Q&A with Philip Ratcliffe, an aficionado of the sounds of the Deep South talks about Mississippi John Hurt

"The thing I miss most is that so many of these wonderful people have gone and they can never be replaced. There were all these people around in the 1960s and if I’d known then what I know now I would have gone and met them; John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotton, Son House, Skip James, Etta Baker, Dock Boggs, Archie Edwards, etc."

Philip R. Ratcliffe: Mississippi Heart

British musician and writer Dr. Philip R. Ratcliffe aka Dr-Phil, is an aficionado of the sounds of the Deep South, particularly, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, the Piedmont, New Orleans and Chicago 1850-1940. Dr-Phil plays ragtime, old-timey, skiffle and blues. He study the history and culture of the Deep South.  Philip Ratcliffe recently completed writing a biography of the great ragtime, blues and old-timey musician Mississippi John Hurt. Who is Dr-Phil? My name is Dr-Phil and my personal journey of musical discovery began in Liverpool around 1950. I was lucky to see many of my heroes in live performances during the 1950s and 1960s. Since then I have spent over 60 years continuing this journey. Eventually, it was to lead me across the Southern States of America on several pilgrimages to discover more about the old blues and jazz musicians and the lives they led. It resulted in me researching the life and music of one of my favourite blues and ragtime musicians, Mississippi John Hurt and my biography, ‘Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His Times, His Blues,’ was published in 2011.

I have presented Mississippi John Hurt’s story to a variety of audiences in America and the UK. My book won an award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research for the Best Research in Recorded Blues, Rhythm & Blues, or Soul Music from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections in 2012. Begun in 1991, the awards are presented to authors and publishers of books, articles, liner notes, and monographs, to recognize outstanding published research in the field of recorded sound. I’m currently preparing a presentational tour in which I will present my personal story interlaced with a history of the music of the Deep South. This will be illustrated with visual images, sound clips of old timey music, blues, religious music, work songs, jazz and early rock ‘n’ roll and personal performances. Another book on the Sounds of the South is in preparation.”

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Folk/Roots/Blues culture and what does the blues mean to you?

What an interesting and thought provoking set of questions. I could write an essay on each question! From this particular musical culture I learned many things, notably, I learned that it was accessible to me and that I could understand and enjoy the lyrics and sounds from an early age. The realization that I could actually play it myself came from the skiffle boom (many of the tunes could be played by strumming three chords!), which led on to my magical journey of discovery. I couldn’t believe that with every new artist that I discovered it all got better and better. There was no end to the learning process and now, sixty years later this still goes on! In turn it led me to learn that you don’t need to be an African American from the Deep South to play this stuff (although that certainly helps!). I should qualify this statement, because when I first saw Big Bill Broonzy play Guitar Shuffle at Liverpool’s Cavern Club on 13 March, 1957, that’s what I believed and I didn’t even try to do what he was doing. Unfortunately, I continued to sub-consciously believe that, and there weren’t many teaching aids around back then. However, Stefan Grossman came to my rescue and around the year 2000, I began in earnest trying to finger pick the country blues; and I’m still trying. I never would have believed it back then, but I can actually play a reasonable version of Big Bill’s Guitar Shuffle! Stefan Grossman deserves enormous credit for making much of this music accessible to generations of guitar players and demonstrating that with commitment it is possible to play some of this stuff.

But, playing the music was only part of what I learned about myself. The stories behind the music fascinated me; I developed an unquenchable thirst to know more about the people who made this music and where they lived. I began to live two parallel lives; one was my day job as an ecologist, the other a musician and historian, albeit in an amateur status. I began buying more and more records and books about the musicians and their backgrounds. So, in terms of ‘what the music means to me?’ You have probably realized that it has become a life support system!

What were the reasons that you started the researches the history and culture of South and Folk/Blues experiments?

From what I have said above, it is clear that it was a natural progression and over the years I amassed a huge amount of information, books and records. Many younger folk don’t appreciate that in the fifties and sixties it was very difficult to obtain records from America and it was really only with the advent of CDs and the internet that everything became so accessible. So, I can’t recall that there was ever a particular moment that I began my researches; I’ve always collected information, but of course this is a giant step away from actually begin to sift the information and present it to the public in some way.

