Richlands Woman (Mississippi John Hurt)

Another collaboration between Mississippi John Hurt and William E. Myer, the team responsible for “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me,” this song has a wonderful lyric backed by one of my favorite guitar arrangements. Myer was from Richlands, Virginia, and apparently had mixed views of the town’s female population — at least, that’s what I make of the ebulliently polyamorous voice of the female protagonist alternating with the chorus warning her man to get home fast before she puts her words into action.

Aside from Hurt, the singers of this song have tended to be female, in part because  this is one of the few rural, guitar-centric songs in an explicitly female voice — and in part, I suppose, because some men feel weird singing about wanting red lipstick and pink shoes. For myself, I fell in love with the lyric at first hearing, and when I look back over old set lists, I find that I did it a lot in the early 1980s — probably more than any other Hurt song except “Mermaids.”

Which said, in my touring days I hadn’t yet learned Hurt’s guitar part properly, and just played a generic pseudo-Hurtian accompaniment. It wasn’t till the 1990s, after spending a year in Africa, that I was visiting my friend and sometime picking partner Dominic Kakolobango — a dedicated fan of Hurt and Mance Lipscomb* — in Brussels and decided to explore the quirks of Hurt’s playing, with this and “Satisfied and Tickled Too” as my maiden efforts.  I’ve since delved fairly deeply and taught classes in his unique musical language, and often start with “Richlands Woman,” because the first quirk is so simple and charming… so here goes, for the guitar players (everyone else will find this boring and/or confusing, but trust me, in context it’s fun):

Hurt plays this in C, and the opening melody riff is a twiddly alternation between the open high E string and the second string fretted on the fourth fret — an E and D#. The way I’d always played that was to just hold a C chord and stretch my little finger up to the D#, which is no great feat and sounds fine. But Hurt’s playing exemplifies economy of energy, and he apparently felt that stretch would be just a little too much trouble, so he doesn’t bother to hold the root chord at all. He just holds down the D# note, and leaves all the other strings open, which means he is playing open A and D basses under the treble D# and E. Which, if you want to analyze it in more or less formal terms, is kind of the “blue note” gone crazy — a major 3rd played against a minor 3rd, with a double-flatted 3rd in the bass, plus that bass A, which is the 6th, which I suppose you could think of as a double-flatted 7th. Or you can just ignore the theorizing and play it, which is presumably what Hurt did. If you play it slowly, it sounds kind of terrible, but up to speed it’s great. And then, at the end of each verse, Hurt plays the same damn riff again, but tends to hold the normal C basses and just plays a D rather than the D#.

That’s the unique pleasure of this chart, but there’s a more typical touch a bit further on: When playing in C, a lot of guitarists vary the alternating bass by moving their ring finger back and forth between the 5th and 6th string for a nice, loping C – E, G – E, C – E, G – E. That’s how I used to play Hurt’s songs, and thought he played them. But he pretty commonly does something quirkier: he starts with C – E, like all of us, then plays G – E, like many of us… and then he just stays with G – E until it’s time to switch chords, though C is the root of the damn chord and anyone else would want it there in the bass. In some songs that quirk just feels capricious, but in “Richlands Woman” it comes in handy because it puts him in position to slide the G bass up to an A along with the G-to-A he wants to play on the treble — likewise by sliding up from the third to the fifth fret.

Which is all very well, but… obviously the great pleasure of this song is the lyric, which, as I said at the beginning, is one of my all-time favorites.

*For a taste of what Dominic does, check out his version of Mance Lipscomb’s “Take Me Back” with a Congolese soukous band and a bilingual lyric in English and Swahili: