Concert Retrospective: Son House/Mississippi John Hurt

This week, I’m looking back at a double feature concert from April 1965 (actually 1966, but we’ll get to that momentarily): legendary bluesmen Mississippi John Hurt and Son House in Wilder Main on April 15, 1966. The concert is commonly listed as having taken place on April 15, 1965, but it seems that the concert actually happened on the same day in the following year. A 2017 article in Living Blues magazine explains: “the prolific and meticulous blues discography chronicler Stefan Wirz from Germany points out, ‘The Oberlin Review [publication of Oberlin College, Ohio] in March 1966 published a concert schedule for John Hurt performing shows at the Wilder Main Building on April 15, 1966’.” In fact, on the cover of the April 15, 1966 issue of The Oberlin Review, Son House is pictured with a National resonator guitar on his lap and a soft look on his face. The caption reads: “Mississippi John Hurt, who only recently came out of retirement, and Son House, legendary blues singer, will present a program of ballads and blues in Wilder Main Lounge, tonight at 8 p.m. Tickets are $1 at the door.”

It is notable that Hurt “recently came out of retirement,” as this concert took place during the folk revival in the 1960s that saw a renewed interest in folk music, and particularly Black blues singers from the Mississippi Delta, across college campuses nationwide. It is also intriguing that House is labelled a “legendary blues singer” as he, too, was only recently “rediscovered” by young white fans. The word ““rediscovered”” is commonly found in quotes when describing the resurgence of these blues artist’s careers due to the colonial connotation of the word. I put it in double quotation marks in order to denote that I am merely quoting those who put this word in quotation marks. Surprisingly, this photo is the only mention of the concert I could find in the Review. Austrian writer Jakov Lind and American poet Kenneth Koch, who were both scheduled to speak and lecture at Oberlin that weekend, received much more coverage in that issue. 

The concert was recorded, fortunately, which is probably the best account of a musical performance an archivist (if you allow me to briefly wear that hat as I do plenty of research for these concert retrospective articles) can ask for. Even more to my good fortune, the concerts exist digitally on streaming services, like Spotify, not just as rare crate digging finds in dusty record stores. Hurt plays guitar with a bouncy fingerpicked style, which was inspirational to many who followed him, such as Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, John Fahey, Taj Mahal, and Doc Watson (who will likely be the focus of the next edition of the Concert Retrospective series). For an elderly bluesman, Hurt’s voice is fairly joyful, and at times, his melodies are strikingly beautiful and his voice is startlingly smooth to match.

Filling the rest of the sonic space is a massive reverb that I can’t imagine came naturally from Wilder Main (although I haven’t heard music there recently, so I am no authority on this issue), and must’ve been added afterwards. Robert Scherl (credited as “Robert Schert” in the liner notes for one of the reissues of Live at Oberlin College) acted as the sound engineer for the concert, so this concert hall reverb may have been his doing. I could not seem to figure out if he was faculty, or really anything about him. The Living Blues reviewer, Frank Matheis, notes that the recording sounds “fair to good, but in some spots there is noticeable auditory distortion.” Personally, I feel lucky to have found any recording at all. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the album. While the similarly structured blues songs with similar fingerpicking styles may not maintain the novelty of listening to an album recorded at Oberlin 55 years ago for the entire album, Hurt’s jauntiness and soulfulness (and for guitar players especially, his very cool fingerstyle playing) make it an enjoyable listen. Matheis explains that “[m]any well-known artists have covered his songs, including big names like Bob Dylan. Yet he, his family and estate saw little to none of the profits and royalties. Of all the “rediscovered” artists, John Hurt was perhaps the nicest, as often described by the blues press at the time, but in the end he was just another shamelessly exploited black musician.” I think these concerts and their recordings are interesting cases to learn from in terms of the racist dynamics of the music industry. How did Black blues musicians like Hurt, who was called the “nicest” of them (why do you think the rest were mean?) and House feel travelling from college campus to folk festival and back again towards the end of their lives, playing for primarily white audiences? How much money did they make from these performances?

It’s wonderful that they could revive their careers and were genuinely appreciated by a lot of these young people, but there’s something to be said about a primarily white Oberlin student body listening to these Black blues musicians who grew up and lived in distinctly different environments from these college students. I suppose money isn’t everything, but if they were compensated fairly by Oberlin, I would look at the situation more positively, but I do not know what their paychecks looked like. Matheis closes his review with the following sentiment: “it’s […] John Hurt singing these great songs you have heard a million times, in his lovely, beautiful way and you won’t be able to constrain a smile.” Fortunately, Hurt was able to do it all with a smile on his face. Another reviewer, Tamarkin, writing for Relix magazine on what is probably the same reissue Matheis wrote about, speculates that Hurt may have been “happy to be presenting what was, even then, ancient music to a new batch of appreciative listeners.” Hurt ended up dying in November of that year at the age of 73.

House’s album is a markedly different experience. Despite being almost a decade younger than Hurt, House, then 64, sounds much older. This is especially easy to hear because more spoken interludes are included in the House concert album, whereas much of the applause and banter (if there was much at all) in Hurt’s concert is cut out. Not only is his voice more weathered, but his guitar sounds edgier, particularly as he plays primarily with a slide. And his music is heavy. He even growls, punctuating his guitar playing with low, guttural snarls, in between the bars when he sings. For such a sparse recording (and this one I will grant isn’t of the highest quality, although I still feel lucky to be able to listen to it), his performance is extraordinarily gripping. In fact, at the beginning of one of his classics, “Grinnin’ in Your Face,” there is some serious distortion on the vocals that makes the song more intense than it already is. Listening to this album, it’s no wonder that Son House inspired the electric blues musicians, like Muddy Waters, who inspired great classic rock stars, like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, with their heavy backbeats, because his rich voice and steady and strong guitar playing carry the weight of a great rock ‘n’ roll rhythm section. 

To House, the blues is “when you’ve been deceived by your fellow man, I mean your loved one, that you thought that you loved you [sic] and way up the road further you found out that she or he didn’t.” He goes on, but I recommend you listen to his delivery since the words on the page alone can’t do it justice. I appreciate how universal his definition is. An aging Black man from the Mississippi Delta can connect with young white Obies largely from coastal cities (I’m assuming the NY/DC/SF-Oberlin pipeline existed in the 1960s) over this aspect of the human experience. Yet at the same time, the blues, while something that can be universally appreciated and played, was born out of the African-American experience. And as a progenitor of the Delta Blues, to have gotten less recognition and less financial reward than other white blues stars (from Stevie Ray Vaughn to Bonnie Raitt) is a fundamental issue in the American music landscape.

As a musician myself (and archivist for a day), it’s important to know where your art and your craft comes from and how it has entered into your world and whose world you’re entering when you play. As Oberlin, both the College and Conservatory, continues to reckon with its own shortcomings, we must recognize the debt we owe to individuals like Mississippi John Hurt and Son House, who have left indelible marks on music. One way of doing this might be to acknowledge how lucky we are to have had them grace our stage, which is patiently awaiting its next Oberlin musician to carry their torch.