The Folk Roots of Hall and Oates: John Oates on Mississippi John Hurt

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John Oates and Daryl Hall

 

2018 marks the 90th anniversary of Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 recording session for Okeh Records. Considered a commercial flop at the time, Hurt’s Okeh recordings would go on to find a devoted audience among a future generation of music fans.

That fanbase includes Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee John Oates, who first encountered Hurt’s music as a teenager in Philadelphia.

Oates’ latest album Arkansas pays tribute to Hurt, while also painting a broader portrait of American popular music styles of the 1920s. John Oates will bring his Arkansas tour to Indianapolis’ Schrott Center for the Arts on Monday, September 17. Head to ButlerArtsCenter.org to purchase tickets, and check out my conversation with Oates below.

 

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Mississippi John Hurt playing his 1963 Guild F-30 guitar

 

Kyle Long: If you were looking for a figure in American music that’s worthy of greater recognition and celebration, I can’t think of a better individual than the late blues musician Mississippi John Hurt. Your new album Arkansas was inspired by John Hurt, and is in many ways a tribute to his life and work. What does Mississippi John Hurt’s music mean to you?

John Oates: I’ve got a personal and psychic connection to him, and a physical connection to him in a way too. Of course he was recording in the 1920s, but in the ’30s he drifted off into relative obscurity until the early ’60s. He was working on a farm in Mississippi. He was rediscovered during the folk revival of the early ’60s and brought out to a lot of folk festivals, college campuses, coffee houses and things like that. That’s where I first saw him. I saw him at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and The 2nd Fret in Philadelphia, where he played quite frequently. When I was in high school I saw him play. I sat right in the front and watched him closely. 

A few years later I met a guy named Jerry Ricks who became my guitar teacher. Jerry would host Mississippi John at his house and drive him around to his shows when he played in Philadelphia. You know, these rediscovered bluesmen didn’t have any money and didn’t know a lot about northern cities.

When Mississippi John passed away his guitar was given to Jerry Ricks. It was the guitar he played in 1964 at Newport when he was first rediscovered. Subsequently, I played that exact same guitar on the first two Hall and Oates albums. Jerry brought the guitar to New York so I could play it on the records.

Last year I managed to buy that guitar. It had been sitting in a collection in Denver, Colorado since the 1970s. So I now own that exact guitar that Mississippi John played at Newport in ’64, and that I played on the first two Hall and Oates albums.

So I’ve got this real connection to him and I always wanted to do some sort of tribute to him celebrating his music and his style of fingerpicking.

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Philadelphia Folk Festival 1964

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Vintage ad for Mississippi John Hurt’s 1965 residency at Philadelphia’s The 2nd Fret

 

Kyle Long: What was the make and model of that Mississippi John guitar?

John Oates: It was a 1963 Guild F-30.

Kyle Long: Looking back to the sound of Southern blues in the 1920s, it was often very harsh and raw. I’m thinking of artists like Charley Patton who had a raw, almost mean sound. Then you have Mississippi John Hurt who made soft, sweet, and gentle music with his intricate fingerpicking. What about his sound spoke to you as a young person when you saw him perform in Philadelphia?

John Oates: Well, it was kind of what you just said. He’s often lumped into the Delta blues category, but he’s not a Delta bluesman. To be specific he’s a hill country Piedmont blues player. To me his playing related a lot more to ragtime and stride piano styles than it does with the things people associate with the Delta blues.

So you’re 100% right in saying he was more gentle, and in a way maybe a little bit more musical than a lot of the howling blues shouters. That always appealed to me. I thought his guitar playing was unique. I wanted to play like him. I learned to fingerpick like him. I now play his entire repertoire, and I always wanted to do something with that. I thought the songs deserved to be heard, but maybe in a different context. I wondered what they would sound like if I played them with a band. So I assembled this amazing band and we approached the songs in a completely fresh way. 

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Mississippi John Hurt featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer, circa September 3, 1964

 

Kyle Long: Beyond Mississippi John Hurt as an influence, and a central figure on this record, you dive really deep into the history of American music on Arkansas. I was very surprised that you open the album with a song by Emmett Miller. I’ve been fascinated by Emmett Miller for years. He was an important influence on the development of country music in America, but his name is usually buried at the bottom of that history. What caused you to gravitate towards Emmett Miller’s music and record his song “Anytime”?

John Oates: First of all, I’m really glad I’m talking to you. You obviously know your stuff. 

So when we began recording it was all John Hurt’s stuff. But I wanted to expand the concept of the album. I started thinking about the idea that John Hurt was recording from 1926 to 1929. That coincided with the early days of radio and the early days of the phonograph. I though to myself, “I wonder what songs Mississippi John would listen to on the radio, or at a juke joint? What songs might have influenced him?” 

