Essentials: The Top Ten Michael Hurley Songs

Picture:Paul Kerr

Michael Hurley is one of those rare artists who merit the term unique. Now in his 80s (and still performing and recording) Hurley is a living reminder of what Greil Marcus called “the old weird Americana”, a hotchpotch of folk, blues and country music blended from songs and tunes inherited from the mass immigration which peopled America – the Scots, Irish and European settlers and the black slaves forcibly removed there. The quintessential record of those songs is heard on the Harry Smith compilation, “Anthology of American Folk Music”.  When Hurley released his first album in 1964 he already sounded older than many of the songs compiled by Smith.

Hurley was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania in 1941. He came from a vaguely bohemian family, his father produced light operettas and by his teens he was painting, writing comic books (featuring his two collie dogs, Boone and Count, who eventually were immortalised as the cartoonish Boone and Jocko) and writing songs, eventually gravitating to New York where he recorded his first album, in 1963, for the legendary Folkways label, apparently using the same reel to reel tape machine which was used on Lead Belly’s last recording session. The album was the result of a happenstance moment when a guitar-carrying Hurley was offered a lift by Fred Ramsey Jr. who asked him what sort of music he played. Having heard some of Hurley’s songs, Ramsey, who worked for Moe Asch (Folkways founder) brokered an album deal. Although he was in New York at the height of the folk revival, Hurley was never part of the scene which included Dylan, Ochs or Fred Neil. Instead, he veered more towards iconoclasts such as The Holy Model Rounders, one of his songs from the Folkways album featured on The Rounders’ 1967 release, “Indian War Whoop”. Little is known about Hurley’s activity in the late 60s but he was back in the recording studio when his friend, Jesse Colin Young secured him a record deal with Warner Brothers via Young’s WB imprint Racoon Records. Lack of sales soon put an end to Racoon however and Hurley moved on to Rounder Records, recording three albums in the late 70s which are probably his best known. Since then Hurley has continued to record on a myriad of labels (along with a cottage industry selling homemade tapes and CDRs) and he toured incessantly, in the States and abroad, gigs which, given his advancing age, have only recently been curtailed.

Hurley’s world is peopled by crepuscular creatures, werewolves and revenants, anthropomorphic hounds, hobos and bums along with an element of 1950s sci-fi comic books and television A gifted artist, he adorns his albums with his paintings and often includes comic books and cartoons in the liners featuring his wolf-like characters Boone and Jocko, along with his alter ego Snock (he also has gone by the names of Snockman, Doc Snock, Hi Fi Snock, Elwood Snock, or simply The Snock). His songs have been praised and covered by several generations of musicians (Yo La Tengo, Devandra Banhart, Vetiver, Cat Power, Calexico and, most recently, The Hackles and Kassi Valazza).

With around 30 albums of songs to choose from, this list barely scratches the surface of Hurley’s output. He does have a tendency to revisit and revise songs from album to album so the selections here are determined partly by what’s available to embed. Suffice to say that from his 1964 debut up until his most recent release, ‘Time Of the Foxgloves’ from 2021, Hurley weaves his spell over each and every album.

Number 10: ‘Sweedeedee’ (1971)

1971’s “Armchair Boogie” was the first of Hurley’s albums for Racoon Records, a Warner Brothers imprint set up by Jesse Colin Young of The Youngbloods. This could have been a breakout album for Hurley but it was not to be, originals sell for big prices these days. ‘Swedeedee’ is a most poignant love song, a hard luck story with the lovers crammed into a fleabag apartment, the singer torn between fleeing his kitchen sink reality or staying with the beguiling ways his partner gets on with the daily chores. It channels the best of Lightnin’ Hopkins in a sad, urban setting. Cat Power did a credible cover version on her ‘Covers’ album.

Number 9: ‘Automatic Slim & The Fat Boys’ (1980)

Far from being a folk artist, several of Hurley’s songs, in particular those from the 70s, can almost be described as laid-back funky rock’n’roll and this is perhaps the best example. It appeared on “Snockgrass”, a 1980 release and the last of his albums on Rounder Records. It’s a gloriously laid-back tale which can be considered to either be about a mythical band or a hot dog, take your pick, or just wallow in Hurley’s supremely laid-back vibe.

Number 8: ‘Light Green Fellow’ (1971)

Another song which first appeared on “Armchair Boogie”, it’s one of Hurley’s more crepuscular songs. It’s impossible really to say what’s going on here. Is he a menacing stalker or a less fearsome magical figure. Whatever, Hurley takes the listener into a twilight zone with skeletal fiddle and lonesome guitar and bass, played by Jesse Colin Young. It was gratifying to hear a live version of this from Kassi Valazza when she toured here last year and if you want to hear a song which prefigured Will Oldham’s Palace Brothers by a couple of decades then this one is dedicated to you.

