remixing an image of mississippi john hurt at the 1964 berkeley folk music festival.
*See the peer-reviewed version of this essay: “Glitching History: Using Image Deformance to Rethink Agency and Authenticity in the 1960s American Folk Music Revival,” Current Research in Digital History 1 (2018).
When Mississippi John Hurt’s Head Moved
In 2013, Mississippi John Hurt’s head moved.
Of course, it did not actually move. The Delta blues songster—who first recorded songs for the OKeh label in the late 1920s, then appeared on Harry Smith‘s influential Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952, and was eventually “rediscovered” by young white and black folk revivalists in the 1960s—died in 1966 at the age of 73. His gravesite in Avalon/Carrollton, Mississippi, remains a peaceful pilgrimage site for lovers of his gently coy singing, virtuosic fingerpicked guitar playing, and quietly regal persona.
Hurt’s real head did not move, but a digital version of it did. A student in my Digitizing Folk Music History seminar at Northwestern University took a historical photograph from the 1964 Berkeley Folk Music Festival and glitched it, messing with the photo’s digitized data to create a new image from the existing one.
Like a folk musician reviving a song from tradition and updating it for the present, the student recombined the elements of the photograph into something different. This glitched “cover version” of the original image became a visual remix of sorts, Hurt took center stage in the photograph, pushing his fellow musicians Sam Hinton and Doc Watson to the edges.
The student did not do this to erase, ignore, destroy, or distort history. This was not a little Joseph Stalin airbrushing a high-ranking comrade who had been sent to the gulag out of an official photograph. Precisely the opposite. The student reached back into the past computationally. He grabbed hold of the alchemical historical processes lodged in an image’s chemical reactions and relit the photograph’s significance digitally, in a new code, a binaural rearrangement that can lead us to perspectives captured, but perhaps submerged and hidden, in the original photograph.
Shifting John Hurt to the center of the image asks us also to glitch the dominant history of the folk revival as a whole: what does it mean to place this great figure to the middle of things rather than the younger, white, bourgeois performers and audiences who usually hold the spotlight? What does it mean to tell the story of an event such as the 1964 Berkeley Folk Music Festival with Hurt as the protagonist?
The “Patriarch Hippie” From Avalon, Mississippi to the “Athens of the West”
John Hurt, whose eventual manager Dick Waterman described as the “patriarch hippie” of the 60s folk revival, remains an enigmatic figure.1 Unlike the classic Delta bluesmen (Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson), Hurt played songs in a much more placid (yet technically difficult) fingerpicking style, one more commonly associated with the “ragtime” guitar of the Carolina Piedmont region than the Mississippi Delta. He was a deeply religious man, but also enjoyed the more profane dimensions of life, from alcohol to music to gentlemanly flirting. He was beloved by younger folk revivalists for his musical and personal mix of mellowness and mischievousness. They wanted to emulate Hurt, or at least the persona Hurt presented to them. But of course they did so across vast distances of difference in life experience.
Born in 1892, his parents had been slaves in Alabama and Mississippi until emancipation. He came of age as the youngest child of their large family during the worst years of Jim Crow segregation and white supremacy in the South, particularly the Mississippi Delta’s fertile cotton growing region. The dynamics of racial oppression under Jim Crow shaped Hurt’s life deeply. Biographer Philip R. Radcliffe points out that even after being “rediscovered” and embraced by folk revival audiences, Hurt remained very wary of interracial interactions. This makes perfect sense: the uncertainty of these new social interactions must have been difficult to assess, manage, and negotiate.
And yet, Hurt is fascinating for the ways in which he also transcended the conditions of Jim Crow in which he grew up. Like many who navigated their way through these extremely difficult conditions and beyond them into other spaces, he did so through a combination of strategic deference, sharp humor, trust in his own judgment, and a religious faith. Hurt always looked for ways to change his circumstances but he also always took things in stride. He kept his bearings. Perhaps this mix of steady calm and openness to new opportunities was what proved so attractive to folk revivalists, many of whom were young men and women, mostly, but not entirely white and from middle-class families, who were coming of age in a very different world than Hurt did. Theirs was a place of affluence and the promise of freedom, but they also faced grave concerns about how their personal fates might be destroyed, at any moment, by shifting structures beyond their control, from the larger Cold War to the machinations of a modern culture and system that threatened to dehumanize.
