For more than 50 years Paul Geremia has been on the road, traveling from town to town, playing the blues. It all began in the Summer of 1963 when he hitched a ride to the Newport Folk Festival. That trip changed his life, but then the festival that year was a pivotal event for many people.
Bob Dylan made his first appearance at the festival that year, as did Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton. But for Geremia, it was the festival debut of Mississippi John Hurt, the first of the “rediscovered” rural bluesmen, that mattered. Hurt was at the festival because Tom Hoskins, a young musicologist who had heard one of the records he made in the late 1920s, had traveled to Avalon, Miss., to find him. At that time, by all accounts, Hurt was living happily as a farmer when the young fan first knocked on his door.
Hurt had continued playing for friends in the neighborhood in the 35 years since his brief commercial recording career, but he’d apparently had little interest in pursuing a career as a musician. That all changed when the young scholar came calling. Hurt told an interviewer, “I thought he was the FBI. When he asked me to come up North, I figured if I told him no, he’d take me anyway, so I said yes.”
Over the next three years the 71-year-old bluesman became a cause célèbre in the so-called “folk revival.” In 1964, Time called Hurt “The most important rediscovered folk musician to come out of Mississippi’s Delta country.” For the final few years of his life he was a star. He made a series of recordings in Washington, D.C., he was a guest on “The Tonight Show,” and he played to thousands of young fans at festivals and in clubs across the country.
By all accounts, Hurt was an affable man. People who knew him described him as a warm, wise, grandfatherly kind of fellow. He was also a very accomplished musician. Despite his age he had a very nimble approach to the guitar called fingerpicking that sounds simple until you try it.
The first time Paul Geremia heard Hurt play that way it “blew his mind.” Hurt’s original recordings were out of print at that time, and the recordings he’d made in Washington, D.C., hadn’t yet been released. So for Geremia, seeing the old man play at Newport in 1963 was his first exposure to the style he has spent his life trying to master.
John Hurt is often described as a “songster.” That description would also fit the legendary Charley Patton, one of his contemporaries in Mississippi on the late 1920s, and another model for Geremia. The late blues historian, Robert Palmer, called Patton a “jack-of all-trades bluesman.” Like Hurt, Patton played a mix of “deep blues, white hillbilly songs, nineteenth-century ballads, and other varieties of black and white country dance music with equal facility.”
Geremia is in that same mold. His most recent album on Red House is a compilation of live performances, a couple dating back to the 1980s, but mostly they are from the past couple of years. He’s a very agile picker who has long since mastered Hurt’s technique.
Like Patton and Hurt, his live performances encompass a broad spectrum of styles including everything from breezy, good-natured ragtime ditties like “Lovin Sam (The Sheikh of Alabam’)” to deep blues such as The Reverend Gary Davis’ “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” It’s a song that’s been covered by innumerable players, but few have mastered the spectral foreboding in the lyric with anything approaching Geremia’s insight. As his voice rises and falls with the melody it has the world-weary tone of someone intimately familiar with the writer’s observation that “Death don’t take no vacation in this land.” His playing is masterful. Forcefully pulling on the strings, he slowly builds a deep, resonant counterpoint to the lyric’s description of the grim visitor’s destructiveness. It’s a powerful performance that may well give you a new appreciation of the song.
In 1971, a reviewer in Rolling Stone noted that Geremia had, even then, “established a reputation as ‘one of the finest blues artists to come along in a long time.’” The reviewer also noted that Geremia, like many of his heroes, is “something of a gypsy.” His passion has sustained him, and it can’t have been an easy life. But it has made him a compelling performer, channeling the spirits of those masters from whom he learned his craft.
Paul Geremia and Lon Eldridge
8 p.m. $10 adv./$12 door
Saturday, March 17
Barking Legs Theater 1307 Dodds Ave.
(423) 624-5347 barklegs.org