John Hurt Library of Congress Recordings: Positions/Tunings and Keys

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John Hurt's Library of Congress Recordings: Positions/Tunings and Keys
Compiled by John Miller

I've long been intending to do list of the positions/tunings and pitches of Mississippi John Hurt's Library of Congress recordings, recorded in two sessions on July 15 and July 23, 1963, approximately four months after John Hurt was "re-discovered" by Tom Hoskins in Avalon, Mississippi.  These recordings have been released in recent years on two 2-CD sets (Volumes One and Two) on the Fuel 2000 Records label.  Volume One's number is 302 061 407 2 and Volume Two's is 302 061 495 2.  Many of the songs on these recordings were never recorded elsewhere by John Hurt, either at his 1928 sessions or in the various commercial sessions he did in the '60s for Piedmont or Vanguard.
In listing the playing position/tuning in the tables below, the presumption will be that unless Vestapol or Spanish tuning is listed, John Hurt was playing in standard tuning (though perhaps high or low of A 440).  Where pitches are listed, they indicate the key in which the rendition sounds, with a minus sign following the key indicating the pitch was flat of the note and a plus sign indicating the pitch was sharp of the note.  Multiple plus or minus signs indicated an intensified sharpness or flatness of pitch, respectively.  Titles for the songs are listed as they appear on the CDs, and are different in many instances from how the titles for the same songs appear elsewhere.

Mississippi John Hurt’s Library of Congress Recordings--pitch/position

Volume 1

Disc 1:

1Avalon BluesE, standard tuningE flat
2Richlands Women BluesC, standard tuningB
3Frankie and AlbertSpanish tuningG-
4Trouble I've Had All My DayD, standard tuningC
5Pera-LeeSpanish tuningG
6Candy ManA, standard tuningG
7StockwellC, standard tuningB flat+
8Got The Blues That Can't Be SatisfiedG, standard tuningF+
9Let The Mermaids Flirt With meC, standard tuningB flat+
10Talking Casey JonesSpanish tuningG
11Pay DayVestapol tuningD+
12Louis CollinsC, standard tuningB flat+
13StackoleeD, standard tuningC+
14Coffee BluesA, standard tuningG+
15Slidin' DeltaE, standard tuningD+
16Corrina, CorrinaC, standard tuningA flat+
17Hey Baby Right AwayC, standard tuningB flat+
18Nobody's Dirty BusinessC, standard tuningB

Disc 2:

1Pallet On The FloorC, standard tuningB flat+
2Waiting For A TrainC, standard tuningA flat
3Funky ButtC, standard tuningA flat
4Spanish FlangdangSpanish tuningG
5Monday Morning BluesA, standard tuningA flat
6Shortenin' BreadC, standard tuningA flat
7Oh Mary Don't You WeepE, standard tuningD
8Farther AlongC, standard tuningA flat
9Do Lord Remember MeG, standard tuningE flat
10Over In The Glory LandC, standard tuningA flat
11Glory Glory HallelujahC, standard tuningB flat
12What A Friend We Have In JesusC, standard tuningB flat+
13Where Shall I BeC, standard tuningA flat
14Weeping And WailingC, standard tuningA flat
15Joe TurnerG, standard tuningF#
16If You Don't Want MeSpanish tuningG
17Rubber DollyC, standard tuningB flat++
18Keep Me Knockin'A, standard tuningG+

Volume 2:

Disc 1:

1Monday Morning BluesA, standard tuningA flat
2Nobody's Dirty BusinessC, standard tuningB
3If You Don't Want MeVestapol TuningD+
4Spike DriverG, standard tuningF+
5Salty DogG, standard tuningF+
6My Creole BelleC, standard tuningB flat++
7Casey JonesG, standard tuningF+
8Beulah LandE, standard tuningD+
9Waiting For YouG, standard tuningF
10StackoleeD, standard tuningB flat+
11Walking The Floor Over YouC, standard tuningA flat++
12Camp Meeting TonightC, standard tuningA flat+
13Blessed Be The NameC, standard tuningA flat+
14When The Roll Is Called C, standard tuningA flat+
15Blind Man Sat In The Way And CriedG, standard tuningE flat++
16Glory To His NameC, standard tuningA flat++
17I'll Fly AwayC, standard tuningA flat+
18The Ten VirginsVestapol TuningC+

Disc 2:

1Avalon BluesE, standard tuningC++
2Cow Hooking BluesE, standard tuningC++
3I'm SatisfiedC, standard tuningA flat+
4Ain't Nobody But You BabeC, standard tuningA flat+
5Shortnin' BreadC, standard tuningA flat+
6RedwingC, standard tuningA flat+
7Four O'Clock BluesC, standard tuningA flat+
8See See RiderD, standard tuningB flat++
9I Got MineC, standard tuningA flat+
10Good Morning Miss CarrieG, standard tuningE flat++
11Alabama BoundG, standard tuningE flat+
12Looking This WayC, standard tuningA flat+
13God's Unchanging HandC, standard tuningA flat+
14Poor Boy A Long Way From HomeG, standard tuningE flat++
15Frankie No. 2G, standard tuningE flat++
16Chicken SongC, standard tuningA flat++
17You Are My SunshineC, standard tuningA flat++
18Will The Circle Be UnbrokenC, standard tuningA flat++
19You Got To Get ReadyC, standard tuningA flat++