It’s not, to be clear, that their structural conditions or personal experiences in any way resembled Hurt’s life under Jim Crow, but precisely the opposite: seeming to reappear magically in the early 1960s from a distant pre-World War II past, he offered a model from a very different context that they received as a miraculous resource for how to move, be, play, survive, and maybe even thrive in their own situations. Hurt was a man out of time, and his displacement into the youth culture of the early 1960s was part of why he held such allure to these new audiences.2
Why were they so taken with Mississippi John Hurt? He had recorded a set of important and distinctive songs in the late 1920s for the OKeh label in New York City, but with the onset of the Depression they did not sell many copies and he returned to work as a sharecropper in his hometown, where he continued to perform at local dances, though less and less so as technologies of recorded sound and new genres and styles overtook his ragtime-era acoustic-guitar style. In 1963, a young white bohemian Tom Hoskins, who ran with a set of folk-obsessed young men in the Washington DC area, located Hurt in Avalon, Mississippi, after listening to an old 78 by Hurt titled “Avalon Blues.” Hoskins, and later Dick Waterman, helped manage Hurt’s return to the national music business with a triumphant “second career” during the “great folk scare” of the early and mid 1960s.
I read in the bible, it says, ‘the older men teach the younger ones. I’m glad I got something that they want. …”Candyman,” they like “Candyman.”
— Mississippi John Hurt at the Newport Folk Festival
In 1964, after time spent in Washington DC, New York, and an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, Hurt traveled out West for the first time to perform at places such as the famous Ash Grove club in Los Angeles and the Berkeley Folk Music Festival on the Cal campus in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The Berkeley Folk Music Festival arose out of director Barry Olivier‘s folk music program, “The Midnight Special,” on the Pacifica station KPFA during the mid-1950s. Olivier went on to promote folk music concerts at the Northgate club at the edge of the Cal campus and he opened one of the first folk music-oriented instrument shops in the East Bay. He had grown up in Berkeley and spent time as a student at Cal, particularly in the theater program.
With the encouragement of the university’s Associated Students organization, Olivier began presenting an annual summer folk music concert in 1958 after a few years of organizing one-night winter programs. The festival grew into one of the premiere folk music events on the West Coast and continued under Olivier’s direction until 1970. Musicologist Charles Seeger, his better-known sons Pete and Mike (the latter with the New Lost City Ramblers), Joan Baez, local one-man band Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller, Mance Lipscomb, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, the Jefferson Airplane, folklorist Alan Lomax, and many others participated in the events, which took at locations across the Cal campus for an annual weekend of performances, workshops, forums, dances, campfires, and a large jubilee concert in the Greek Amphitheater.
The Berkeley Folk Music Festival remains an understudied dimension of both the larger post-World War II folk revival and the history of the 1960s in particular. Taking place on the Cal campus, in a town that fashioned itself the “Athens of the West,” at what was perhaps the preeminent public university of its time, during the height of the Cold War, the Berkeley Festival called into being a different kind of public than the East Coast and Midwestern folk music clubs and festivals of the era. It was not disconnected from those other locations and indeed formed a kind of West Coast terminus in a national—and eventually international—network of roots music venues, fans, and cultural outposts. However, Berkeley possessed a very different dynamic than back East, one that was less ideologically rigid, less informed by the sectarian scars of leftwing politics, and more fluid in its interactions between bohemian avant-garde elements and political liberals, progressives, and radicals (and even some conservatives).
Add to this mix the peculiar legacies of dynamics of class and region dating back to the Gold Rush combined with the intense effects of the military-industrial complex on postwar employment, settlement patterns, suburban growth, and communal interactions in the Bay Area, and one begins to see that while Berkeley was a folk music festival much like the more famous Newport (which it in fact inspired in the late 1950s with the concept of holding workshops and forums as well as concerts), it also arose in a different regional context, one worthy of close study for its own particularities.
A Mount Rushmore of the Folk Revival
Mississippi John Hurt arrived at the Berkeley Folk Music Festival to a different dynamic than either in the South of his origins or the East Coast to which he’d traveled for his second career in the music business. He carried those experiences with him to the Bay Area, but there he took his place within a configuration that was linked to, but not quite the same as, those prior locations.
Posing for one of many photographs at the Berkeley Festival in 1964, Hurt presents a moment to consider the larger history in which this one image is enmeshed and on which it casts new light. We find ourselves backstage at the Greek Theater, probably on the final day of the event: Sunday, June 28th. We see Hurt alongside two very different figures: in the middle of the image is Sam Hinton, the Berkeley Festival master of ceremonies, a musician in his own right, and a professor of oceanography at University of California, San Diego; and next to Hinton is the blind, white Appalachian stringed-instrument virtuoso Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson.
