of the southern states, visiting the haunts and gravesites of the old bluesmen and I wanted to visit Avalon, home of Mississippi John Hurt. Neil had heard that the first Mississippi John Hurt Festival was to be held in Avalon in July 2003 and that maybe I would want to tie that into my trip. I immediately decided that was for me. Within the space of a few weeks the thought of a trip across the South culminating in the Mississippi John Hurt Festival enticed Neil to accompany me and the trip was planned.
We drove through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Alabama into Mississippi. We spent three days around Avalon and met friends and relatives of the Hurts. I met Mary Frances Hurt Wright, granddaughter of John who seemed as surprised that I had come from the U.K. to visit her festival as I was to meet her, a close relative of the great Mississippi John Hurt. I was on a cloud; I could not believe that I was here in Avalon, Mississippi, walking on hallowed ground and hanging out with the Hurts and a great bunch of kindred spirits who loved his music.
I played a few of John’s tunes at the festival and next day at a deeply emotional gathering at John’s gravesite, Mary invited me to play again. I played “My Creole Belle.” During the festival, I sat around in the humid heat of midsummer Mississippi drinking a beer or two and chatting with the locals, many were getting on in years. I scribbled a few notes realizing that no-one had recorded any of this and that these folk were not going to be around forever; little did I know that I had already started to chronicle John’s story.
My visit to that first Mississippi John Hurt Festival was the most emotional and life-changing experience in my whole life. When I got back home, it was like a dream. I could hardly find words to express to my wife, family, and friends what had happened to me out there in deepest Mississippi. As I looked through the notes I had made of conversations with the locals in Avalon and the photos I had taken, I realized that these people possessed knowledge that the world needed to know about; remarkably, no one had told Mississippi John Hurt’s story. I immediately decided that I wanted to tell that story.
How did you set the process of writing the book in motion?
Dr. Philip Ratcliffe: Well, first, I was deeply worried that Mary Frances, along with thousands of Americans, might feel that a Brit was not the one to be doing this. I talked to Neil; what did he think? He was unhesitant and simply said, “Do it.” Eventually, I plucked up the courage to ask Mary. I would not go ahead without her support. I need not have worried: she was delighted with my suggestion and I was over the moon.
I immediately began arranging my next visit to Mississippi. There was a huge amount of research to be done. Over the next six years I visited Mississippi on numerous occasions and toured the eastern United States from Vermont to Georgia, tracking down the people who had known John Hurt. With every new interview the story became more complex. What an intriguing story and what a challenge I had taken on.
You cite many US census reports, use timelines, as well as historical events, and personal accounts to retrace Mr. Hurt's life (especially to fill in the blanks between his early recordings and his re-discovery during the folk revival).
Can you discuss your process of researching and unearthing the historical aspects of the biography?
Dr. Philip Ratcliffe: Well, I guess that being involved in research all my life (my day job was as a wildlife research biologist), I was familiar with how to do research, but this was about people not animals and plants! There are pros and cons to this. People can actually talk to you and give you answers to questions, but animals are a good deal less subjective! So, the process of studying and analyzing census records, old papers, etc., and conducting interviews all came fairly easy to me, although it can be laborious.
A good example of research in action was related to the fact that no one I had spoken to had any idea where in Memphis John had recorded his first sides in 1928. David Evans had suggested searching the local papers for information, though it seemed like a long shot. So, I began searching through microfiche copies of the Memphis Commercial Appeal for February 1928. Imagine my elation after about an hour of searching when I came upon an advert for musicians to make phonograph records asking people to make contact with Okeh’s Director of Recording at the McCall Building, Memphis, Tennessee! The moral of this story is don’t ignore long shots and never give up.
Another very useful ingredient is a sense of humor. Scousers are well known for it! John had a wicked sense of humor and I have tried to bring this out in the book with many anecdotes, like the time he had expressed a dislike of flying to a West coast gig. Pat Sky reassured John by saying that it was a pretty safe means of transport, adding, “Anyway, when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.” John thought for a moment and answered, “Yes, but what if you’re on the plane and it’s the pilot’s time to go?”
