“They’re listening to each other and how they’re playing off each other. In a way, it’s like what happens with the Dixieland band. When it’s not done correctly, it’s cacophony and, when it’s done right, it’s this beautiful tapestry. Why, I would like to think that this is a beautiful tapestry. They’re listening to each other so well and no one talked about it. If you were in the studio, everyone was like, “That’s cool, let’s go!” and they started playing and they listened. And I was going “Oh, this is too good.” And I just let them go.”
John: Our guest this week on Art of the Song is John Oates. Best known for his work with the hitmaking duo Hall & Oates, John has six solo albums to his credit. Born in New York City, his family moved to a small town outside of Philadelphia, PA in the early 1950’s. Soaking up the sounds of the 60’s, he was influenced by multiple styles including folk, bluegrass, delta blues, and ragtime, while also immersing himself in the R&B legends.
Viv: We spoke with John after the release of Arkansas, originally inspired by the music and legacy of Mississippi John Hurt, the project grew to encompass other artists and styles that represent the dawn of American popular music. According to John, it’s like Dixieland dipped in bluegrass and salted with Delta Blues.
Viv: We’re here at the 30th annual Folk Alliance International in Kansas City. Thrilled to be here in the Media Room with John Oates. Thank you so much for joining us.
John: It’s nice to be here at the 30th annual Folk Alliance. Something I’ve always wanted to go to so why not come on the 30th?
Viv: I’d love to hear about how you got started. Where you’re from originally.
Oates:I was born in New York City. My whole family is from New York. My father got a job and was moved right after World War II to Pennsylvania, so he uprooted the family and we were the only part of the family that moved to Pennsylvania. That’s where I grew up, outside of Philadelphia in a small town called North Wales, which was a country town on the edge of the Amish area. Then, eventually, gravitated to Philadelphia where I went to college at Temple and met Daryl Hall and we started this crazy adventure that’s still ongoing after all these years. In the early/mid 60’s, I got a chance to experience a very rich musical environment in Philadelphia where there was urban R&B and folk music all happening at the same time during the folk boom of the 60’s but also the golden age of R&B. So, on a Saturday night, I could go to the Uptown Theater on N. Broad Street and see Otis Redding and James Brown and The Temptations and then go to the Philadelphia Folk Festival, which is 50 years on now, and the Second Fret, the coffeehouse downtown and see Mississippi John Hurt and Doc Watson and Dave van Ronk, all these great performers who are being rediscovered during that folk boom. So, it was this incredible time. I always like to think that I was in the right place at the right time.
John: Did you grow up in a musical family? How did music come in?
Oates:I grew up in a musically encouraging family, but not a musical family per se. So, no. I started singing as a child. I have a recording of me singing “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” at four years old at Coney Island where you could go into one of those booths and record a little rat record. So, I was singing as a baby and then they recognized it. My mom eventually became a bit of a stage mom. She used to dress me up in red blazers and white bucks and trot me out there. I didn’t really like it that much, but now I appreciate it much more.
Viv: That’s an interesting delineation. At that time, too, it was a time of such change culturally, to have a musically encouraging family, one that would say, “Yes, go follow this!” Who would find you opportunities at that time in the 60’s, there were some folks who weren’t.
Oates:I think my parents, I appreciate them even more today because of that. They were working class people and we weren’t wealthy or anything like that. We lived a decent middle-class life after WWII. My dad worked two jobs, my mom worked a job. But, if I needed a guitar, they figured out a way of me getting another guitar. So, it was good.
Viv: Songwriting. When did you start the songwriting habit?
Oates:I have a great story on that one, I think. It was 7th grade and it was the Cuban Missile Crisis. We had an assignment to write a poem about the Cuban Missile Crisis or about what was going on in the world. Some topical subject in an English class. I wrote a poem and I got an A. The teacher said, “Wow, that’s really good.” Right about that time, I was starting to listen to folk music. People were putting topical songs. People like Phil Ochs were doing topical stuff that related to what was going on in the world and setting it to music and I thought, “Well, hey, I can do this.” By 7th grade, I’d been playing the guitar for over 6 years. I started when I was 6. So, I picked up a guitar and I set this poem to music and that was my first song. I only remember one line from this song. You’re going to like it. It’s corny, but it’s fun because I was in 7th grade. “Pillow of death, 90 miles from our shore, lurking in darkness, awaiting the war.”