The photograph captures a wonderful moment: three men posing in a kind of Mount Rushmore portrait of the folk revival during the early 1960s. Each man is not only an individual performer at the Festival, but also, in the framing of the image, he represents a particular component of the revival.
In the foreground is the short, stocky Hurt; we are perhaps to glimpse the black musical traditions of the Mississippi Delta and the South as a whole in his body. The middle-class folk revivalist of Hinton mediates the photograph and holds its center point. The white rural mountain man Watson stands proudly on Hinton’s other side, clutching a banjo.
Hurt looks up and to his left, his body turned away from the camera, his guitar tucked into his elbow and armpit, his familiar bowler hat on and his famous twinkle shooting out from heavy lids. Hinton looks down, perhaps bashfully, a snappy narrow striped tie giving him a touch of sleek modern cool for a middle-aged science professor and folk music scholar. Watson, who never let his impaired vision stop him from chopping wood to, some say, driving, in his native Deep Gap, North Carolina, looks out proudly at the camera, his hair neatly combed and a sharp plaid green blazer behind the five-string banjo that hangs on a thin leather strip from his shoulder.
Against the backdrop of the neoclassical Greek Amphitheater (itself modeled after the theater at Epidaurus and built with funds from newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst), in the “Athens of the West,” at what was perhaps the preeminent public university of its time, during the height of the Cold War, as The Beatles continued to lead the British Invasion and its transformation of popular music in the United States, while the civil rights movement gathered steam and the nation witnessed the dramatic passage of federal laws overturning Jim Crow law, and, at Cal itself, in the summer just before New Left political activism would explode upon the scene with the student Free Speech Movement, here was a vision of harmonious American vernacular, and more particularly Southern, culture portrayed symbolically, in an image of Southern black and white, Delta and Appalachian, old and young, men assembled together.
The photograph of Hurt, Hinton, and Watson reminds us, most of all, that American regionality does not only get determined in the region itself: the South is not created only in the South; it also gets formed as a place from outside the region. In Northern California, American Southernness was being reimagined, repictured…glitched. Out West, the photograph suggests, a renegotiation of musical, and by extension social, concordance was underway. A newfound audience of white, middle-class, cosmopolitan fans and participants such as Hinton were bringing into alignment Southern, rural, working-class blacks and whites. Bodies of song and physical bodies assembled into a new arrangement. Guitars and banjos, blazers and work shirts, open collars and stripped ties, bowler hats and balding heads and well-coiffed hair, smiles of ease and still other smiles that hid other emotions and stances within them—they appeared together, posing the potential for a new kind of solidarity and ordering of Southern, and American, race relations. The times were a-changin’, as Bob Dylan was singing at the time.
And yet, were they completely transformed? The image also points to deeper, buried politics of race resurfacing in the folk revival. This photograph, in other words, summons forth other ghosts too.
Perhaps it even conjures something as seemingly unlikely as the long arc and reach of the blackface minstrel show’s legacy. There is something to the image, an accident but present nonetheless, that distantly resembles the arrangements of the classic blackface minstrel show, with its Tambo and Bones end men and Interlocutor at the center.
No one is literally in blackface, of course, and the ideologies of the revival were, at their most idealistic, fundamentally opposed to the stereotypes of blackness found in the nineteenth and early-twentieth century minstrel show. However, as scholars with as diverse opinions as Robert Cantwell, W. T. Lhamon, Eric Lott, and Grace Elizabeth Hale have shown, the folk revival did bear the traces of the minstrel show’s underlying energies when it came to the interplay of race and class, Southern and Northern (and Western) regional understandings, age and generational dissent, sexuality and gender norms, and, most of all, the power relations, negotiations, assertions, and resistances flowing through music and musical performance.
Hale writes of a kind of “minstrel” logic to both 1950s rock and roll and the subsequent folk revival of the early 1960s:
Rock and roll worked like minstrelsy, displacing incompatible desires onto fantasies of blackness and then taking them back up, cleansed of contradiction, through identification with African Americans. For many white middle-class fans, folk music provided this kind of release or psychological disassociation as it broadened minstrelsy’s fantasies to include rural whites as well as blacks.
At stake in this psychological use of race and region was, as Hale points out, “a temporal and geographic displacement as well.”3
Among scholars, Hale is the least sympathetic to the minstrel logics lurking, buried, in the folk revival. “The mid-century revival, however, never acknowledged its minstrel influences,” she writes:
the way revivalists’ efforts to copy not just the songs but the vocal tones of older folk musicians they worshipped drew from the performance conventions of minstrelsy. A great deal of self-conscious acting went into making these “real” folk. In this sense, old musicians like Mississippi John Hurt and Dock Boggs, who had second careers in the revival, and younger musicians like Leadbelly, who had their main careers there, performed a role similar to that of blacked-up black men (“the only real coons around”) on the turn-of-the-century minstrel stage. What the revival hailed as the “real” folk were actually musicians playing revivalists playing the folk.4
Many revivalists were quite aware of these matters, a point that Hale largely ignores. They may not have been able to situate it within the long reach of the blackface minstrel show’s legacy, but they were on to the strange career of authenticity.
