Ken Lelen

Ken Lelen
Ken Lelen sings ragtime, jazz & swing and plays vintage acoustic guitars.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

             Vintage Songs + Vintage Guitars

Concert @ Burlington Library — March 26, 2015 @ 7 pm
      Great American ragtime, jazz and swing from 1920s, 1930s and 1940s
                          Vintage acoustic guitars from the same decades

                                     Concert for "Burlington Reads 2015"
          Co-sponsors: Digital Federal Credit Union + Herb Chambers Honda

                                                Photo: Ferranova
Tex Fletcher — "The Lonesome Cowboy"
playing 1930s Gibson L-00 guitar
for Mutual Network's WOR radio

Burlington Public Library in Burlington, MA will present a free concert by Ken Lelen at 7:00 pm on Thursday, March 26, 2015 in the Meeting Room, 22 Sears Street, Burlington MA 01803.
     For an authentic back-in-the-day sound, Lelen will sing ragtime, jazz and swing tunes from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s and pair each song with a vintage guitar from the same decade.
     With clever lyrics and memorable melodies, songs in the program were written by some of America’s greatest composers. Lelen will offer amusing anecdotes on the music and acoustic guitars of the mid-20th Century.
     The program may include such songs as: "The Lady Is A Tramp" (Rogers & Hart), "She's Funny That Way" (Whiting), "On The Sunny Side Of The Street" (McHugh & Fields), "Ain't Misbehavin'" (Waller), "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm" (Berlin) and "Over The Rainbow" (Arlen & Harburg).
     The musician will display vintage acoustic guitars made by Gibson, Martin, Regal, Schmidt and other U.S. firms. Each produces sound that is striking for its tone, character and sustain without the use of pick-ups or other electronic gimmicks.
     "People of all ages love the songs," Lelen said. "And they're pleasantly surprised by the robust sound and classy look of the vintage guitars."
     Sponsored by Digital Federal Credit Union and Herb Chambers Honda of Burlington, the library event is a part of “Burlington Reads” Orphan Train by Christine Baker Kline. During the concert Lelen will perform a song about orphan train riders — the 150,000 homeless children who were relocated from New York into indentured servitude with adoptive homes in the Midwest and West between 1856 and 1929.
     "Mr. Lelen is a genial performer, with a pleasant tenor," said the New York Times. "The songs he plays will never go out of date."

                  More info at 781-270-1690 and
©  2015 — Kenneth Lelen — All Rights Reserved

Friday, March 13, 2015

Mississippi John Hurt and the Emory guitar
Mississippi John Hurt and c. 1910 Emory guitar at Newport Folk Festival in July, 1963
Photograph used with permission of  © John Byrne Cooke
All Rights Reserved  —
                                              © 2015  — Kenneth Lelen - All Rights Reserved
                                      Feedback and Author's Note at end of article

Sitting on a folding wooden chair, a 71-year-old Mississippi John Hurt sang his songs and fingerpicked a borrowed guitar — c. 1910 Emory acoustic — in the 90° heat of two evening sets at Newport Folk Festival on the last weekend of July, 1963.
     In his Friday workshop for the young, white, middle-class people in the audience, Hurt performed "See, See Rider," "Stagolee," "Spike Driver Blues" and "Coffee Blues." He was followed on stage that evening by a host of folksingers, including Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the Rooftop Singers, Ian & Sylvia, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.
     The next night Hurt returned for a blues summit. Introduced by old-time music fan Dick Spotswood, he performed "Candy Man," "Trouble, I've Had It All My Days" and "Frankie." Other performers that night included 21-year-old John Hammond Jr. and a gang of giants now departed: Rev. Gary Davis (1896 - 1972), John Lee Hooker (1917 - 2001), Dave Van Ronk (1936 - 2002), Brownie McGhee (1915 - 1996) and Sonny Terry (1911 - 1986). 
     Mississippi John Hurt burnished his musical career at Newport that weekend, but the deep-bodied rosewood and spruce guitar he borrowed from its owner, musicologist Tom Hoskins, disappeared for 35 years. It surfaced briefly in the 1990s with a friend of Hoskins, but the Emory guitar Hurt played at Newport vanished again after Hoskins passed away in 2001. If it still exists, its location is not known.
     However, a second Emory guitar, the one I owned from 1999 to 2005, has been found alive and well in Ghent, Belgium. Now we know at least two of these beautiful guitars exist, so the story of Mississippi John Hurt and his connection with the Emory guitar can be told.

