I don’t remember where, when, or how I first heard Mississippi John Hurt, but like a lot of people, I fell instantly in love with his gently expressive voice and the perfect swing and precision of his guitar playing. In retrospect, I think I misunderstood a lot of things about Hurt’s playing, one of the reasons being that I was fortunate enough to grow up in the era of tablature and blues guitar instruction books. The first book I had was Stefan Grossman’s Delta Blues Guitar, which my half-brother Dave left with me. At the time, there was nothing in that book I could learn, but it alerted me to the possibilities of tablature, and I shortly acquired Grossman’s Country Blues Guitar and Donald Garwood’s Masters of Instrumental Blues Guitar, both of which were much more helpful, in a large part because they included a lot of Hurt’s pieces.
I am forever indebted to those books, and have no idea what I would be doing today if I hadn’t got them, but I also have mixed feelings about them. Looking through the Garwood book, I’m struck by the extent to which my early John Hurt repertoire was guided by his tastes rather than my own, and my sense of Hurt’s playing was shaped by reading his and Grossman’s transcriptions rather than listening to Hurt’s playing. I’m grateful, because it gave me a sense of the instrument, but what I learned was Garfield’s or Grossman’s understanding of one way Hurt played a particular piece, and for some of these pieces that’s still what I have — it was decades before I sat down seriously with Hurt’s recordings and discovered how quirky and variable he could be. (For example, the way he played “Richlands Woman.”)
Which said, it was a good foundation for the rest of my life, and for better or worse it has stuck with me — I’ve probably heard hundreds of versions of “See See Rider” over the years, but the one I play and sing is still John Hurt’s, more or less as learned from Garwood’s book.
This was one of the earliest “blues” to become a huge, ubiquitous hit in both city and country — and I put blues in quotation marks because it is one of the many songs that very likely predated the use of that term for a song form or musical style, but helped define the style in the teens and twenties. It was a hit for Ma Rainey in 1925, and one of the eternal mysteries of blues history is whether her version was adapted from a song that was already widespread in oral tradition, or whether her record was so popular and catchy that it spawned the vast range of rural, orally-transmitted versions that have been recorded since. Like a lot of folk-blues, the version in oral circulation wasn’t a cohesive song, it was just the key verse, “See, see rider, see what you done done/You made me love you, now your man done come.” Carl Sandburg wrote in his American Songbag about hearing it in a saloon in Austin, Texas, which he visited with John Lomax, sung by the owner, a “Mexican negro” named Martinez, but that lyric is mostly a train song that only gets around to the rider verse (transcribed by Sandburg as “C. C. Rider”) as an afterthought. Sandburg was writing in 1927 and includes another pair of verses collected considerably earlier by the amateur Texas folklorist Gates Thomas, so the song was clearly around in that region before Rainey’s record, and if I had to guess, I’d guess Hurt also learned it before it appeared on record.
The process of oral transmission led to the multiple interpretations of the title phrase, variously given as “See, See Rider,” “C.C. Rider,” and “Easy Rider.” I’d go with the first and last over the one with the initials, but that’s just me. In any case, the term “rider” for a sexual partner is pretty clear and evocative.