Even Sam Hinton himself was cognizant of the vexed issues of imitation when it came to folk revival activity. In an article titled “The Singer of Folk Songs and His Conscience,” originally published in 1955 in Western Folklore, he noted, humorously, the conundrum he faced as a folk revival performer:
I must regretfully class myself as an outsider in relation to any folk song, since my own community (which we might call the Urban Literate Southern California Sub-Group of the Early Atomic Period) has not yet produced a distinct body of folk music of its own. My innovations are therefore spurious, not being a part of any folk tradition. A true folk song can tell us something about the culture that produced it; but any changes I make are related not to a culture, but to me, and the resulting song will tell more about my own habits and prejudices than about the folk who made the song.
Hinton concluded that, “All in all, I have become resigned to the fact that my renditions are, at best, no more than translations of the real thing.”
Hinton believed that folk “imitators” had to register their appropriations and borrowings on stage, striving most of all to serve as intermediaries between appropriated (often romanticized) traditions and the urban audiences eager to access those musical legacies but now alienated from their own origins in more small, rural, rooted, isolated communities. He and Hale differ in that he still believed that there are such things as “real” folk musicians and a “real” folk music tradition; she seems to view the performance of identity, what scholars call as the only “real” that exists: there is nothing else except what scholars call “performativity.”5
These differences, vexing and important as they are, matter the most to the white, professional participants in the folk revival, the figures symbolized by Hinton, whose bust is “carved” into the center of this Mount Rushmore folk revival photograph. Hurt and Watson remain on the flanks, sidemen, while the interlocutor’s story predominates. He is in the middle of things.
But does this have to be so?
Rearranging the Pixels
What happens when my student puts Hurt’s head at the center of the picture instead of Hinton’s? Can we tell a different story if we rearrange the pixels, recognize the photograph’s data to recenter the focus of its lens on the history of the folk revival, particularly out at Berkeley in 1964? What if we try to tell the story from Hurt’s perspective, with him as the focal point, rather than Hinton and the urban, white, middle-class audiences of the West Coast?
In other words, what if we use the glitchy remix to see things, hear things, perceive things, know things from the past differently? Does a futuristic reorganization of the bits and bytes of a photograph, now digitized from its original chemical emulsions on paper, paradoxically allow us to return, to time travel back, to the cultural ether and atmosphere from which it came and capture information that the photograph preserved, but did not literally show?
To ask these questions is to push digital historical methods toward the tactics of the artist and the computer scientist all at once, harnessing the manipulation of code to alter the form of digitized data in service of new perceptions, perspectives, phenomenologies (to use the fancy philosophical term). It is to distort evidence in service of understanding it more accurately. It is always to bring to the surface the “wrongness” of a glitched image, even in some sense to queer it, denormalize it, know it as unknowingly weird and disoriented in order to bring other possibilities to light, within the frame, through the lens. What if, as digital historians, we not only read against the grain of the archive of the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, but through a digital operation of re-illumination even go so far as to reassemble its very material fibers?
Placing Hurt at the center raises awareness about the vectors of identity and social location and individual agency shot through these Mount Rushmore figures and their presence in the folk revival. Unsettling the static image reminds us that there are many ways to consider Hurt, Hinton, and Watson. We might consider them by birth date, musical style, region of origin, racial label, economic background, class label, gender, or some other criteria. Returning to the original image after looking at the glitched one illuminates the many ways one might characterize these three figures and the associations among them.
The many associations among Hurt, Hinton, and Watson: a slideshow of the Mount Rushmore photograph.
And there are still other interpretations suggested by close attention to the glitched image: Hurt’s playful gaze now sits above Watson’s banjo, reminding us that the banjo is an African instrument in origin despite being taken up by white Appalachian mountain folk later in its American development.
Meanwhile, Watson’s head now sits above Hinton’s thin “mod” striped tie, a reminder that he began his career as a more modern rockabilly guitarist in North Carolina before folklorist Ralph Rinzler “discovered” him and urged him to return to his family and region’s musical roots.