How do you describe Philip Ratcliffe sound and songbook? How started the thought of John Hurt’s book and CD?                               Photo by Anouk de Vos

Interestingly, although we tend to use the word ‘blues’ as a kind of shorthand, most of us aficionados appreciate a wider spectrum than strictly blues. I am no exception and my particular likes and repertoire developed from hearing my mother play the piano at Saturday night parties at our house. She would play wartime and popular tunes of the day such as Cigareets and Whisky and Wild, Wild Women, written in 1947, but the music that I remember most was ragtime, which probably embedded my love of American music deep in my subconscious. I was about 8 years old. One on my mother’s and my favourites was Twelfth Street RagSoon after, I was to hear perhaps the most influential record I have ever heard; it was The Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group recording of Rock Island Line in 1955; I was just 12 years old. I immediately put a guitar on my Christmas list; there was no going back. I was soon emulating Donegan’s version of this and many other songs on my first guitar using three chords in the Key of D. It was a cheap Spanish guitar with nylon strings to which I fitted steel strings, in keeping with my hero, and this promptly ripped the bridge off! I began to learn more Donegan tunes and I particularly enjoyed the blues, work songs and spirituals that he played such as, In the Evening, New Burying Ground and Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos, rather than the more popular hits. It was Donegan that led me into learning more of the origins of the music and listening to the original versions; previously, I had assumed that he wrote this stuff! The credits of Donegan’s music, apart from the vague phrase ‘Traditional arr. Donegan,’ provided the names of Leadbetter, Guthrie, Broonzy and others; he had re-arranged many of the songs of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie and some by Big Bill Broonzy, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. A whole new world was opening up to me.

Over the next thirty odd years I amassed a huge collection of records and CDs mainly of early country blues, gospel and jazz. One particularly life changing moment was of course when, around 1970, I got back from the second hand store with the OJL vinyl album of the Mississippi Blues. Half way through side two was Mississippi John Hurt with Stack O’Lee Blues. I can remember the moment to this day. It was mind-blowing. From time to time I fell into the trap of purism, focusing on specific tunes and artists that to me were ‘authentic’ and dismissing everything else. Now I play anything that I, and my audiences, like, and after all, that’s what the blues men did! However, I find it difficult not to impose a thumping alternating bass on everything I do!

The idea of writing my biography was again a natural transition. I had purchased a 1920s Stella guitar from Neil Harpe, who was collecting and restoring these superb old instruments that had been a favourite of the old bluesmen. I mentioned to Neil that I was arranging a tour of the old blues sites in the Deep South and asked if he could give me any leads. He told me that he had been in touch with Mary Frances Hurt Wright, John’s granddaughter and that she was holding the first Mississippi John Hurt Festival in Avalon, Mississippi. He asked if I wanted to fit that into my trip. You can probably guess that it didn’t take long to answer that question! Subsequently, Neil decided to join me and together we had the most memorable trip across the Deep South, becoming best buddies and visiting the grave sites and towns that many of the old blues men and women frequented. The culmination of the trip was the festival in Avalon, where I met Mary Frances, who was as surprised that I had come all the way from Scotland to visit her festival, as I was to be talking to the granddaughter of the great Mississippi John Hurt! I was able to play some Mississippi John Hurt tunes at the festival to some of his friends and relatives on his home turf. This was the summer of 2003. It was very hot and humid and we spent much time listening to the music and chatting to the musicians and locals, some of whom had known John. My compulsion took over and I started to write down notes of the information I was being given. As Neil and I drove through the Delta I remarked that many of the people I had spoken to were rather old and would not be around for ever, and that their stories need to be written down. Then I thought, no-one has written the story of Mississippi John; why don’t I do it? The idea of the CD was also an evolutionary process. I had discovered the existence of the tape that Tom Hoskins had recorded of Mississippi John when he discovered him at Avalon on 3 March 1963. It seemed a logical progression to edit and produce a CD of the tapes. I am so pleased and honoured that the book and CD have been so widely appreciated.

"The racial, political and social background to the life of African Americans, particularly those living in the Deep South, shaped the pre-blues, blues, work songs and spiritual music that emerged particularly in the early decades of the last century." (Photo by Tony Goldsmith)

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the late great Mississippi John Hurt’s life?

There are so many examples of John’s humour and I think most of them are in my book. One of the funniest was when Pat Sky was trying to reassure John that travelling by air was a safe means of transport. After lots of reassurance, Pat said, ‘Anyway, when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.’ John thought a while and replied, ‘Yes, but what if you’re on the plane and it’s the pilot’s time to go?’