I started doing research on Mississippi John’s early life, and to my surprise I found out he was a big fan of Jimmie Rodgers. So I decided to cut a Jimmie Rodgers song. So the record started taking on a more expansive concept. I was making a snapshot of the music that was contemporary to John Hurt’s recording career on Okeh Records.

I started thinking about pop music. I was thinking about pop music in terms of my own small part in the history of pop music. I asked myself, “What makes a pop record?” It’s gotta be played on the radio, and it’s gotta sell records. Then I started asking, “What was the first hit record?” I started doing research and established that one of Emmett Miller’s songs actually sold a million copies in the early 1920s. I thought, “That qualifies. I’m gonna record an Emmett Miller song.” I figured there was a good chance that John Hurt might have heard that song, and maybe even liked it.

That’s how the record began to take on a wider scope. I think what I ended up creating is a snapshot of an era where American pop music was getting heard for the first time.

Kyle Long: You just mentioned Jimmie Rodgers, and you recorded a version of his ballad “Miss the Mississippi and You” on Arkansas. Obviously you’ve been a fan of Mississippi John Hurt for a long time, but I’m curious if you were listening to artists like Jimmie Rodgers and Mississippi John Hurt before taking on this project?

John Oates: I’ve been familiar with Jimmie Rodgers for years. None of this music is new to me. But the idea of compiling it together and performing it with a modern sensibility was the new concept. I’ve been playing this music since I was a kid. I started out as a folk musician and a blues musician. That’s what I brought to the table when I first met Daryl Hall. That’s the musician that I was.

In a way, returning to this music was returning to my earliest influences as a musician.

Kyle Long: What kind of feedback are you getting about this project? We’re living in a world right now that’s angry and cynical. When I’m lost in all the madness of this world, the sweetness and beauty of John Hurt’s music is meditative and calming for me. So I’m appreciative of you for bringing John Hurt back into the spotlight for a moment. Are you hearing similar sentiments from people?

John Oates: I don’t think as many people are as knowledgable about this music as you are, and it’s really a joy for me to actually talk to someone like you. But what I’m getting is a mixed response. One of the first responses I always get due to my history is, “Hey, this doesn’t sound like Hall and Oates. Where did you learn how to do this?” I have to explain that this goes back fifty years into my past and it’s very much a part of my musical DNA. This is the music I’ve been playing for years and years. I don’t think you could pull off a project like this with authenticity unless you have lived it.

I agree with you that this music harkens to another time. It’s a time when American music hadn’t taken over the world yet. But this music was the seed that led to rock and roll, which did spread the American roots music brand around the world. 

Kyle Long: You mentioned that you were a folkie and blues fan when you were growing up in Philadelphia during the 1960s. How did that element of your musical background influence the sound of Hall and Oates? Hall and Oates first release was a 1972 single on Atlantic Records titled “Goodnight and Good Morning”, that record always struck me as having a strong folk vibe to it. Do you look back and hear those folk elements in your music with Hall and Oates?

John Oates: Yeah, I think there’s stronger individual influences in the early Hall and Oates music. Daryl and I hadn’t really figured out what we were gonna do, or how we were gonna do it. We were still two individual musicians. Daryl brought his influences and I brought my influences. We were just trying things. So you hear the differentiation between what Daryl does, and what I do. As time went on we went on the road and spent more time together, and we created a sound where the purer elements were absorbed into this thing we did together. Of course we went into a very pop direction. It’s only on the earliest recordings that you can hear the two people as separate people. After that we became one thing.

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John Oates’ first recording with The Masters circa 1966.

 

Kyle Long: I’m a huge, huge fan of ’60s soul music. Before we go I have to ask you about the first record you ever made. In 1966 you cut a single for Crimson Records with The Masters, “I Need Your Love” backed with “Not My Baby”. Were you still in high school when you cut that record?

John Oates: It was the summer after I graduated from high school.

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John Oates high school photo

 

Kyle Long: Were those tracks among the first songs you ever wrote?

John Oates: No, I’d written songs before that. If you go back to that time you’ll hear songs like “Mickey’s Monkey”, The Five Stairsteps’ “World of Fantasy”, and The Miracles’ “Ooo Baby Baby”. If you listen to those songs you’ll hear where I was coming from as a teenager. As most teenagers do, I was listening to what was on the radio and I was trying to emulate it. That record was my weak attempt to create music that sounded like what I was hearing on the radio at that moment.

