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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.