The twice-discovered songster
A self-taught guitarist, John Hurt (1892 - 1966) began playing at age nine on a used guitar his mother bought him for $1.50. As he developed his syncopated picking and low-key vocal style, Hurt began performing for parties and dances in and near Avalon MS at night while working as a sharecropper during the day. 
     In February, 1928 Hurt was discovered by Okeh producer Tommy Rockwell, who auditioned the songster on a tip from Hurt's neighbor, fiddler Willie Narmour (1889 - 1961). Pleased with what he heard, Rockwell sent Hurt to a field recording unit in Memphis TN. Hurt also visited Okeh's New York studio, a state-of-the-art recording facility at Union Square West and Broadway, in December, 1928.
     Hurt recorded a total of 13 sides (12 were released) on 10-inch, 78-rpm discs for Okeh, a division of Columbia Records. Back in the day he might have earned $20 a side, the equivalent of about $300 today.
     But the ragtime-titled records, with Hurt's rhythmic fingerpicking and low-key singing style, suffered what today we'd call weak promotion. His record sales at 75¢ apiece totaled a few hundred copies with race music buyers of the day. Today, only a handful of Hurt's original records are known to exist.
     Hurt tried to revive Okeh's interest in his work, but the firm went bust by 1935. No stranger to hard times, Hurt returned to farming and relative obscurity for three-and-a-half decades.
     Interest in Hurt's music was reawakened after 1952, when blues revivalists heard his renditions of "Frankie" and "Spike Driver's Blues" in Anthology of American Folk Music issued by Folkways Records. Anthology was filmmaker Harry Smith's epochal bootleg compilation of 84 folk, blues and country music sides originally issued between 1927 and 1932.
     In early 1963, or 35 years after his last recording session, Hurt was discovered by a pair of Washington, DC folkies — Tom Hoskins (1941 - 2001) and old-time music collector Mike Stewart (1943 - 2007). The pair hailed Hurt as a long-lost country blues musician.
     Hoskins visited Hurt in Avalon, MS in February, 1963 and realized the elderly bluesman still had his musical chops. He convinced Hurt to sign a contract giving Hoskins 50 percent of his musical earnings, ownership of his publishing rights and control of his business, according to Ulrich Adelt, author of Blues Music in the Sixties — A Story in Black and White [2010, Rutgers Univ. Press].
     At Hoskins's urging, Hurt moved to Washington, DC, where he was installed as the resident blues artist at a Georgetown coffee shop. By July, 1963 he had recorded 73 sides in two sessions for the Library of Congress and an album for Dick Spotswood's Piedmont record label [see album cover below].
     Because people like Hoskins revered him and wanted a piece of him, John Hurt was able to relaunch his career. Word of his authentic blues and folk music as well as unassuming demeanor led to invitations to perform at coffee houses, concert halls and colleges across the country. In July, 1964 he again played at the Newport Folk Festival.

                          Piedmont album photo by Stefan Wirz
     In addition to lavish coverage in print media of the day, Hurt played on television, performing on "Pete Seeger's "Rainbow Quest" show and a guest spot on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show." In July, 1966 Hurt recorded fresh material for albums by Vanguard Records (Patrick Sky, producer) and Folkways Records (Dick Spotswood, producer).
     Hurt used some earnings from this work to buy a modest house in Grenada MS, where he passed away on November 2, 1966. According to Adelt, booking agent Dick Waterman called John Hurt "innocently naive," "a Super Hippie," "kind and gentle" and a "lovable rascal" in his obituary of Hurt in the folk music magazine Sing Out!
     Hurt seemed to tolerate such noisy attention during the three years his star rose in the East among blues connoisseurs and folk music revivalists. But who can assess the interior effect of all that jazz.
     As a final irony just before he died, Hurt sued Hoskins to get out of their contract. The dispute ended, according to Adelt, with Hoskins receiving "a stellar $280,000 settlement from Vanguard records for the rights to Hurt's catalog."
     Still, as of this writing, 78 albums of Mississippi John Hurt's recorded material from the late-1920s and mid-1960s have been released on multiple labels. And John Hurt's songs and celebrated picking style have been covered by countless musicians and fingerpicking acolytes since 1966.
     A discography, including his four sets at Newport in 1963 and 1964, can be found at Stefan Wirz's old-time music website. In addition, comprehensive biographies of Hurt can be found at and