John had a wicked sense of humour and many photos show that incredible twinkle in his eyes. Another funny story was when Tommy Sullivan, the bar tender at the Kettle of Fish, a bar above the Gaslight where John often performed, was leaving to move to Rhode Island to manage his family’s funeral business. Tommy had befriended John and they had become close. On the night that Tommy left, he said to John, ‘Goodbye John. I hope to see you again sometime.’ John replied, ‘Yeah, but I hope it ain’t any time soon.’

One of the most emotional things, which, because of John’s humility, still touches me every time I read it, is the final sentence of the three page letter that John wrote in 1963 when, shortly after his rediscovery, he was asked to summarise his life story. After a clear and detailed account of his life John ended his account with, “also work on the IC Railroad and on WPA project. Now I’m on the road again with the piedmont record company. Hoping to make a success.”

Why did you think that the Mississippi John Hurt music continues to generate such a devoted following?

It’s so different to anything else. Even people who have never heard of him enjoy his music when they hear it. It also sounds as if it ought to be easy to play, and in a way it is. With practice and perseverance you can play the right notes and get the alternating bass, but the sting in the tail is that it never sounds like John! His fluidity, rhythm and nuances really make it. When I play John’s music to audiences who haven’t heard of him they consistently ask, ‘that’s not blues, is it?’ ‘What kind of music is that?’ ‘Can you play some more of his music? Just about a month ago, I travelled through Siberia and was invited to play two concerts in a small bistro on Olkhol Island in Lake Baikal. This has got to be one of the most remote venues for a gig! The audience was mainly young people who were backpacking around Russia. They were from all over the world. No-one had heard of Mississippi John Hurt, Leadbelly, Blind Blake, etc. They really appreciated my concerts, but they loved the John Hurt tunes.

What is also interesting is that unlike many other blues musicians, such as Robert Johnson, Son House and Leadbelly, his music has not been popularised by modern artists and yet, as you say, his music lives on.

What has been the hardest obstacle for Mississippi John Hurt to overcome as a person and an artist and has this helped you become a better blues musician?

Well, first off, I wouldn’t call myself a musician! I’m still trying to become one. But, for sure listening to his music has given me inspiration and has certainly improved my musical skills.

I don’t think John ever really tried hard to become anything that he wasn’t. The most consistent comment about John from everyone that knew him was his humility. He was content and happy in himself. He never really wanted anything he hadn’t got. He didn’t really pursue a musical career; it pursued him, both on his initial discovery in 1928 and again in 1963 when he was rediscovered. So, I’m not sure that he really saw things as obstacles. When Tom Hoskins and Mike Stewart were helping John and his family move into their new home in suburban Washington DC some people stole some of their furniture. Tom got mad and shouted, ‘we’ll go after them, but John simply said, ‘Well, it’s alright, some folks is just like that.’

Perhaps it was this approach to life that enabled John to perform in such a relaxed manner in front of huge audiences. Particularly impressive was his appearance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, just a few months after he had moved to Washington DC, having never played to an audience of more than a few people back home in Mississippi. Fortunately the moment was recorded. Tom Hoskins suddenly became nervous that they were pushing John on stage in front of around 15,000 mainly young white folk. He needn’t have worried. John walked onstage and said, “How ya doin?’ After a short silence the audience erupted into a roar. John said, “Good evening people, glad to be with y’all. First little number I’m gonna do ya is See See Rider.” This was followed by another roar of applause. After that the audience were eating out of his hand. As my friend the late Jerry Ricks, who was a close friend of John’s, said, ‘He [John] wasn’t a professional musician and he didn’t quit anything to do this. He had no baggage and no frustrations and he didn’t want anything.’

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

The thing I miss most is that so many of these wonderful people have gone and they can never be replaced. There were all these people around in the 1960s and if I’d known then what I know now I would have gone and met them; John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotton, Son House, Skip James, Etta Baker, Dock Boggs, Archie Edwards, etc. I am frustrated that we didn’t ask them so many questions about themselves, but, as several people who had known John Hurt in the 1960s told me, they were so interested in his music and they thought that he would be around forever that they never asked about his past.  I am so thankful that I did manage to see and meet a few of them, notably Big Bill Broonzy, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Muddy Waters and Sonny and Brownie; and of course much later, Philadelphia Jerry Ricks and John Cephas who I learned a lot from.

