Saturday, February 22, 2014

Fast Frankie

Dave Van Ronk with Elijah Wald, The Mayor of MacDougal Street (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2005), p. 189.

[One of two of Mississippi John Hurt’s songs that were included on the seminal collection, Anthology of American Folk Music, was] this gorgeous piece of fingerpicking called “Frankie’s Blues.” It was a beautiful arrangement, and when those albums came out in the early 1950s, we all immediately set ourselves to learn that thing. It was incredibly fast, though, and after a week or two I dropped by the wayside. A few persisted, and my friend Barry Kornfeld, for one, disappeared into his chambers and emerged six weeks later, blinking like a mole, and he had it. Note for note, just as clean and fast as on the record.

When I first saw John at the CafĂ© Yana, there he was playing “Frankie’s Blues.” I noticed that it was a lot slower than on the record. Of course, he was a good deal older, but it also struck me that it sounded better at that tempo. I wanted to ask him about it, but I wanted to be as diplomatic as possible – I didn’t want to just say, “So, Pops, can’t cut it anymore, eh?” Very tentatively, I said, “You know that ‘Frankie’ thing you played…”

Apparently, I was not the first person to have asked, because John intervened and saved me any further embarrassment. He just smiled and said, “Oh, you want to know why it’s so much slower than on the record?”

I said, “Yeah…”

He said, “Well, you know, that song was so long that they had to speed it up to get it on one side of a 78.”

All I could think of was Barry, sidelined with acute carpal tunnel syndrome.

[In his notes in the booklet accompanying the 1997 reissue of the Anthology, John Fahey writes that it was rumored that when Hurt’s version of “Frankie” “was played for Segovia, he couldn’t believe there were not two guitars at work” (p. 10).]