Another nice touch is that Hinton and Watson’s blazers have merged, their bodies turned into some kind of folk revival-cyborg, as if to remind us that we cannot forget the racial dynamics of whiteness and blackness even in the West Coast’s more open and hopeful eagerness to erase unjust characterizations of identity based on skin color. Whiteness still provided certain kinds of privilege even in a setting in which almost everyone celebrated the miraculous arrival out of national obscurity of John Hurt.
The glitched photo also asks us to attempt to experience the folk revival from Hurt’s perspective for a moment. We cannot really do this, of course. No more than we can truly perceive the world from any other historical actor’s perspective entirely. But we can try. Moving Hurt to the center reminds us of the multifaceted ways in which he adjusted his persona to succeed in this new context, like any performer learning as he encountered audiences what pleased them and what did not.
Hurt also simply seems to have stayed himself in many ways. Like the steady alternating thumbed bass lines of his guitar fingerpicking style, Hurt also seemed to take things in stride. His heroism, as a folk “hero” to revivalists such as Hinton and those younger than him at Berkeley and elsewhere, seems to have come from this mix. Hurt drew upon the experiences and resources he had—his love of music, his careful relationship to the white world forged out of the oppressive Jim Crow conditions, his deep religiosity that did not preclude an earthy embrace of the profane as well as the sacred, his solidity and grace, his nobility. Hurt was an enigma, perhaps, because he was not one. Audiences longed for him to serve as a symbol, and he gladly did so, as any sharp and perceptive entertainer would. But he was also a singular figure: a man.
Other photographs from Berkeley during the 1964 Festival suggest Hurt’s remarkable mix of presence and singularity—his appreciative, calm, but tricksterishly playful charisma leaping forth.
Mississippi John Hurt with Doc Watson in background, 1964 Berkeley Folk Music Festival. Photographer probably Kelly Hart. Hurt’s manager at the time Tom Hoskins is on the left.
But back to the glitching: with Hurt at the center of the image, we use a fiction to start to see through fictions. Computation distorts, but it also reveals.
Hurt played his part at the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, the wise prewar folk “hero,” a man blasted out of the past into the year after JFK was assassinated and but two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, on the cusp of historic civil rights legislation overturning legal Jim Crow, just before the Cal campus would erupt into the Free Speech Movement, with the escalation of US involvement in the Vietnam War just immediately on the horizon.
But he also slowly, slyly, beautifully inserts his own story into the mix. A man who loved white-oriented country music such as Jimmie Rodgers as much as (perhaps even more than) he did the so-called classic Delta blues, Hurt at once slipped through and, also, refused categories of racial, musical, social classification (in his SingOut! remembrance, Dick Waterman notes that Hurt spent a summer in New York just before his death avidly listening to records by none other than…Doc Watson). He found his roots, but he used them as well to traverse the shifting political and cultural ground of 1960s America.
Seemingly traditional, frozen in the past, Mississippi John Hurt might have, in his way, been the most daringly radical of all who participated in the folk revival.
The computational manipulation of this photographic image also serves as a reminder of all that we have learned from media archaeologists and visual studies scholars, who ask us to pay attention not only to the history in an image, but also the history of an image: its travels, its layers of mediation and manipulation, its afterlife (which turns out to be part of its life). The Mount Rushmore glimpse of Hurt, Hinton, and Watson not only provides us with a window on the past of 1964, but also implores us to consider how, as an object, its history continues up to the present, transcoded through shifts of materiality, context, and time. In other words, we are not only looking at Hurt, Hinton, and Watson made visible in 1964 in this photograph, we are also looking at—or through might be the better term—all the invisible processes those three figures captured in that particular moment have since experienced, their bodies turned to chemical traces of light printed on paper and then to digital bits and bytes on a screen.
The history, in other words, is between them to be sure, but it is also between them, us, and the instruments of mediation we must always use to stand for a moment, in a click, next to each other.
2. This argument builds on parallels sensitively drawn between the “double consciousness” experienced by African Americans under the regime of Jim Crow and the kinds of alienation experienced within the Cold War context drawn by Nick Bromell in Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s (University of Chicago Press, 2000). To be sure, the differences between these two situations was vast, but it was precisely the distance that intensified the identifications, Bromell contends. See especially his chapter, “‘Heartbreak Hotel’: At the Crossroads of White Loneliness and the Blues.” In When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, Robert Cantwell suggests a similar dynamic as well between younger, white, middle-class folk fans and their newfound heroes from the prewar past.
3. Grace Elizabeth Hale, “Black as Folk: The Folk Music Revival, the Civil Rights Movement, and Bob Dylan,” in A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 87.