I grew up in the city of Sheboygan, Wis. and in the late 1960s I began playing the guitar. Like many young folks, I was swept up in the popular music of the time, which included not only rock from both sides of the Atlantic, but also folk music, and perhaps the most seminal of influences - blues.
In the early 1970s I heard three guitarists who have been (and continue to be) an enormous influence on me and my particular music direction. They are John Fahey, Mississippi John Hurt, and Merle Travis. John Fahey was the first fingerpicking guitarist I listened to intently to learn the basics of this wonderfully eclectic and adaptable style of playing. Fahey played mostly original instrumental compositions that borrowed heavily from pre-war country blues and blending in other sounds and influences to make bold, visionary artistic statements. He also played in open tunings on acoustic guitar, giving the instrument a rich sonority and different tonal possibilities. The music of John Fahey opened a world of music to me that I am still exploring and using in my work today.
When I first heard Mississippi John Hurt’s “Last Sessions” LP, I was mesmerized by his beautiful fingerpicking sound. Unlike Fahey, who played with a forceful, deliberate attack on the strings, John Hurt’s picking sounded to me like a river, the notes flowing in a soulful, rhythmic stream coming from somewhere ancient. His voice and his songs convey a calm wisdom, although at the time I had no idea where John had come from (other than Mississippi) or what his life had been like. I knew that John’s playing was beautiful and fundamental, and I went about trying to unravel his picking to learn how to play like him.
It wasn’t until 2004 that I began recording John Hurt’s songs after I visited Hurt’s hometown of Avalon, Mississippi, on the Eastern edge of the Delta. So much has changed in Mississippi since John lived there (1892-1966), but the landscape around Avalon and Carrollton remains mostly the same. I made many trips to the area in the following years, and got to know pretty well some of the folks who lived on the same old dirt roads John Hurt walked on. I ended up recording four CDs of John’s songs, and I’m even mentioned in a recent Hurt biography. I play a few of John’s tunes every time I perform, and everywhere I go people enjoy his music. – Jim Ohlschmidt
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From his original 1946 "folk song" sessions, Merle's arrangement of this classic tune is a rare instance where he used an alternate tuning. The brief
instrumental breaks in his accompaniment sound simple enough, but there are a few intricacies to challenge the intermediate player.
When Merle wrote the songs that appeared on his 1963 LP "Songs Of The Coal Mines" he set out to paint a vivid picture of the Western Kentucky coal-mining
culture he had grown up with. His spoken introduction in the original recording talks of men whose faces and bodies have been made old before their
time by their difficult and harrowing work deep under the ground. Using mostly simple chords, this tune is a great intro to Merle's coal mining
One of only a few songs John Hurt played in Open G, he wrote this after his rediscovery and recorded it for Vanguard Records. The G bass that drones
throughout gives this piece a distinctive, flowing sound, using simple I-IV-V chord shapes.
Folks around Avalon, Miss. say John Hurt wrote his version of this old tune while sitting under a big magnolia tree in the front yard of his house.
Played in the key of C, it is one of John's simpler tunes and is especially popular with children of all ages. John's song may actually come from
two different sources, including a 1920s version by old-time guitarist Riley Puckett
One of John Hurt's more lively blues, this tune provides an excellent lesson in how John played in the key of A, using the second-position D chord
he played often in many of his other songs.
One of Merle's best-known songs, the poetic imagery and beautiful melody makes it a true Americana classic. With a simple accompaniment using some
of Travis' common chord positions, the instrumental breaks are a kind of lovely "echo" of the chorus. Many artists have performed this song over
the years, and now you can, too.
John Hurt was the first pre-war artist to record this song commercially in 1928. Played in G, this tune is a great example of how John used muted bass
strings "outside" the regular chordal harmony to keep the rhythm going as he executed licks on the treble strings.
Another famous arrangement of an old hymn by Merle, his original recording in 1946 has inspired many guitarists to learn play "thumbstyle," as they
call it in Western Kentucky. This tune uses some of Travis' oft-played bluesy licks in the key of E.
John's take on this old blues song is a masterpiece of pre-war fingerpicking in G. A popular blues that had been around since the early 1920s, W.C.
Handy sang this song for the Library of Congress in 1938.
On old banjo tune originally recorded by Uncle Dave Macon and the McGee Brothers in the 1920s, Merle's arrangement in the key of C offers plenty of
challenges in the longer instrumental breaks, and some of the licks he used here were heard again later in some of his other tunes, notably "Saturday
Written with lyrics by W.E.Myer, this song is obviously influenced by the sound of Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman from Meridian, Miss. Bass lines
and melody picking, along with Myer's clever words, makes this a great addition to any acoustic blues set!
A popular tune from the Buddy Bolden Band in New Orleans, this song was also recorded by the W.C. Handy Orchestra of Memphis in 1917. Played in C,
John simplified the chords a little, and his version has been a favorite of many great folk, blues, and bluegrass guitarists over the years, including
A tune that became popular around the time John Hurt made his first recordings is relatively easy to play, with simple chords and subtle variations,
all in first position. Another good tune to start learning John's picking in C.
A deceptively simple sounding tune, this is one of John Hurt's most challenging pieces played in C. It's a great example of how John simply moved a
first position chord shape up and down the neck to play a melody with "instant" bass. You can hear John let out a sigh of relief when he finished
it at the Vanguard Records recording session!
John Hurt also liked the Key of D, and here he uses many of the techniques that make his playing in this key so distinctive and full sounding without
using an altered tuning. His version of this song tells an abridged version of the old murder tale, with two cool instrumental breaks.
Another Merle Travis original based on an old sermon, his accompaniment presents several challenges, not the least of which is the moving bass line
he frets with his left hand thumb in the verses. Lots of nice, bluesy licks to dig deep into the key of E.
Merle's take on the Lead Belly classic uses many of the licks and chordal devices he used frequently in the key of E. His performance of this tune
on the Porter Wagoner Show is a fantastic rendition, and is the basis of the transcription presented here.
One of the tracks from the 1946 session that didn't see daylight until its release on a compilation in the 1990s, Merle's version of this very old hymn is simple, with a nice, gentle swing and some nice bass lines between chords. Yet another example of how Merle Travis made church music sound like the blues!
Yet another key favored by John Hurt is E, and in his version of a song originally called "Just As Well Get Ready, You've Got To Die" he plays double-stops
up and down the neck to articulate the melody while keeping the rhythm going on open, muted bass strings. An excellent example of this technique
and a great way to familiarize yourself with different positions on the fingerboard.