I started to play guitar when I was six. It was mostly because of Elvis but my folks also had Segovia records. I learned to play on a Gibson LG-1 acoustic steel string. One of my favorite songs that I learned to play was “Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash. The recorded version had these simple but incredible “runs” between chord changes. I learned to play it with a flat pick.
For a very long time I did not make much progress. Except for Buddy Holly songs like “Peggy Sue” and Ricky Nelson’s “Be Bop Baby”, I was pretty uninspired. A few years later, a friend’s older sister had Bob Dylan’s debut album. He covered “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.” Everything about it was amazing, the song, singing style, the harmonica. He also played the guitar very differently. Instead of using a flat pick, he picked the strings with his fingers.
This style of playing became my obsession. With the help of some older Detroit folk guitar players like Marc Chover and Ted Lucas, I was able to learn the technique. The great masters of include Robert Johnson, Elizabeth Cotton and Rev. Gary Davis. Among the most important and influential was Mississippi John Hurt.
Hissyncopated acoustic fingerpicking style inspired thousands ofguitar players. His story was recently presented on “American Epic” on PBS. He recorded for Okeh records in 1928 in Memphis and NYC, and then went back home to Avalon, Mississippi where he was a farmer. He almost never knew the fate of his recordings.
His obscure 78 rpm records became the resource for young folk guitar players of the early 1960’s. Folk artists like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk and many others adapted his style into theirs.
In 1963, John Hurt was “rediscovered” by two musicologists who found him in Avalon. They introduced him to the growing and appreciative young folk music audience. He made additional recordings and concert appearances until his death in 1966.
Anytime you see an acoustic or electric guitar player (e.g. Bonnie Raitt, Ed Sheeran, Derek Trucks) using their thumb, index and middle fingers in an alternatingpicking pattern instead offlat picking, it is likely they studied John Hurt’s technique.
Check out performances of “Candy Man” and “Spike Driver Blues”.