Oates:Hey, I got an A. That’s the only thing I remember about that poem.
Viv: I just love that your first song was about the Cuban Missile Crisis.
John: Political from the very beginning.
Viv: So fast forward. Hall & Oates stellar career. We hear your music today on the radio and now you are back to roots with Arkansas. Let’s talk about this new record.
Oates:Well, first of all I’m extremely proud of this record and I’m making every effort for hopefully music lovers from around the world to hear this music because it’s important to me personally, but I think it’s also important to the world of music because I didn’t intend to make this record. There was no master plan. I would have loved to have said that I had envisioned this. But what happened was I just wanted to make a very casual recording of some Mississippi John Hurt songs because I know all his material and I was a big fan. I actually own his guitar, the one he played at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, but that’s a whole other story we can get into later if you like. So, I recorded a few in the traditional sense of a guitar and voice and I thought, “Ok, that’s fine”. I listened to the stuff that we did in the studio and I thought “Well, it’s been done before, and I’ll never do it as well as the original.” But then one night I just loved the songs and I thought “What if I played this with a band?” It occurred to me that I never heard these songs that are so associated with solo guitar and voice to be played by a band. So, I assembled a group of my friends and some of the greatest players, you know, Sam Bush, a legendary mandolin player. A guy named Russ Paul who is an innovative pedal steel player, he plays with Dan Auerbach among other people. A bass player who’s been out with Rosanne Cash. I could name drop all day. Great players who are also friends with mine who I’ve also played with live and in the studio. I assembled them together and we went in the studio and I said, “Look, I’m going to play the traditional stuff. I’m going to play Mississippi John Hurt. I want you guys to do whatever you hear around it and just do whatever you do.” There was no direction. I trusted them because of their skill. From the first track we cut, Stack O’ Lee, one of the classics, the sound was so incredible. My engineer turns to me, he goes, “John, I don’t know what this project is, but whatever this project is just keep doing it.” That’s how we started. We cut five songs in five days. Then we took a little break over the holidays, this was in November of ’16 and then in January of ’17 we came back, and we cut another five songs. By that time, I had realized I wanted to expand this project beyond Mississippi John Hurt to include a snapshot of the music that was happening during his first period of recording between 1926-1929 and I realized that also coincided with the early days of radio, with the invention of the phonograph (or the popularity of the phonograph, it was invented earlier). These things mark the birth of the beginning of American popular music. So, I wanted to create a snapshot of these early days, not for an educational purpose but to show there was music before rock ‘n roll and the music that led to the big band music that led to rock ‘n roll….and I’m old enough to actually remember big band music. That’s all my parents listened to when I was a kid. So, I remember music before rock ‘n roll and I thought a younger generation should be able to appreciate this too. That’s how the album evolved. It was really an organic thing that manifested itself as we went.
Viv: I love this idea that it was the music before rock ‘n roll but also the snapshot of an era. It has a very literary feel to it to me. It’s a very literary album in that there’s this simple language used in the songs. The simple approach to the basic tracks and then with all this incredible influence that comes in and around it. I want to just mention these videos that are on YouTube that are available for people to look at and to listen to you talk about each song, track by track, which is a wonderful way of introducing the music. You talk about the emotional landscape of the songs, the emotional influences. Does the instrumentation help you access that emotional work that is locked inside the song?
Oates:Well, I think that what it did is that the instrumentation and the skill of the players and the sensibility of the players…and I might add too, what you hear when you listen to the record and what, I think, everyone will hear, which is the obvious thing, is this incredible virtuosity that’s happening by the players. But what I hear and what I appreciate on a different level is how they’re listening. They’re listening to each other and how they’re playing off each other. In a way, it’s like what happens with a Dixieland band. There’s this tapestry. When It’s not done correctly it’s cacophony and when it’s done right, it’s this beautiful tapestry. I would like to think that this is a beautiful tapestry. They’re listening to each other so well and no one talked about it. That was the beauty. No one discussed anything. Everyone was just, ‘That’s cool, let’s go’ and they started playing and they listened, and I was going ‘Oh, this is too good’ and I just let them go. There was no discussion. There wasn’t even a discussion of who would take a solo. When the solo came, and we knew where the solo was in the arrangement of the song, someone would play. The guys that didn’t play just layer back and then another person would play. It was truly, and I don’t want to sound corny when I say this, it was beautiful. It was a beautiful experience to be in the room with these incredibly skilled players. I probably went off the reservation with this. I don’t know where I started.