The Emory guitar traveled a long road
"Until his rediscovery in 1963, Hurt played nondescript, run-of-the-mill guitars like the first one his mother bought him," said Jim Ohlschmidt, a Wisconsin guitarist and admirer of Hurt's playing.
     "Beginning with his arrival in Washington, DC, friends and fans furnished Hurt with a number of different guitars [see Author's Note below] that he used onstage and in the studio," Ohlschmidt recalled. "In addition to the Emory guitar Hurt used at his first Newport appearance, Hoskins gave Hurt a Gibson J-45 [see album cover above] that had been refinished natural and had custom fingerboard inlays."

                                                                                       Photo: Neil Harpe
     Between late 1963 and 2001, the Emory saw little use by its owner, Hoskins, who left it with a friend, Neil Harpe, an artist and guitar dealer in Annapolis MD.
     "He led a life very close to the edge, especially during the last years of his life," Harpe said.
     "I had it for a couple years in the 1990s, then one day he came by the house and retrieved it. It was unplayable at the time I had it, but I remember playing it quite a few times back in the mid-sixties. It was a really great sounding guitar."
     During the time he was safeguarding the Emory, Harpe took photographs of the guitar. In one (above), a model held the guitar so Harpe could create a portrait of Blind Lemon Johnson, another guitar-playing bluesman. The Emory in this photograph exhibits several top cracks as well as dark binding along the top and back. 
     After Hoskins died in 2001, the Emory guitar disappeared. Some thought it went to Hoskins' sister in Georgia or Hurt's granddaughter, Mary Frances Hurt Wright, who called her grandfather "Daddy John."
     But the Emory guitar was stolen, according Philip Ratcliffe, blues aficionado and author. "[Hoskins'] Emory guitar was stolen from his trailer in Tallahassee TN after he died there, along with his TV and some other stuff," said Ratcliffe, author of Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His Times, His Blues (2011, Univ. Press of MS). So no one knows where it is and if it still exists. 

Same Emory model, different instrument
Thus, it appears there is more than one Emory because I acquired an Emory guitar in May, 1999 for $1,400 from Mandolin Brothers, a Staten Island NY dealer. I bought it for its sweet tone and lengthy sustain, but was initially unaware of its provenance. I used it until summer, 2005 for a few recordings and in my Vintage Music Concerts.
     It is the same model as Hurt's Emory, but has several different design elements and other identifying marks. For instance, the headstock's top edge on my Emory was stamped 1210. If Hurt's Emory had a serial number, Harpe said he does not know.
     My Emory was auditorium-sized (141/2-inch lower-bout width) and contained an ivory hexagonal block in the 17th fret. Hurt's Emory was somewhat smaller, either a grand concert (14-inch lower-bout) or concert (131/2-inch lower-bout) model. It has an ivory hexagonal block in the fretboard, but it's in the 16th fret.
     The top and back binding on my Emory was inlaid wood and white celluloid. On Hurt's Emory, the binding was dark, probably rosewood, and had no white line.
     Though the spruce top on my Emory had case bites and blemishes, it was in otherwise good shape. It did not have the long cracks visible in Harpe's photograph and in John Byrne Cooke's photograph of Hurt at Newport.
     Finally, my Emory had a recent neck reset and shim under the tongue of the fingerboard. It also had a replacement ebony bridge. 

                                                    Photo: Mandolin Bros.
     I played my Emory for five years, but I was stymied by the high set-up created by what I believed was an overset neck — a case where the fingerboard alignment prevented string placement at a proper height.
     I should have just reset the neck and removed the shim. But to save some money I asked my luthiers to reconfigure the neck by planing and refretting the fingerboard and installing a taller nut and taller saddle.
     Still not happy with the Emory's playability and eager to raise for cash for other acquisitions, I consigned it in August, 2005 for $2,499 with Rochester guitar dealer John Bernunzio. When it didn't sell by November, 2005, I wrangled a $1,400 credit from Bernunzio on the $3,500 cost of a 1924 Martin-made Bacon, a rare, 0-sized rosewood-bodied guitar from Bacon Banjo Co. of Groton CT.

