Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me (John Hurt/William Myer)

Another favorite from Mississippi John Hurt, with a wonderful lyric by William E. Myer, a lawyer and briefly a record company owner in the late 1920s. Myer’s tastes were decidedly uncommon but have extravagantly stood the test of time. He started his company, lonesome-ace-labelthe Lonesome Ace — with a biplane pictured on the label and the promise “Without a Yodel” — in his home town of Richlands, Virginia, in 1928, largely as a forum for his own compositions. To find artists, he contacted record companies asking the address of singers he hoped would do his material — notably including the banjo player Dock Boggs, who lived about sixty miles east in Norton, Virginia, and John Hurt in faraway Avalon, Mississippi.

Boggs made four sides for Lonesome Ace, accompanied by the Kentucky guitarist Emry Arthur, who recorded two more on his own. Then the label folded, but Myer still had hopes for his songs, writing to Boggs that he had contacted the OKeh label “about the compositions that John Hurt, Colored, has on hands….” Myer had apparently sent Hurt a sheaf of 22 songs, and Hurt set three of them to music: a sentimental parlor ballad titled “Waiting for You,” the gently bawdy “Richlands Woman,” and “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me.”

john-hurtAs Hurt told the story in an interview for the Library of Congress: “He sent me these songs and half a dozen records to tune ‘em by — if I liked them. And if I didn’t, why I’d tune them my own tune. So I didn’t like the tune of the records, and I got my own melody and fixed them up.”

By other accounts this song was the exception: Hurt set it to the tune of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train” — though with some personal variations — and at times said Myer had suggested that record, though it seems an odd choice considering Myer’s distaste for yodeling. In any case, that’s how it worked out.

Unfortunately, Myer fell sick, the Depression sharply curtailed recording by rural artists, and all three songs would presumably have been forgotten… but they’d caught Hurt’s fancy, and when a young man named Tom Hoskins turned up at his door in 1963, were among the first pieces he played into Hoskins’s portable tape machine.

hurt-lp-with-mermaidsAnd that, long story long, is how I came to hear this, which I worked up with a few variations of my own and played to begin my sets throughout the 1980s. It was a perfect diagnostic opener: sometimes people drifted on the pretty tune, sometimes they laughed at the clever lyric, sometimes they just went on talking — whatever the reaction, it gave me a sense of who they were, and helped me get over my initial nervousness, and then I’d try something more flashy and upbeat and see how that worked.

My first surviving set list, from a show at the Nameless Coffeehouse in February 1983, starts with this, which is notable because that set happened to be mentioned in an article by Jeff McLaughlin in the Boston Globe. He described me as “a superb fingerpicker and distinctive singer” — “distinctive” being one of those words reviewers use when they’re aware of problems but trying to be nice. Another set list, from Passim Coffeehouse that March, shows I opened the second night with “Richlands Woman,” so I clearly I owe a lot to William E. Myer. Not as much as I owe John Hurt, but enough.