* Pitch--It is not made clear whether the titles occur on the CDs in the order in which they were recorded, but based on what the pitch does, it certainly seems plausible. It seems likely that John Hurt was using some sort of standardized source to tune when he went to Spanish tuning, for all of the tunes recorded in Spanish are squarely in G, and virtually none of the standard tuning titles are at standard pitch. There are a surprising number of songs in the collection where John Hurt is tuned two whole steps below standard tuning. What seems most likely is that he tuned down for one song for purposes pertaining to his vocal range, as in "Corrina, Corrina" in Volume One, disc one, or "Waiting for A Train", Shortenin' Bread", and "Farther Along" in Volume One, disc two, and then left the guitar tuned low for a number of following tunes. In Volume 2, disc one, he tunes down for "Stackolee", and by the time he gets to "When The Roll Is Called" and "Blind Man Sat In The Way And Cried", his sixth string is noticeably flat. In Volume Two, a full 27 out of 37 total titles are tuned two whole steps low, a percentage that is not remotely reflected in his commercial recordings.
* Different Versions--One of the most striking features of John Hurt's playing as illustrated in these recordings and his commercial recordings was his ability and choice to play many of the same songs out of two different positions or tunings. This quality is all but unheard of among Country Blues players, (try to imagine Lemon doing "Rabbit's Foot" in another key) but John Hurt does this very thing on the following tunes: 1. "Corrina, Corrina", played out of C position here, played out of D position on "Mississippi John Hurt--Today" on Vanguard. 2. "If You Don't Want Me", played out of Vestapol on "Mississippi John Hurt--Today", played out of both Vestapol and Spanish tunings here, though with different melodies. 3. "Frankie" is played out of Spanish tuning in all recordings but one of the ones here, where John Hurt plays it out of G in standard tuning. 4. "The Ten Virgins" is played out of Vestapol here, E in standard tuning on "The Immortal John Hurt" on Vanguard. 5. "Poor Boy A Long Way From Home" is played out of G position in standard tuning here, but was played out of C position in standard tuning with a different melody on "Last Sessions" on Vanguard. 6. "Do Lord Remember Me" and "Beulah Land" have the same melody, but John Hurt played "Do Lord" out of G and "Beulah Land" out of E. They're not really the same song, though.
* Religious Songs--Like another Mississippian, Charlie Patton, John Hurt looks to have had the capacity to have played hymns for as long as anyone was willing to listen. 19 out of the 73 titles in the Library of Congress Recordings are religious numbers, and of those 19 songs, 15 are played out of C position. Did any other player in the style so heavily favor C position for playing hymns? Libba Cotten played some hymns in C, but also favored Spanish tuning for hymns. In standard tuning, E position seems to be most often favored for playing hymns, while of the common open tunings, Spanish was favored by Joe Taggart, Charlie Patton and Rev. Edward Clayborn and Vestapol was favored by Blind Willie Johnson and Josh White.
* No Set Pieces--Like Libba Cotten, another fairly controlled-sounding player who recorded many of the same pieces more than once, John Hurt proves to be a player who comes down squarely in the "in the moment" camp in terms of his execution. Even when the left hand in two different versions of the same song is substantially the same, John Hurt always varied the right hand phrasing and rhythmic emphasis. In some instances, a particular version of a song diverges so drastically from all the other versions he recorded of the same song that it barely seems recognizable--the version of "Monday Morning Blues" that follows "Spanish Flangdang" on disc 2 of Volume One is a good example. It's a real jaw-dropper, practically a different tune altogether from "Monday Morning Blues" as he performed it elsewhere.
* Keys/Positions--The performances on the Library of Congress Recordings rely much more heavily on C position than do John Hurt's commercial recordings, which mix in more tunes in E, A and D. Is this just a function of the heavy proportion of religious numbers here? It's hard to say, but it also appears that C may have been John Hurt's position of default for playing numbers he didn't do that often, like "Walking the Floor Over You", "Redwing", and others of the Standard variety.
* Unissued Songs--The following songs were recorded by John Hurt at the Library of Congress sessions but have not been made commercially available: "Hop Joint", "Lazy Blues", "Royal Telephone", "Were You There", "Nobody Cares For Me", "The First Shot Missed Him", "Fill That Sack", "Bill Bailey", "Jim Canaan", "You Got To Get Ready", and "I Ain't Gonna Study War No More".

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