photo: Liz Devine
On the Trail of the Lonesome Snock
Wily folkplayer MICHAEL HURLEY (aka Elwood Snock) has charmed hip audiences for over fifty years now with his timeless surrealist tunes and sweetly weird comics, all the while maintaining a certain ornery, outsider mystique. Longtime Snockhead BYRON COLEY investigates this Wild American treasure.
Originally published in print in Arthur No. 35 (2013)
The best American musical inventors (Harry Partch, John Coltrane, John Fahey, Albert Ayler, et al.) have consistently possessed an odd blend of traditional and avant garde elements inside their work. I would suggest that Michael Hurley deserves a place among this pantheon; although, since his primary avant garde technique is surrealist lyric-writing, the radicalism of his work can be easy to overlook. Championed by outsiders, loners, stoners, eggheads, and marginal-culture nuts of all stripes, Hurley still seems to imagine himself as working inside the general blues/folk continuum, but that’s mainly because he’s so deep into his own weirdly personal universe he can’t see the forest for the trees. I’ve been listening to the guy closely now for better than 40 years, and it is clear that a deep connection to avant garde themology (whether intentional or subliminal) suffuses his work to such a degree that it begins to explain why his songs—so simple on their surface—have long drawn their most devoted fans from people who eschew “standard” folk traditions.
The first time I ever heard about Michael Hurley I was sitting in my mother’s 1968 Chrysler 300 in the Fall of 1971. She and my sister were playing a round of miniature golf in Parsipanny, NJ, but I had opted to stay in the car to read the new issue of Rolling Stone. In it was a review of an album called Armchair Boogie by Michael Hurley and His Pals that sounded intriguing as hell. I made my way out to the Sam Goody’s store in Paramus (the very shop where Glenn Jones bought his first Fahey LP) and found a copy. The cover was a brightly colored cartoon of a wolf snoozing in an armchair. I was not a folk fan at all, but the thing looked so great I bought it, took it home and slapped it on the box. There was a black & white comic book insert as well—Boone and Jocko in the Barren, Choking Land—and I looked through it as the album began to play. The opening track was ‘The Werewolf’ and it just nailed me. Acoustic guitar, violin and a tired sounding voice that flew into falsetto without notice, telling a tale about the travails of being a misunderstood monster. The comic book was weird and funny as shit in a non sequitur kind of way. And by the time Hurley started singing the song ‘English Nobleman’ in a truly rotten British accent, I was utterly won over. But this story ain’t about me. It’s about Michael Hurley, aka Elwood Snock, one of the purest fonts of true American beauty and orneriness to have yet graced our planet. And man, he pretty much defines what it means to be a “lifer.” He’s a guy who has lived by his own rules for a long time, in a universe where most people are willing to bend themselves into pretzels just to get by. It’s an inspirational tale. Hope you can dig it.
Michael Hurley was born a rounder. He entered the planet in 1941, via Northern Bucks County, Pennsylvania. His dad was a producer of musicals and, while the area around New Hope remained the family’s base, they also spent time in Florida and California, before returning to Bucks County to stay in the middle ’50s. This travel touched young Michael profoundly. For the last half-century it has been anyone’s guess where the hell he’ll pop up next. His first extended solo trip was in the Summer between 9th and 10th grades. Having secured a letter from his father, assuring any authorities that he was not a runaway, Michael took off, hitchhiking to New Orleans, then on to Mexico. He spent some time in Matamoros, and a night in the jail in New Iberia, LA (“They decided to lock me up to give me a place to stay,” he says. “Just for safe keeping.”), but made it back in time to start school. After another year or two, he dropped out of high school and turned his focus towards the lights of Manhattan beckoning in the night sky just over the hills from New Hope.
Greenwich Village had the happening folk scene at the time. Hurley had been playing and writing songs since he was 13, and so had his pals Steve Weber (founder of the Holy Modal Rounders) and Robin “Rube” Remaily (who was in a later version of that band). They put together a combo called The Three Blues Doctors as much for their own entertainment as anything else. Playing a mix of originals and covers, The Doctors did some recordings on reel-to-reel tapes, but Hurley is cagey about what these might contain. The band played one gig—as a quartet, with pal Wayne McGuinness—at the Blind Lemon in the Village. It was a pass-the-hat gig, and The Three Blues Doctors’ performance approach—with everyone playing a different song simultaneously—proved to be more than the patrons could easily handle. The Blind Lemon gig may have represented the end of the The Three Blues Doctors, but it was Hurley’s first time on a real stage, and he liked it. Michael and “Rube” headed down to New Orleans to test their luck.
“We used to play together more coherently as a duo in New Orleans, playing in bars,” he says. “We’d go into bars and start playing, ‘cause they wouldn’t throw us out. It would kind of connect things for us, to be there just playing music. We didn’t get much free beer, but we’d meet people. They’d invite us to their houses and give us things to do—party jobs.”
Eventually the pair drifted back to Bucks County, and it was around this time that Michael acquired his sobriquet—Snock, or sometimes Elwood Snock or Doc Snock. His memory of the epiphany that led to this is clear, although as is often the case in Hurley’s tales, the dates are both specific and transitory.
“It was March 16, 1961,” he says. “I heard this music, and it was very snocky. It was like what you would hear when you hit hardwood sticks together. I heard a whole symphony like that. I thought it must be me, having my vision. I’d always read about the Indians who go out and fast until they get a vision and take a new name. They go out in the hills somewhere and starve themselves until they get a vision. Might be a bear or something. I was kinda following that idea. I heard this music and I kinda saw it too, over an ocean wave, like the surf was coming in. The surf was coming in just like this snocky classical music. That was it.”