Before that I was playing Ray Charles’ stuff,  a lot Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. I’d written some protest songs and folk songs in the style of Bob Dylan, because that was also happening in the early ’60s. So I was all over the place. I had a very open mind to musical influences.

Kyle Long: Did you ever write down or record any of those protest songs?

John Oates: [laughs] No, but I do remember the first one I wrote in seventh grade. There was an English assignment where we had to write a poem. I wrote this poem about the Cuban Missile Crisis. After I wrote it, I got an A on the poem. The teacher knew that I played guitar and said, “Wow, that could be a song.” After he said that I thought, “Yeah, Bob Dylan does stuff like that.” So I actually wrote it into a song. I don’t remember what the song sounded like, but I remember this line: “A pillow of death 90 miles from our shore, lurking in darkness awaiting the war.” That was my big line. [laughs] Not bad for the seventh grade. 

It’s important when you get encouragement like that from a teacher as a kid. In a way it jump started my songwriting career. Who knows if I’d ever have written a song if I hadn’t gotten that encouragement. 

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John Oates playing Mississippi John Hurt’s 1963 Guild F-30 guitar

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Spiritual Ascension – Miguel in Indianapolis

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“Unified meditation” is the phrase Miguel used to describe his August 28th gig at Old National Centre. Whether he was singing about sex or drugs, Miguel made it clear that he finds an element of the spiritual in all aspects of life.

Ascension is the name of Miguel’s current tour, and a recurring theme throughout his show. A tall white staircase dominates the spare set, as psychedelic imagery dances across the enormous monitor which serves as a stage backdrop. Over the course of the night Miguel repeatedly nudged fans to let go of the conventions of the material world, and reach toward a higher spiritual plane.

Miguel is in the midst of a very public spiritual and political awakening. He’s credited Bernie Sanders’ failed presidential campaign as a starting point for this transformation. But he was careful to avoid partisan sloganeering onstage, and issued no direct political statements during his nearly two hour performance.

Instead Miguel focused on the themes of love and romance that propelled him to fame in 2012. Miguel wears his biggest influence on his sleeve, and echoes of Marvin Gaye’s raw sensuality reverberate through his live performances and recorded work. Within the framework of the Ascension show, Miguel subtly positions his celebration of love as an act of resistance within the increasingly corrosive social environment of the United States.

In reality, Miguel doesn’t need to act overtly to express his political position. His existence itself has been politicized by the dangerous racist rhetoric of America’s rogue president. Miguel’s ethnic identity represents two of Trump’s most frequent targets: Blacks and Mexicans. Miguel commented on his background during an introduction to his 2015 song “Waves”.

“My father is Mexican. He is from Zamora, Michoacán in Mexico. My mother is a beautiful Black woman from Inglewood, California. In the ’90s when I was growing up in Los Angeles, California there was a lot of racial tension between Blacks and Latinos.”

As Miguel continued he tied his personal struggle with identity into the anthemic singalong chorus of “Waves”.

“You probably wouldn’t expect this, but one thing I had to do was fight my way through the streets of my city. Can you imagine little Miguel trying to fight some motherfuckers? In this lifetime, in this dimension, in whatever it is that we’re experiencing right now, the most important thing we can do is ride our own fucking wave. I mean regardless of whatever people say, you gotta be who you are unapologetically. Love what you love, and do that shit hard. Fulfill your purpose.”

Miguel has spoken frequently about the skills he adopted in navigating both the Black and Latino spaces of his childhood. That cross-cultural fluidity is evident in his music. Miguel favors heavier musical textures in the live setting, pairing his classic R&B crooning with abrasive metal guitar riffs. It’s an odd combination, but Miguel pulls it off. That’s no doubt due to his appreciation for a wide span of music. If you dig deep enough online, you’ll find videos of Miguel performing a surprising range of music, from Trio Los Panchos to Pussy Riot.

While the majority of Miguel’s Naptown performance leaned toward more bombastic sounds, the concert climaxed with a whisper, not a bang. Near the end of his set Miguel performed an impassioned barebones version of “Now”, the closing song off his 2017 LP War & Leisure. Miguel introduced the song to his Indianapolis fans with the following statement.

“As this reality is playing out, the truth is, I think there’s nothing more important than empathy. We need to really put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, and show each other love. We’re at such a critical time in our history. We can elevate the human race, and elevate our consciousness. Or we can completely wipe ourselves from the face of the Earth. There’s no better time than right now to shed light on the issues that are important.”

“Now” represents the culmination of Miguel’s spiritual and political transformation. The song’s lyrics reference a variety of issues, from the contaminated water supply in Flint, Michigan, to Trump’s proposed border wall. During the chorus Miguel asks listeners to act on these issues now, “Not later, no, no, no, not later. Right now.” It’s not a rallying cry, but an anguished plea.