Viv: That’s great. That’s where this show lives.
Oates:Off the reservation? I’ll send up the smoke signal, we’ll come back.
Viv: That’s John’s job is to get a through-line. It’s amazing what you just said.
John: Yeah and obviously everything was recorded live all at one time. No overdubs?
Oates:Totally live. There is not one overdub on this record. I will be totally honest. There were a few vocal things that I had to fix mostly because I sang the wrong words or I kind of messed up or I focused on what I was playing and I kind of garbled. We recorded onto analog tape and then we used all vintage equipment. The studio we used and the engineer/co-producer we used, a guy named David Kalmusky, who is a fantastic guy, he’s a collector of vintage gear. So, we used all these amazing tube-amplifiers and things like that. Limiters. Then we mastered it in a place called “Back to 1979” which has an old lathe from the 1960’s. So, we tried to keep it as period appropriate as possible. We intended this recorded to be heard on vinyl. It is available on 180-gram vinyl which is the real heavy-duty vinyl. The fact that it comes out on CD or in the digital realm is just because it does. But really, I think this record is meant to be heard on vinyl.
Viv: In the folk tradition, there’s a part of it where you hear the original and then you add with utmost respect and utmost reverence for the original. You added a chorus to one of the songs.
Oates:Well, I like to call it a refrain, but yes. You can call it whatever you want. But I did. I added.
Viv: Can you talk about that?
Oates:I think you’re talking about “Make me a pallet on your floor” where I decided to call it “pallet soft and low” because I added a refrain that wasn’t there. I felt it was my responsibility to collaborate with my hero, whether he liked it or not. I don’t know. I hope he’s looking down and smiling. He didn’t have any say in it and it was my record, so I don’t know what else to say about that one. Many blues songs are very Catholic. They’re very codified in a certain kind of format, and it’s mostly a series of verses. Very seldom is there a pop convention involved with verses and choruses and bridges. I felt I had played “Make me a pallet on your floor” so many times and it’s been heard so many times. So many amazing versions of it. I just thought there’s that one version where it says, “Lay me a pallet down soft and low so my good girl will never know” and it was something about laying his pallet down soft and low and I just said “Soft and low, ok” and I turned that into a refrain and I added these kind of quasi-modern chords to that section, which is totally out of the realm of the original, but not too far I hope. There’s only one gal, or anyone else, singing on the record. This woman named Wendy Moten from Memphis who is just one of my favorite singers of all time. I had her come in and just sing “Soft and low” with me and this beautiful, sexy, cool texture that really seems to take the spirit of that song because it’s kind of dirty song in a way. It’s about…whatever… you know what it’s about.
Viv: It’s a sexy song.
Oates:Hopefully I made it a little sexier.
Viv: That’s right. And he won’t complain about that.
Oates:No, he wouldn’t. Hey, from the guy who sang “Candyman”, I don’t think he’d have any problem with that.
John: Tell us about the title track “Arkansas”.
Oates:That happened almost after the fact. We recorded, as I said, five songs in November and then took a break for the holidays. Then, I was offered to play a show in a place called Wilson, Arkansas which is in the northern delta just northwest of Memphis on the other side of Mississippi river and it was one of the largest cotton plantations in America. I’d never been there before. Not far from Johnny Cash’s hometown, Dyess. After the show, we played in this cool little village and walked out into the cotton fields under the moonlight. Highway 61 was right there, and the Mississippi River was right and there, and I said, “Wherever this is, this is it.” That moment crystalized this experience of this traditional music coming up from the deep, deep south through the delta on its way up to the northern cities where it became Rock ‘n Roll and all the other things that it became. It just seemed like I was in this very special place. Then I went home, and I literally wrote the song that night. I came up with the chorus that night, I couldn’t help myself, and I crafted the verse in the next day or so and then, right at the end of the recording sessions, it was the last thing we recorded. We had one more day in the studio and I was really pumped because I felt I had something special. The guys didn’t know. They thought we were going to record another Mississippi John Hurts song and I walked in and said, “Here’s what we’re going to play today” and I played the song and they all went “Oh, that’s good. Let’s go.” By then, we were so well-oiled and so into it that it just happened. As a songwriter, I almost felt in a way it was my responsibility to try to live up to the great tradition of these amazing songs that I was recording, so I wanted to do my part to add to that canon.