Number 7: ‘You Got To Find Me’ (1976)

From his 1976 album “Long Journey”  this is Hurley at his most relaxed, playfully boasting about his myriad skills and describing himself as a colourful character and a zig-zagging citizen who can heal any known disease while also able to fix your car’s mechanical problems.  There’s a joyous New Orleans-like bounce to the song and one gets the impression that (aside from the dig at Manson like gurus) this is basically Hurley singing about his day-to-day life back in the freewheeling 70s.

Number 6: ‘Slurf Song’ (1975)

In 1975 Hurley teamed up with The Unholy Modal Rounders and Jeffrey Frederick on “Have Moicy”, an album which the dean of rock critics, Robert Christgau, considered to be the best folk album of that year. Released on Rounder Records it remains a vital listen for anyone interested in “freak folk,” the freakiest moments may be supplied by the great Peter Stampfel and his latest incarnation of The Rounders but Hurley more than holds his own here with his wonderful ode to the digestive tract on ‘Slurf Song’. The opening lyric, “Oh a little wishbone” was inspired by a friend of Hurley’s who plucked the said wishbone from a fried chicken at a communal cookout.  Hurley has four songs on this album, all of them excellent and the whole album is a blast.

Number 5: ‘It Must Be Gelatine’ (2009)

While most of the songs here are plucked from Hurley’s earlier years, his later albums contain many gems, too many to mention here. The exception has to be this one, taken from an album Hurley recorded with the indie folk band Ida which was called “Ida Con Snock”.  It shows that he can take a most mundane subject and imbue it with his sense of wonder as he delivers a wonderfully whimsical song about jelly. I’d contend that this is one of his most realised songs on disc as he and the band shimmer and throb throughout.

Number 4: ‘Hog Of The Forsaken’ (1976)

This is a return to Hurley’s rough-hewn roots, the rawest number on his 1976 album “Long Journey”. Here he gets to basics with his raw fiddle playing and hillbilly voice. The titular hog is reminiscent of Hurley’s werewolf, feral yet forsaken but here it’s ultimately doomed to be cooked and eaten. The song’s rawness and frontier-like patina led it to be heavily featured on the hit T.V. series Deadwood.

Number 3: ‘Twilight Zone’ (1972)

Still with Racoon Records in 1972, Hurley released “Hi Fi Snock Uptown”. Like its predecessor it failed to make much of a dent and again, if you have an original copy then you’re in the money. Anyhow, Hurley remains firmly rooted in his lo-fi grimoire, the song, presumably named for the Rod Serling T.V. series which launched in 1959, finds Hurley diving into shlock horror (the werewolf and Count Dracula make an appearance) as he sings about being trapped in a metaphysical prison, pleading for his sweetheart to send a letter of reprieve.

Number 2: ‘O My Stars’ (1980)

To the best of my knowledge, this song first appeared on “Snockgrass”, the last of Hurley’s Rounder Records discs. Rounder released three Hurley albums, kicking off with the collaborative “Have Moicy”, followed by “Long Journey” and then finally “Snockgrass”.  As with many of the songs in this list, Hurley has revisited this one on many recordings and it is a perennial audience favourite. Here, accompanied by Jill Goss on harmony vocals, Hurley delivers what is probably his most gorgeous song, full of longing and love as he comes across as a wide-eyed dreamer, painting a picture of eternal hope.

Number 1: ‘The Werewolf’ (1965)

Probably his best known song, ‘The Werewolf’ first appeared on his debut album (billed then as ‘The Werewolf Song’) in what is probably its spookiest version although Hurley has revisited it on numerous occasions. Inspired by Lon Chaney’s performance in the Hollywood movie, Hurley transforms the beast into a tragic romantic character, doomed to kill what he loves. For many in the UK it was Barry Dransfield’s 1972 version which introduced them to Hurley’s world. The Holy Modal Rounders also recorded a typically bizarre version and long-time fan, Cat Power, gave the song a fine facelift on her album “You Are Free”. It’s sad to note here a sour tale regarding the song which was was featured in the hit play Jerusalem, written by Jess Butterworth. Hurley, quite rightly asserted his authorship of the song but he was never given any credit by the producers. Unable to afford a court battle he is, again quite rightly, pissed off. Nevertheless, Hurley has an undeniable right to the song, going back to his Folkways debut album where it first appeared.

About Paul Kerr 445 Articles
Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.
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