In November of 2017 Miguel released a video for “Now” that addresses both the criminal persecution of undocumented immigrants in the United States, and the urgent need for prison reform. Miguel has slowly stepped forward as an important voice on these issues.

But the dream of political and spiritual ascension Miguel advocated for in Indianapolis won’t happen without serious effort from us all. And there are lots of battles to be fought here on the home-front. If you haven’t committed to voting in this year’s upcoming midterm election, that would be a good first step in moving forward. Head to indianavoters.in.gov to register online.

 

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Carnaval 2018 – Saturday Feb. 10th at Jazz Kitchen

Carnaval Brazil – Indy’s BIGGEST and BEST Carnaval party! Sat. Feb. 10 

CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE TICKETS.

Premiere Brazilian Carnaval party in Indianapolis, Saturday, February 10th from 10pm to 3am at the Jazz Kitchen, 5377 N. College Ave. Indianapolis, IN 46220.

One of the most celebrated parties in the world, Brazil’s Carnaval is known for its grand scale, intense samba beat and the visual feast of colors, costumes, floats and dancers. This event will offer Indianapolis an opportunity to taste this Brazilian tradition.

Cultural Cannibals’ Brazilian Carnaval has developed a reputation as the largest Carnaval celebration in Indiana. The 2018 Carnaval celebration will feature:

* Brazilian Samba band – Os Hoosierinhos
* Samba dancers
* DJ Kyle Long playing a mix of Carnaval music from Brazil
* Carnaval visuals by Artur Silva
* Special menu with Brazilian food – Feijoada and appetizers
* Brazilian beers, juices and soft drinks
* Caipirinha (the national drink of Brazil)
* Big screen displaying the Carnaval parade in Rio de Janeiro

Advance tickets $15
$20 at the door

For more information please contact 317-332-5612 culturalcannibals@gmail.com, www.CulturalCannibals.org

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Carnaval 2017 – Saturday Feb. 25th at Jazz Kitchen

Premiere Brazilian Carnaval party in Indianapolis, Saturday, February 25th from 10pm to 3am at the Jazz Kitchen, 5377 N. College Ave. Indianapolis, IN 46220. Advance discount tickets available at: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2799768

Be sure to check-in with our event sponor Yelp! to receive a free bottle of water at the bar!

One of the most celebrated parties in the world, Brazil’s Carnaval is known for its grand scale, intense samba beat and the visual feast of colors, costumes, floats and dancers. This event will offer Indianapolis an opportunity to taste this Brazilian tradition.

Cultural Cannibals’ Brazilian Carnaval has developed a reputation as the largest Carnaval celebration in Indiana. The 2017 Carnaval celebration will feature:

* Brazilian Samba band- The IU Brazilian Ensemble
* Samba dancers
* DJ Kyle Long playing a mix of Carnaval music from Brazil
* Carnaval visuals by Artur Silva
* Special menu with Brazilian food – Feijoada and appetizers
* Brazilian beers, juices and soft drinks
* Caipirinha (the national drink of Brazil) $5
* Big screen displaying the Carnaval parade in Rio de Janeiro

Thanks to our event sponsor Yelp! Make sure you remember to check-in on the Yelp App to receive a free bottle of water at the bar.

Advance tickets $15
$20 at the door

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Help us secure a headstone for Guitar Pete Franklin

My name is Kyle Long, I’m the host of Cultural Manifesto radio on 90.1 WFYI, and author of the Cultural Manifesto column in NUVO Newsweekly. In June of 2016 I wrote a piece for NUVO lamenting the fact that the Indianapolis blues great Guitar Pete Franklin did not have a headstone marking his grave at Crown Hill cemetery. After this article was published in NUVO I was contacted by a representative from Crown Hill. We decided to work together to solve this problem, aided by the blessings of Guitar Pete’s nephew Lester Johnson.

Below you’ll find my original NUVO column titled “Guitar Pete’s Grave”, if you’re unfamiliar with Guitar Pete’s work, I invite you to have a look.

For $400 we will be able to provide a modest headstone for Guitar Pete, any funds received beyond this goal will allow us to upgrade the quality of the marker. Please consider helping us honor this legendary Indianapolis musician. Donations can be made at this link: 

gofundme.com/gravestone-for-guitar-pete-franklin

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Last summer I spent a large amount of my free time traveling across the city visiting the grave sites of important Indianapolis jazz and blues musicians. Sadly, for many of our city’s esteemed music greats a small stone grave marker is the only physical evidence of their existence in Indianapolis.

