Ryley Walker, the Chicago based singer/songwriter and guitarist, came across a copy of John Hulburt’s 1972 privately pressed LP Opus III in a record store. He bought it and much taken, he teamed up with Tompkins Square to bring about this re-issue. One up for serendipity!
The rarity of a Chicago based fingerstyle guitarist around the time of original release is outlined by Walker in his contribution to the informative liner notes:-
‘…Solo acoustic guitar music was adopted by several in the Berkeley school…but here in the middle of the country with harsh winters and the landlocked prison of cornfields, it was almost destiny that the amplifier assault of electric blues and controlled chaos of dance music came from the South Side… To have heady and delicate folk tunes such as this collection shows true innovation in Chicago’s small folk circuit in the 70s.’
Much more historical background is given by Cynthia Fritz, his sister and Gene Lubin – the drummer with the garage band The Knaves with whom Hulburt played and sang. In fact, Opus III opens with an acoustic instrumental re-working of a Knaves song ‘Inside and Otherwise’.
The track list of Opus III runs to twenty titles and all but three are instrumental, only two tracks exceed three minutes while the shortest track comes in at fifty five seconds. Maybe these pieces are miniatures perhaps driven by a pop/rock song writing mind set; maybe they are technical and stylistic foundations for future, lengthier work but as there is no Opus IV (or indeed I or II) we’ll never know. In the early ’80s Hulburt made a permanent move to Paris where he died in 2012, his career eschewing recording and concentrating on live playing in France and in Africa.
In later life Hulburt referred to his putting out ‘an album of John Fahey-inspired fingerpicking originals in ’72’ but this perhaps only gives part of the story. There are certainly Fahey inspired tracks here, ‘Evil Olive Waltz’, All Night Waitress’ and ‘Sunrise’ come to mind. However, ‘Sunrise’ is an example of how the influences on Hulburt’s playing are complex. Whilst the tune starts very Fahey, about half way through there a burst of strumming reminiscent of Joni Mitchell brackets a short Kottke like passage before returning to Fahey. In fact, Leo Kottke’s influence can be heard in several of the tunes, notably in ‘The Freak On The Black Harley’ and (perhaps unsurprisingly) in ‘O’ For The Twelve String’ . Whilst strong The Fahey/Kottke school is certainly not the only influence to be heard throughout the album. ‘Street Singer’s Rag’ and ‘John Hulburt’s New Rag’ show his grasp of the guitar styles of players such as Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Blake, John Hurt etc., whilst ‘Clark St’ offers lead lines closer to electric blues playing. Away from what might for convenience be termed Americana influences, ‘In Search Of The Muse’ develops into a piece suggesting classical guitar particularly as heard in Spanish music; in the middle of ‘Polydiom No.2’ there is a section which makes one think of early music. Had he perhaps heard John Renbourn’s LP ‘Sir John Alot of Merrie England’ released in 1968. Throughout the album, regardless of influence, John Hulburt seems to remain his own man.
I thoroughly enjoyed this album and the more I listened, the more I became convinced that this was the work of a man who loved the acoustic guitar. Loved not just its general sound but the range of expression it can offer. A man who would, and could, take in whatever any player might offer then give it back altered to fit his own voice. Somehow this album seems to be the search for that voice.
Been there, done … I hope. My thanks for Ryley Walker and Tompkins Square for bringing about the re-issue of a fascinating piece of work.
Last word to John Hulburt, from the song ‘Wooden Mistress’
‘Late last night I was feeling mighty low
I had nothing to do and no place to go
Found my wooden mistress and I put her on my knee
Started in to boogie the blues away’
Sounds good to me!
Review by: Nick Dellar
Out Now via Tompkins Square