Viv: If you could talk about why you were drawn to this music in the first place, because your career took off in a very popular way. You were Billboard charts, #1 hits, very much in the popular eye, yet this is where you live.
Oates:This was the music that spoke to me and that I was making before I met Daryl Hall. By the time I had met him when I was 19, I had been playing guitar for 13, 14 years. This was the music I was playing, I played coffeehouses, I played blues, I played bluegrass, I did all that stuff. When we got together, it was that kind of collaboration that had to do with his classical training and his love or urban doo-wop and street corner music and this traditional American stuff that I was bringing, and we blended it together. Even though it went in a distinctly pop and, of course, in the 80’s we went in an electronic world and it was very popular.
Viv: The folk of the time.
Oates:It was the folk of the time. The music that we made in the 80’s was, to me, like a song like “Man-eater” that’s a song about New York City in the 80’s. So, I guess you would call it some kind of urban folk music at the time. But the traditional side of what I did really got buried in the popularity and the demands of being a pop star. Quite frankly, I just went along with it. I got swept up in it. I don’t regret it, but I also realize now that it wasn’t really who I am and now with this passage of time and the success of that has enabled me to return to this. I think it is a function of age too. I think as I’ve gotten older, I think I wanted to re-capture whatever that was. Older people I guess maybe they always want to recapture youth in a way, but at the same time it’s done with a different experience and with a different point of view. I don’t want to be young, but I want that thing that I had.
Viv: I get that.
Oates:So, I think that’s what happened. It all happened. I guess it was meant to be.
Viv: What would you say to an up-and-coming songwriter or someone who just really wants to step into that world. How would you encourage them?
Oates:In the time-honored tradition that every artist going back to the beginning of time, whether it’s the renaissance… or become a student and you find a mentor. If you can’t physically find one, you listen to the people you like, who you admire, and in your formative years you try to copy. You literally should copy the people you like and, by copying them, you’ll unlock, and you’ll get some insight into what they do and how they do what they do. Then, if you have talent, and you have creativity, you may be able to translate that into something original in the best of all worlds. It doesn’t always happen. Some people are better at it than others. To me, I don’t think it’s ever changed. Even to this day, that’s what I do. By surrounding myself with these players on that album project, and also when we’re playing live, I’m always asking questions. I’m watching what they do and how they do it. I love to collaborate with songwriters, especially songwriters I don’t know, because it’s almost like going to a shrink. You want to get into their heads, because not only do you want to draw out the best in them, in doing so you might also draw out the best in yourself. Then I learn how they think. I write a lot with a guy named Jim Lauderdale. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a chance to talk to him, but he’s fascinating and he’s an amazing songwriting. You would love to have him on your show if you haven’t. Jim is an amazing person. He’s eclectic. He’s known for his country music. He’s known for his bluegrass. But he is so much bigger and so much wider in scope. When I get with him, the songs we write, they don’t sound like his songs, they don’t sound like my songs, they sound like some completely different thing. To me, it’s fantastic.
Viv: John, would you be willing to play a song?
Oates:Sure, can I play a song I wrote with Jim Lauderdale?
Viv: Oh, heck yes.
Oates:One night, we were getting together, and I started doing this Carter Family strum, which is a very old-fashioned style strum and Jim said, “That’s really cool. I wish we could write a modern song with that really old strum.” So, we came up with this. Jim is from North Carolina, so the song is called “When Carolina Comes Home Again”.
Viv: John Oates, thank you so much for talking with us on Art of the Song.
Viv: It doesn’t have to be.
Oates:Oh, we’re just getting started!
Viv: I know! So what else? Oh, tell us about the guitar!