I spent one particular summer afternoon scouring Section 99 of Crown Hill cemetery in a search for the grave of the legendary Indianapolis blues player Guitar Pete Franklin. I must’ve spent a couple hours zig-zagging through the area reading and rereading every headstone multiple times before finally giving up.

A few weeks ago I renewed my search for Guitar Pete Franklin’s grave, but this time I decided to employ a more strategic method. So I called up the Crown Hill switchboard for guidance.

“Hi, I’m looking for information on where the grave of Edward Lamonte Franklin is located,” I said. “If it helps, he was born on January 16 of 1928 and he passed on July 31 of 1975. And, oh yeah, he might be listed under the name Guitar Pete. He recorded some really important records under that name.”

I waited eagerly for the operator’s response while I listened to her fingers hammering the information into a keyboard. “Section 99. Lot 4728,” she replied. It was the same information I’d found online last summer. I explained to her I’d previously spent several hours searching that area to no avail. After another audible flurry of keystrokes she returned with a definitive answer to my mystery:

“No grave marker.”

It struck me as totally unacceptable that an artist like Franklin with such a remarkable legacy would be allowed to remain in an unmarked grave for 40-plus years. But in Indianapolis that sort of neglect and disrespect for musicians, particularly Black musicians, is not abnormal.

Guitar Pete Franklin was not your average local musician. In a career that stretched through four decades, Guitar Pete recorded on some of the biggest labels in music, alongside some of the greatest names in the blues genre.

In contrast to fellow Hoosier blues legends like Yank Rachell, Scrapper Blackwell, and Leroy Carr – who all migrated here from the South, Franklin was born and raised in Indianapolis. Franklin’s exposure to blues music came at an early age when pianist Leroy Carr was a boarder at Franklin’s childhood home just prior to his untimely death in 1935. Franklin acquired significant skills on the family piano before taking up the guitar at age 11.

As a young man Franklin learned what would become his primary instrument from Indy blues guitar master Scrapper Blackwell. Franklin’s passion for music was so deep, he dropped out Crispus Attucks to devote himself full time to playing. But his aspirations for blues stardom were briefly put on hold during a two-year stint with the army from 1945-1947.

Franklin’s recording career began in Chicago on a fantastic session for the Opera Records label with St. Louis Jimmy and Roosevelt Sykes. Franklin’s own debut as a leader came in 1949 on RCA Records. Joined by Tampa Red on piano, Franklin recorded four tunes for RCA on January 26 of 1949: “Casey Brown Blues,” “Down Behind The Rise,” “Mr. Charley,” and “Naptown Blues,” which remains unissued to this day.

Over the next few years Franklin would record a series of classic discs as a sideman for blues greats like Jazz Gillum, Sunnlyland Slim and John Brim. But Franklin wouldn’t see another solo release until 1962 when the Indy-based folklorist Art Rosenbaum tracked Franklin down to cut an LP for  jazz label Prestige Records’ Bluesville imprint.

The resulting work, Guitar Pete’s Blues was recorded in Indianapolis on July 12 of 1961. The album is widely considered a blues classic and stands as the most enduring example of Franklin’s unique artistry.

While Franklin shines as a guitarist, pianist and vocalist on the LP, it’s his interpretation of the material, with themes ranging from depression, to drug abuse, to violence that remains the most compelling element of the work for me.

Guitar Pete’s Blues is the only solo LP release in Franklin’s discography. While Franklin was presented with other chances to record and perform in the aftermath of Guitar Pete’s Blues he was unable to parlay those opportunities into any meaningful advancement for his career. Franklin remained in Indianapolis until his hard-living ways contributed to his early death from diabetes at age 47.

“The public should recognize the blues as an art, instead of looking down at it as something that comes out of the slums or the cotton fields,” Franklin lamented in an interview for the liner notes of Guitar Pete’s Blues.

While Franklin’s artistry has been recognized by music fans around the world, his work is largely unknown here in Indianapolis where his eternal resting place lacks even the most simple marker noting evidence of his existence. It’s a tragic ending that should give any music fan the blues.

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Highlife at The HI-FI – 11/26 w/ ESSO Afrojam Funkbeat

Join us Saturday, November 26 at The HI-FI for what will likely be the most epic night of Afro-Latin funk music in Indianapolis history! Chicago’s awesome ¡ESSO! Afrojam Funkbeat will join Sweet Poison Victim and DJ Kyle Long for a special edition of Highlife at The Hi-Fi. Admission is FREE, and doors open at 9pm.

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Red Baraat at Jazz Kitchen 09/11/16

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