                                                                                          Photos (here and below): Bernunzio Vintage Instruments
      Bernunzio continued to offer the Emory for $2,499 in 2005, and by December, 2006 dropped his price to $2,250. Sometime in 2007 he traded the guitar to Scott Freilich at Top Shelf Music in Buffalo NY. By 2011 Freilich traded this Emory to Dirk Stallaert, an independent artist and craftsman in Belgium, for a 1968 Gibson Hummingbird.
     Not long after it left my arms, the Emory guitar began to haunt me. I wondered if my Emory was the instrument shown in the photographs of John Hurt taken by John Byrne Cooke at Newport.
     In 2007 I asked luthier Randy Wood in Bloomingdale GA if he knew of any parlor guitar with a hexagonal ivory inlay in the fingerboard. He referred me to musician Gene Bush, who played late-night blues with John Hurt at Newport in 1963. [see Author's Note below] Bush could only recall Hurt's name within an ivory inlay on the fretboard of a mahogany-bodied, auditorium guitar that was custom-built for him.
     When I asked guitar dealer Neil Harpe the same question in 2007, he said only that he "took care of a guitar like that for a friend in the 1990s" and offered no other details. 
     More recently, Harpe said: "The guitar you [had] and the one formerly owned by [Hoskins] are two different instruments. I thought I told you that before. I was not aware that you thought the guitar was one and the same as the guitar Hoskins owned. Had I known, I would have pointed it out much earlier."

Emory guitar is a beautiful anomaly
The Emory guitar now owned by Dirk Stallaert is similar in its delicate design to parlor guitars of the 1910s. It also has appointments resembling rosewood Martins of the 1920s and a body depth close to that of Gibson's Nick Lucas guitars in the 1930s.
     Guitar experts say it was built by unknown hands sometime between 1900 and 1920. It design elements suggest a manufacture in Chicago or perhaps Boston prior to the end of World War I. Fingerpicked or flatpicked, the sound is deep, sweet and bright, with an amazing sustain.
     Its attractive appointments include: ladder-braced spruce top with natural, French polish finish with fancy inlaid wood-and-celluloid bindings (top and back); straight-grained rosewood sides; slab-cut rosewood back and multicolor marquetry backstripe; concentric soundhole rings in 3-7-3 pattern; cedar neck with 12 frets to the body; and 18-fret ebony fingerboard with ivory dots in the 5th, 7th and 10th frets.
     One feature I didn't like about this Emory guitar was the sharp V to the back of the neck. As you played up the fingerboard, the palm of your left hand could feel out of place or downright uncomfortable.

     The 141/2-inch lower-bout width and 45/8-inch body depth predates Nick Lucas guitars built between 1928 and 1941, or 30 years after the Emory was built. The neck is relatively slim, 13/4 inches at the nut, atypical on a guitar made prior to 1920, when guitar necks often were 17/8 inches wide at the nut.
     Its slotted headstock is graced with nickel-steel machines and ivory tuner buttons. The headstock has a rosewood veneer on its face and back; visible only to the player, the back veneer extends in an elliptical design along the neck up to the 2nd fret. 
     The top edge of the headstock is stamped 1210 and an Emory trademark is chisled into the neck block. Strikingly visible at the 17th fret of the fingerboard, the letters E  M  O  R  Y are inlaid in an ivory hexagonal block.