Oates:Oh, that story? That’s so incredible. When Mississippi John Hurt came to town, my guitar teacher Jerry Ricks lived in South Philadelphia and he lived across the street from a guy named Dick Waterman. Dick Waterman was a photographer and also a manager of a lot of traditional arts and Bonnie Raitt actually lived with Dick for quite a while. That’s why Bonnie is as good as she is because she sat in the living room with Son House and he taught her how to play slide guitar. So that’s why Bonnie is such the real thing. So, they lived across the street from each other, my guitar teacher Jerry Ricks and Dick Waterman. When the folk revival started in the early 60s and these performers would come to Philadelphia to play Philadelphia folk festival or the coffeehouses, they didn’t have any money, they didn’t know where to stay, and a lot of them, especially the Delta Blues men, they had no idea how to live in a northern city. They couldn’t go to a hotel. They couldn’t do anything. So, they would sleep at Dick’s house and the overflow would come to Jerry’s house across the street and sleep on his couch. So, I would go for my guitar lesson and Doc Watson would be sitting there. Or Robert Pete Williams. So, I got a chance to hear these guys. Mississippi John Hurt had passed away before I met my guitar teacher. But before he passed away, my guitar teacher had taken him around and his guitar that was given to him by the Newport folk festival people in 1964, when he was brought up to Newport he really didn’t have much of an instrument, they took him to New York to a place called Fretted Instruments in Greenwich Village and they said, “Pick whatever you want” and he chose a Guild 530 Sunburst Guitar which, if you look at pictures from him from Newport, you’ll see him playing it. When he passed away, that guitar was given to Jerry, my guitar teacher. So, a few years later, in the early 70’s, when Daryl and I were doing our first album in New York, I wanted Jerry to play with me on those first two records. So, he said, “Do you want me to bring Mississippi John’s guitar to the studio in New York?” And I said, “Yeah, of course!” So, he did. So, the guitar I’m playing on the first two Hall & Oates records is that guitar. So now we fast forward to mid-70’s, Jerry Ricks moves to Denver, Colorado and he needed money, so he sold the guitar to the Denver Folklore Center, a guy named Harry Tuft. You probably know Harry. Then Harry sold it to another guy, I can’t remember his name, lived in Denver. It was part of his collection all these years and he recently passed away in the past year. His daughter, who was in charge of his estate, had read in my book that I played that guitar so she found me and said, “Would you like to buy it?” And I went, “Yes, I would!” And now I have that guitar. So, it has come back to me. If I have any small, tiny regret it would be that I didn’t have it to actually make the album with, which would have maybe been too crazy. Too much. So, I got it right after I made the album and now I have it. So now, in my music room, it sits on a stand to my right and on my left on the cabinet is a picture of Mississippi John Hurt playing that guitar. So, I’m in this vortex of mojo. I don’t know what it is. So, I’ve got the guitar and it’s fantastic and I’ve got it and it’s amazing. Can I just go a little further with this?
Oates:Harry Tuft told me, because Harry Tuft knew about the guitar and he’s the one that facilitated the sale of the guitar. Harry Tuft told me that over the years, even when he had it and any time anyone came into the Denver Folklore Center, when he would tell them “This is Mississippi John Hurt’s guitar” they would pick up the guitar and play “My Creole Belle”. Everyone played the same song. And when I picked up the guitar, that’s exactly what I did, and he never told me that. After I did it, he told me. And I went, “Uh-oh”.
John: Some serious mojo there.
Oates:The last guy to play that guitar before I bought it was Tom Paxton and the first thing he did was play “My Creole Belle”.
Viv: We just spent a little time at the American Jazz Center and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. It was so apparent in some of the things people were talking about in the museums that music has no race. Music has no time. Music has no differentiation. That’s what it sounded like to me when you were talking about the influences that came together in you. Can you talk a little bit about how that would resonate in the album Arkansas? It seems like it just goes beyond time, space, race, culture.
Oates:It’s something that I didn’t consider early on, but I’ve been considering it as I’ve been talking about the record a lot, obviously because it just came out, but now I’m realizing it’s actually an interracial record. Which I didn’t think about, or it wasn’t designed that way in any way. You have Mississippi John Hurt, which has the African-American Delta or Mississippi experience. But then you have a guy like Emmett Miller, who was a white man who actually performed in blackface in minstrel shows. The song that I recorded “Anytime” was arguably the first hit record ever recorded. Well, it sold a million copies, so I guess that qualifies. So here you have Emmett Miller, a white man doing blackface without talking about how weird that might be or how un-politically correct that might be, it was still an important part of the American musical experience back then. Then you have a guy like Jimmie Rodgers, who was kind of the godfather of country music. All being played on the radio at the same time. A black man, a white man pretending to be a black man, and a white man who basically influenced the future of American country music. All being played on the radio at the same time. And these are the songs that are on this record. So, I feel the record has, in a way, this kind of interracial quality that I didn’t design in any way. It was just a by-product of feeling the music.