I don’t have many hopes or fears. My main concern is the perpetuation of this music and culture, but it seems clear that many young people are interested in this music, and the internet and CDs has increased the ability to communicate it to a wide audience, so I don’t think there is much chance of it fading away.

"Playing the music was only part of what I learned about myself. The stories behind the music fascinated me; I developed an unquenchable thirst to know more about the people who made this music and where they lived." 

Why the 60s in UK was a Mecca of Blues music? What are the lines that connect the Blues with Skiffle and Folk?

Although much has been made of it, I’m not sure that things were a lot different in the U.S. Those aficionados in New York and Washington DC who pursued the leads provided by Harry Smith and Sam Charters were the ones who made the big breakthrough in gaining recognition for the early country blues and locating the musicians. In the UK, it is difficult to exaggerate the impact that Lonnie Donegan had in introducing this music to a wide audience. My own experiences discussed earlier were almost identical to a generation of people that included Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and the Beatles, who soon visited America and met with some of their heroes such as Muddy Waters and many of the Chess artists. My regular attendance at Liverpool’s Cavern Club in the 1950s was before the Merseyside bands emerged; it was a jazz and blues club in those days and that’s where I saw some of the American artists that I mentioned earlier. Chris Barber was responsible for bringing many of these American artists to the UK. As the Beatles and other local bands began to infiltrate, the owner soon realized that there was more money to be made from the emerging rock ‘n’ roll bands; many of the bands back then, including the Beatles, were playing cover versions of American rock music from the likes of Chuck Berry and Little Richard.

What is the impact of Blues and Folk Roots music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

I could certainly write an essay, if not a book, on this subject! Blues and roots music from the Deep South emerged from a culture that was driven by racial tension. There are many good books which expand on these links far more eloquently than I can. The racial, political and social background to the life of African Americans, particularly those living in the Deep South, shaped the pre-blues, blues, work songs and spiritual music that emerged particularly in the early decades of the last century. Many authors on the subject conclude that the blues in particular emerged as an expression of suppressed anger at white domination. After the Civil War African Americans were being subjected to constant oppression through the Jim Crow laws including unjustified prison sentences, horrific violence and lynchings. Music was one of the few means that black people could use to express their frustrations.

African Americans dealt with the oppression in different ways; some opposed their treatment head on through protest and were frequently dealt with by a powerful white supremacist population that was above the law. Mississippi John Hurt was living in Carroll County, Mississippi throughout the early years of the Civil Rights movement, which gained huge momentum following the torture and murder of Emmett Till just a few miles from John’s home in Avalon. Local white people who knew and loved John told me how much he was liked in the community; “everybody struggled and worked hard, there was no time to waste on that [racism],” “We mixed with the black folks never had no problem” and, “There was no trouble here, it was just separate.” And from a local black woman, “we got on fine with the white folks when I was growin' up.” However, what all this hides is the fact that everyone was conditioned to the Jim Crow laws that pervaded society; less than seven percent of African Americans were registered to vote in 1962 in Mississippi. One local man summed it up, “Never were any racial problems. Every white church had benches up the back for blacks.” All around Avalon, especially in the towns of Greenwood and Grenada, Civil Rights issues were prominent, but John would rarely get involved in any debate and most of his white friends on the east coast didn’t feel it necessary to discuss it. John’s grandnephew told me that although John rarely got involved, he did have a positive attitude to changes taking place in the racial situation and he once told him, “Freddie, the chickens is comin’ home to roost.”

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Wow, this is difficult. Can I have two trips? 1. Where? I’d like to accompany John Hurt (he wasn’t ‘Mississippi’ John in those days) on the train from Avalon, Mississippi, probably via Grenada and Water Valley Junction to Memphis, Tennessee around 13th February 1928. He stayed somewhere in Memphis and next day went to the McCall Building to record for the Okeh Company. Why? This is pretty obvious! Think of the conversations we would have had.

2. Where? Oberlin College, Ohio on April 15 1966 to see Son House and Mississippi John Hurt perform. Why? Mississippi John Hurt’s performance was recorded and to my mind it is the best recording of John. He always performed best to an audience where he was always more relaxed than in a recording studio. My friend Gene Bush saw John perform the following night in Cincinnati and said it was a superb occasion.

Philip Ratcliffe - Official website

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