Ivory inlay block with E M O R Y
     After all is said and done, since there are two Emory guitars, it is doubtful the Emory was a custom guitar for one private buyer. More likely, it was a catalog unit from an instrument maker who, back in the day, would offer a limited number of guitars to jobbers, pawn shops, music stores and private tutors.
     Although guitar experts disagree, I suspect Lyon & Healy as maker of this turn-of-the-previous-century instrument, not Regal, Vega, Larson Brothers or Oscar Schmidt. The catalog description for L&H's Washburn Style #403 auditorium is nearly identical to the contemporary Emory guitars, including design elements and materials, body depth and lower-bout width.
     Ivory dots at the 5th, 7th and 10th frets are listed, but an ivory hexagonal block in the fretboard is not. The catalog does not mention if the top support was x-braced or ladder-braced. L&H's original bridge was a flattened pyramid, while the pyramid-style ebony bridge on my Emory and Hurt's Emory are, I suspect, replacements.
     As for making guitars for other firms and private buyers, Lyon & Healy's catalogs in 1889 and 1897 say: "The makers of the Washburn Guitars are prepared to supply extra fine instruments to order for presentation and other purposes."
     However, to date no information mentioning an Emory guitar has been found in public records, websites, listservs, letters and catalogs or in records of guitar makers, jobbers and retailers. If you find such evidence, let me know.
     As far as I can tell, the instrument is not associated with Emory University in any way. And no person named Emory (first or last name) has surfaced as an original, previous or possible owner.

                                                                                                Photo: Dirk Stallaert
c. 1910 Emory guitar

                    Ken Lelen sings ragtime, jazz & swing and plays vintage acoustic guitars
                    at concerts for niche markets, diverse groups, special clients and sundry
                    venues across the East Coast. A journalist for 30 years before launching
                    Vintage Music Concerts, he's played acoustic guitar since summer 1963.

                                               © 2015  — Kenneth Lelen - All Rights Reserved

                                      Comments are edited for brevity & clarity

I do not recall ever seeing an Emory guitar, but the workmanship looks very much like it could have been made by one of the Boston makers circa 1900. Since it was only loaned to John Hurt rather than owned by him, its memorabilia value is somewhat subjective and difficult to quantify, but it is certainly an interesting guitar.     —     George Gruhn, Gruhn Guitars, Nashville TN

After looking at the photos and description on Ken's site, I don't think it's a Boston guitar.     —     Jim Bollman, Arlington MA
Obviously, whoever made the guitar made numerous instruments before this one. One wonders who actually built it. Many instruments in the early 20th Century were made for stores or teachers without the manufacturer's name on the guitar. Perhaps Emory was such a seller. 

This guitar, as I gather from the article, was used by Mr. Hurt for a few shows at Newport and never actually belonged to him, nor is it the instrument he used to make his recordings, early or late. One might like to know what he used in his early career.     —     Dan Alexander, Dan Alexander Audio, El Cerrito CA

                                        Author's Note

            —       Guitars played by Mississippi John Hurt in the 1960s       —

          My interview with guitarist Gene Bush of Kingston Springs TN, who swapped
          late-night songs with John Hurt after his 1963 Newport performances, as well
          as correspondence by Hurt's nephew Fred Bolden, musician Jim Ohlschmidt
          and others enabled me to compile a list of guitars Hurt used in the 1960s. In
          addition to the Emory and Gibson J-45 guitars described above, they include: 

          •   Guild F-30
          •   Regal-made Dobro Model 19
          •   Harmony Sovereign Jumbo H-1260
          •   Stefan Grossman's 1930 Martin OM-45 — used in the Vanguard recordings.
          •   Alderson mahogany-bodied auditorium — played in recordings and on TV.

          Hurt was offered a rosewood Martin from Fretted Instruments in N.Y. City by the
          Newport Folk Foundation, but opted for the Guild, which better suited his playing.

          The auditorium guitar was a gift from its maker, Jack Alderson, who lived 
in the
          Philadelphia area. It had mahogany back and sides, spruce top, wood bindings
          and Hurt's name inscribed in an ivory block like the Emory, only at the 12th fret.

          Hurt played Alderson's guitar on Seeger's "Rainbow Quest" television show,
          appearing with Georgia folksinger Hedy West (1938 - 2005) and New Jersey
          banjoist Paul Caldwell (1889 - 1985). Hurt chatted with Seeger (1919 - 2014)
          and played three songs, all in the key of G: "You Got To Walk That Lonesome
          Valley," "Spike Driver's Blues" and "Goodnight Irene."
          Finally, members of the listserv Mudcat CafĂ© said the guitar Hurt used for his
          1928 recordings for Okeh was provided by the studio. His personal guitar, of
          unknown provenance,  was deemed not good enough for folk music.

                                              © 2015  — Kenneth Lelen - All Rights Reserved