You have included so many personal accounts of friends, family, musicians, fans, and musicologists in the book. What were some of the most insightful and rewarding interviews you conducted?
Dr. Philip Ratcliffe: I think probably the most informative and powerful interview was with John’s first wife Gertrude. She was 107 years old, frail of body, but very sharp of mind. She provided incredible stories of her childhood when John would take her to school on a mule and buggy. She recalled that, “The mule’s name was Ada” and that, “a long-legged dog would run behind.” These are the kind of things that bring a factual account to life.
It was also a great honor to interview Philadelphia Jerry Ricks, who was one of few African-Americans who knew John well during his rediscovery years and was able to provide not only in-depth knowledge of what went on, but also an African American perspective.
Several people who knew John in Avalon provided vital information, but above all they were friendly and supportive. In particular these included Ms. Annie Cook, Ms. Josephine Jackson, and Mr. Charles Campbell. Interestingly, all my interviews were enjoyable and it is striking that no one discouraged me, and that all seemed genuinely interested in what I was doing.
Was there an interview and/ or encounter that stand out to you as the most unpredictable, unexpected, and/ or surprising to you?
Dr. Philip Ratcliffe: Yes. I had the honor to talk to Charles Campbell, an elderly member of the Valley community above Avalon, where John lived for most of his life. Charles sadly passed last year.
We were talking above the noise of a rattling old ac unit in his home in Valley in 2004, and he was telling me where John’s original house and the St. James School were located back in the 1930s. I was trying to pinpoint the location on a map so that I could go and take a look around later and it was all proving a bit difficult. Charles had become very enthusiastic about my questions and suddenly said, “Meet me there tomorrow afternoon and I’ll show you.”
Well, Charles was a little infirm and had not been out of his house in a long time and his son Billy interjected saying that his father couldn’t possibly make the trip. After we had finished, I told them that I had learned a lot from the discussion and not to worry about meeting. Imagine my surprise when I got a call later that night from Billy saying that his father was insisting that he meet me up on the old St James Road. I apologized for causing all this bother and said not to worry if it didn’t work out.
The next day, I drove to the agreed place in case they might show up. Right on cue, an old pickup appeared driven by Billy, and Charles emerged with a walking frame. He walked a couple of hundred yards up and down the old overgrown dirt road pointing out exactly where the old buildings once stood. While this was exciting in its own right, the most exciting thing was the sparkle in Charles’ eyes as he passed on this incredible information.
What was most challenging for you in composing the book?
Dr. Philip Ratcliffe: Trying to be objective about subjective comments and anecdotes. I got over the difficulty by clearly stating what was fact and what might be speculation.
What has been most rewarding for you?
Dr. Philip Ratcliffe: Without doubt, meeting all the wonderful people. I have made a long list of new old friends on this incredible journey.
How has writing this book influenced your insights, as well as your enjoyment of Mr. Hurt's music?
Dr. Philip Ratcliffe: Knowing more about John’s life has helped me to appreciate more just what this little man from Mississippi achieved. In terms of insights, the biggest revelation is that Mississippi John Hurt’s personality, personal philosophy, spirituality and legacy is hugely bigger than his music alone. He really was a great role model. As Stefan Grossman said, “He was the grandfather we all wish we could have had.”
I have to ask: what would you say is your favorite Mississippi John Hurt recording and why?
Dr. Philip Ratcliffe: This has to be "Stack O’ Lee Blues", the 1928 recording. It’s available on CD, but preferably, I'd suggest listening to it on vinyl, or even better, on shellac. It was the first recording I ever heard of Mississippi John Hurt.
