Monday Morning Blues (Mississippi John Hurt)

“Monday Morning Blues” was a late arrival in my John Hurt repertoire. I always loved and played his music, but only began to study it carefully after I got back from Africa in the 1990s. In previous posts I’ve told how I became fascinated with the odd chord positions in “Richlands Woman” and the rhythmic trickeration of “Satisfied and Tickled Too,” and finally learned the thick E7 chord he uses in “Candy Man.”

That last development only happened when I began to get teaching gigs at guitar camps and decided I wanted to do a John Hurt class. That meant not only figuring out what he was doing, but putting together a group of his pieces in a way that would be helpful to students who only had a week to assimilate what I was showing them, and I learned “Monday Morning Blues” and  “Trouble, I’ve Had It All My Days” to show how Hurt used the same fifth position partial D chord in both, with somewhat different effects. As it happens, I then started using the riff from this song in the breaks of Hurt’s “Coffee Blues,” and later realized that Dave Van Ronk and Gary Davis used it in “‘Bout a Spoonful,” which is a version of that song…

…all of which may be of some fleeting interest to people who want to play Hurt’s style…

…but I’m going over this story because that process transformed the way I thought about learning other people’s guitar arrangements. I started playing Hurt’s songs in my teens, and like a lot of people, I thought of his style as relatively simple and straightforward. I learned to play nice, regular versions of his stuff, and they sounded enough like his versions that it was at least twenty years before I realized that he played those songs quite differently and his way was more interesting.

That was when I began thinking of vernacular guitarists as having their own individual languages, and trying to learn their styles the way I would study a language. People like Hurt, Davis, Lemon Jefferson and Joseph Spence worked out their arrangements by playing songs over and over, using techniques that felt comfortable and natural to them. I had approached those arrangements as unique compositions, trying to figure them out note by note and often twisting my hands into difficult positions to get the sounds I thought I was hearing — but if you actually work out how any of those musicians played a piece, you find that all the moves fell naturally under their hands.

That doesn’t always mean all the moves are easy — Davis and Spence in particular were virtuosos, and knowing how their hands moved doesn’t mean you can make your hands move the same way. But, as with learning a language, you can play their arrangements much more comfortably if  your hands get a general fluency in their ways of moving than if you try to learn their pieces as separate compositions.

At least that’s my take, and I made John Hurt my first test case, learning a couple of dozen of his pieces and assuming that when something felt uncomfortable I was doing it wrong. In the process, I learned a lot of songs I had passed over in the past, including this one. I learned this as an exercise, and the more I played it, the more I loved it. I like the way the lyric limns a story in short phrases, I like the quirky additional measure in the E section — and, most of all, I love the way it feels.  Once I got my hands to do what his hands did, it felt like walking down a well-worn path — not working to sound like him, just ambling along in his footsteps