About John Miller
At the age of 12, John Miller was inspired to play the guitar after seeing Mississippi John Hurt perform at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. He bought his first guitar at the age of 16 and launched into an intensive period of study of Country Blues guitar, learning the music of John Hurt, Mance Lipscomb, Bo Carter, Blind Blake and other greats. By the time he was twenty-seven, John had released five solo albums to international critical acclaim. Those albums ranged from country blues and old time country music to the songs of George Gershwin. As of today, John focuses on teaching (on his own site and for SGGW), founding two music camps, composing and building a vocabulary in Jazz and Latin music.
Where it all began…
The first thing that really started to get me into country blues in a serious way, were my older brother and sister, who both played guitar.
Apart from that I went to the 1963 Philadelphia Folk Festival when I was 12 years old. I just went to the Saturday night concert and there I saw Mississippi John Hurt. This was around 4 months after he had been rediscovered in Avalon, Mississippi. You know, when you’re twelve years old you don’t really have the perspective to understand what an amazing thing it was- this person who had been recorded in 1928 and was rediscovered in 1963 and still plays really really well. Besides that, he was in good enough health to tour around and perform.
Before all this, I had heard people like Dave Van Ronk and Tom Rush–the young white interpreters of country blues, but prior to hearing John Hurt, I had not heard that many musicians from inside the country blues tradition.
When I saw Mississippi John Hurt there in 1963 in Philadelphia, I was so taken by both his music and who he was as a person. He was just so appealing personally, very warm and unselfconscious, you might say ‘comfortable in his own skin’ and that guy played great music! He really made me want to play!
So, in the program book of the Folk Festival there was an advertisement where you could order the first album that John Hurt recorded after his rediscovery and it was recorded for the Piedmont label, which was started by Dick Spottswood. So I ordered that record and listened to it a lot and that’s how I got into the country blues.
After seeing Mississippi John Hurt, I was fortunate enough to see many many more musicians from inside that tradition.
I just progressively got deeper and deeper in this world. Like a rabbit hole.
The impact of live country blues
The Philadelphia Folk Festival had quite an impact, it was a big ongoing festival sorta like the Newport Folk Festival. The organizers would get various rediscovered blues musicians in there as they were rediscovered. In the course of 3 to 4 years I saw an amazing number of blues musicians: John Hurt, Son House, Shirley Griffith, Blind Connie Williams, Buddy Moss, Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry, Skip James and a lot more.
When I first saw Son House perform, he just kinda pinned everybody’s ears back because he was like a man possessed. His eyes were rolling back in his head, he’s playing his guitar with enormous amplitude from his right hand. It was just so so intense. For most of the audience who saw him for the first time, they hadn’t seen anything like it before. For some people it was simply ‘too much’.
The same sort of thing happened with Skip James. He’s singing in this falsetto voice, very inward in some ways, almost withdrawn. A very alien sound in some way. But at the same time it’s so intense and emotional. For sure, it was an eye-opening experience to see performers like that.
The really huge difference between being interested in the music “then” and being interested in the music for the first time “now”, is that now there’s greater access now to all the recorded music than at any previous time in history BUT nowadays there’s no access to the people who played it, they’re gone. And that’s a huge difference! Seeing these guys live on stage with their specific societal background, you could feel that energy… That’s not possible anymore.
Spreading the story of country blues music
Of course I think it’s very important to create access to this music as much as you can.
But I think in terms of performance, there’s a danger in becoming too concerned with providing information in between songs when you perform. It can even become a bit annoying. I mean it’s a little too scholarly and it also has the effect of seeming as though you’re standing outside of the music and commenting on it rather than being in the music.
At a certain point I felt like I didn’t want my performance to be a history lesson. I do think it’s important to acknowledge the sources and acknowledge the people who influenced you. I think it’s treading a fine line in terms of being too scholarly and recognizing your sources. At the same time, most people on some level want to be entertained. I think you have to recognize that as well! In the end that’s where it all started with this music.
I’m also interested in the idea of playing music that connects without a big backstory. In other words, it should connect purely on the sound and what it communicates.
Prewar and postwar country blues
First of all, people consider country blues as “pre-war blues”. For one thing I don’t see the war as being a dividing line in terms of the musical qualities. There’s plenty of stuff that happened after World War II that is every bit as much country blues as that which preceded the war. I think using pre-war and post-war is a artificial definitional element when you’re talking about this music.
Just listen to the field recordings of George Mitchell, which were recorded in the early 60’s till the early 80’s in various different places in the rural south. He encountered a lot of people who were still playing solo blues music on the guitar.
I think you have to differentiate between what was made in commercial recordings versus what was made in people’s homes and more informal settings.
Blind Lemon Jefferson
Apart from Mississippi John Hurt and many others, I think Blind Lemon Jefferson is very special to me. I think he’s an unbelievably great singer and a fantastic guitar player. One of the most amazing things about Lemon is that early in his career he’s supposed to have played on the street a lot. Usually people who busk a lot and play on the street end up having a really crashy, loud right hand- kind of noisy. Just because of the need to project.
Lemon isn’t like that, he plays as clean as a whistle. His playing is very nuanced as is his touch. I just find him so thoroughly musical in every conceivable way. He did so much of what people tried to do later, like copying Lemon’s licks. He’s huge.
Recorded versus unrecorded music
There’s something like the feeling that everything that’s recorded was in line with the music played in informal settings, but that’s not necessarily true of course.
Often I found that when you spoke to older musicians or when they were interviewed and they were asked “Who is the best guitar player you ever heard?”, quite often they mentioned some musician who never was recorded.