Along with this, I have to mention the Discovery CD. During my research on the book, I met Tom Hoskins sister Suzanne who has become a very close and dear friend. Tom was the man who went down to Avalon in 1963 and rediscovered Mississippi John Hurt. Suzanne was not able to tell me much about Tom’s activities in 1963 as she was in Germany at that time. However, during our conversation, she said that Tom had left a couple of boxes of papers and stuff and would I like to take a look through them. More excitement! This really was Aladdin’s Cave. This is where I found the handwritten letters from John to Tom and the seven-inch reel to reel tapes that Tom had made in John’s house in Avalon on March 3, 1963. I had a hand in producing and writing the liner notes for a CD of this historic recording. It is truly wonderful with songs and stories from John and his wife Jessie and roosters calling out in the yard. Fantastic!
What would you say are the essential albums by Mississippi John Hurt, for newcomers who are just discovering his music?
Dr. Philip Ratcliffe: Undoubtedly, The Best of Mississippi John Hurt. This is not a compilation album it is the live recording of the Oberlin College concert in 1966. It was originally issued on vinyl and is available on CD. It includes most of John’s famous tunes. John was playing at his very best at this time, but most of all, it demonstrates the warmth of his performances and the close connection with his audience.
For fans who may know a little bit of Mississippi John Hurt's work, and want to dig deeper and discover other artists, what other albums/ artists would you suggest new listeners to pick up as well?
Dr. Philip Ratcliffe: There is so much available now on CDs. I would perhaps begin with the Before The Blues CDs (Yazoo) and browse the Yazoo, Document, and Arhoolie catalogs. There’s tons of good stuff there that will keep you going for years. In terms of artists, I'd encourage fans to try Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and of course, Charlie Patton.
Which contemporary artists do you feel Mr. Hurt has influenced the most?
Dr. Philip Ratcliffe: Mr. Hurt’s influences are subtle and to some extent difficult to detect in other people’s music, but he influenced scores of musicians. I'd suggest the tribute CD, Avalon Blues: A Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurt (Vanguard 79582-2) for starters.
What is it about Mr. Hurt's music that continues to inspire new listeners?
Dr. Philip Ratcliffe: Although his music is from a past era, it always sounds fresh and lively. It appeals to a wide range of people that are not particular fans of hard Delta and Chicago blues, which is not too surprising as John was predominantly a ragtime and not a blues musician. It constantly surprises me when I play to audiences, just how much they enjoy the Mississippi John Hurt tunes. I think his personality, personal philosophy, spirituality, and legacy is hugely bigger than his music alone and it comes through in his recordings, especially the Oberlin concert that I mentioned earlier.
How would you say his music is relevant today to new audiences?
Dr. Philip Ratcliffe: The music that John played first appealed to audiences from around 1900-1930. He never changed his style much after that; compare his 1928 recordings with those of the 1960s. He never felt it necessary to incorporate the modern music of the time and I recall Ms. Annie Cook telling me that during her teenage years around the late 1930s she didn’t listen much to John’s music, but the old folk liked it!
Similarly, during the 1960s when John’s friend Archie Edwards mentioned that everyone was listening to rock n’ roll, John replied, “Brother Archie, rock and roll players are gonna be 10 cents a dozen pretty soon, so you stay where you are.”
Finally, there was the wonderful quote from Reverend Gary Davis who, after being asked by Stefan Grossman what he thought about Mississippi John Hurt’s music, replied, "Oh that’s just old time pickin’," which of course it was. The important and fascinating thing is that people who have never heard him before, and those who don’t particularly like blues, seem to love John’s music.
What's next for you with your own work? Another biography? Is there a new project in development?
Dr. Philip Ratcliffe: There are a potential three new projects developing. I’ll progress them all for a while and see which emerges as a front runner. They are the story of the links between Britain and the Southern American states through slavery and cotton, the story of the music of the Deep South taken from the playlists of my radio programs, Sounds of the South, and the story of the Atlanta bluesmen.
Thank you for inviting me to talk to you. It’s been great fun.
Thank you Dr. Ratcliffe, and best of luck to you!