For example John Jackson said the best guitar player he ever heard was a guy who was a waterboy on a railroad gang or possibly a chain gang who he only knew by the name “Happy”. You have to consider that John Jackson learned to play from records. I mean he heard Blind Blake, Bill Broonzy and all these great guitarists on records. To think that this guy “Happy” was even better than them, it makes you think this “Happy” guy must have been pretty special.
Another example: Big Joe Williams he said he had a cousin named Jessie Logan who played sort of in the same style that he did but was better than he was, which is pretty hard to imagine. I’m sure there are many examples like this, which is very interesting.
And then there are artists who recorded just two songs with that “tip of the iceberg quality” which makes you want to hear more but unfortunately that’s not possible anymore.
Playing country blues in a classical position
I’m a self-taught musician. Posture when playing guitar is very important. Early in my career as a musician I was playing the guitar without paying any attention to my posture. Sometimes I was just playing with an idiotic posture, like lying back in a couch. When I got in my late 30’s I realized when I played with poor posture, my back would hurt.
I found that the classical position of playing guitar, worked much better for me playing with the left leg slightly elevated and with the lower bought of the guitar on my left thigh. What I found is that in the classical position I can sit perfectly straight or I can bend over, but in either instance my spine stays straight. The other thing I like about the classical position is it puts the left wrist in a very natural, almost straight, position. It’s not flexed or twisted at all, that reduces tension.
Play and sing country blues or just play the guitar part?
To me blues without playing AND singing is not just blues with only the playing, it’s just not blues at all to me. The reason that I say this is that when you think of how blues is constructed, it’s basically a call-and-response between the vocal and the guitar. Without the vocal in there you have only the response, you don’t have the call.
For that matter, if you think of Mississippi John Hurt songs, if you don’t have the lyrics and the song being sung- what’s to differentiate between “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” and “Louis Collins”, “I’m Satisfied and Tickled Too” and “Richland Woman Blues”? Without the vocal and lyrics, these are just a bunch of tunes in C. Obviously they don’t have the same melody but in terms of what’s communicated to an audience – those four tunes played consecutively, they’re gonna sound much more the same to each other if you do an instrumental version than if you sing each of these songs. Because the lyrical content is totally different.
When you want to learn to play and sing a tune, I believe it makes sense to do both from the beginning and practice with that. Just start with singing and playing.
I’m still playing gigs but not a lot. Most of the times when I gig, I’m playing in other configurations. I’m not playing solo that much, just now and then.
A lot of the performing I do with country blues, I play in a trio with wonderful musicians. I also play in a duo with a mandolin player and I play sometimes with a violin player.
I’m not only playing country blues, with Ruthie Dornfeld (violin player) we sort of play “cafe music from around the world”- we play Brazilian music, French musette waltzes, Finnish polskas.. a lot from all over the world. With John Reischman (mandolin player) we play original tunes but also Brazilian music, jazz standards and originals.
For most of my adult life, I only did music. I had a period a period from 1982 to 1992 when I worked in a different field. While I was doing that I was still playing music and teaching but apart from that period I only played and taught music as a living.
I don’t think of it that much, but when I look back, I think it’s quite special. One of the advantages of doing some kind of art form, is that hopefully you feel some sense of enrichment or satisfaction from your involvement with this art. The downside is that it’s hard to make a living out of that.
There were good times and times that were less good but I’ve never really been in a serious ‘struggle’.
If you’re really into it, you’re conducting yourself as though as you’re independently wealthy. The only thing is: you’re not independently wealthy!
Teaching the country blues
I got involved with Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop because Stefan contacted me about doing some lessons. We knew of each other but we had never met prior to that time. I think Duck Baker recommended me to Stefan as being a person who could do some instructional videos.
The first ones I did were the videos on Furry Lewis, Bo Carter and Reverend Robert Wilkins. After that I did the Mississippi John Hurt DVD’s volume I and II, followed up with Elizabeth Cotten and I did a bunch after that.
Apart from the DVD material for Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, I teach at music camps and workshops and I teach one-on-one via my own website. At my website you can find, I think, over 300 country blues songs that I transcribed and I offer internet lessons on them. I also say: if you have a song that you want to play that’s not on that list, let me know and I will transcribe and teach it to you.
About the Weenie Campbell site
Weenie Campbell was started by a few long-time attendees at the Port Townsend Country Blues Workshop which started in the mid 1990’s. They originally formed it as a “Listserve”, which I don’t even know if those still exist. It was an internet group of friends who just sort of wanted to maintain contact during the year in between the camps they attended and talk about country blues which they were interested in.
It was eventually changed to a website and it just continued to grow. It now has a branch that’s called “Weeniepedia”, it’s like its own Wikipedia about country blues. There are over 2.500 country blues song lyrics transcribed over there. In addition to that there are all kinds of things like the playing position and tunings for John Hurt’s complete Library of Congress recordings. A lot of stuff, a big resource for country blues.
I’m not directly involved with this site but I post a lot over there and I’m a moderator at the site.
Listening to music nowadays
These days I listen a lot to classical music. This morning for example I was listening to a recording of the classical pianist Murray Peraia. Lately I’ve been listening a lot to recordings by the Dutch soprano Elly Ameling. I also listen to jazz a lot and of course I listen to country blues a lot.
I’m not listening that much to what you would call “modern stuff”, except some really talented people in the fields of jazz, classical and country blues.
Within the country blues I think nowadays Ari Eisinger is a very talented musician. Frank Basile from New Jersey, he’s great. There’s this guy named Lightnin’ Wells who lives in North Carolina who’s excellent. You have Martin Grosswendt who lives in Rhode Island who’s a very good singer and player. And make sure you also check out a young woman from England named Abie Budgen and Michael Roach, who lives in England, as well.
A piece of advice for acoustic blues pickers
Listen to the music a TON. You need to get the sound in you head. Just hang in there. Don’t confuse the quality of the sound of old country blues with the quality of the music.
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