Mississippi John Hurt
I could listen to John Hurt albums all day. He plays with an incredible finger-style technique and has a voice just as smooth and relaxed as his playing. Bass lines and lead are wrapped up together so casually with the rhythm, you would swear there are two guys playing. Monica Bryant gave me his 1928 Recordings and it has stayed in heavy rotation in my cd player ever since.
Mississippi John Hurt's interest in music began at nine years old when his mother gave him a guitar. He quickly taught himself to play. Avalon, Mississippi, where he lived most of his life, was in a remote part of the southern state and would rarely be visited by traveling bluesmen of the time, so John Hurt would learn songs from fellow field hands and other workers in his area. He played local dances and celebrations in Avalon but made little money from his music. In 1928, Tommy Rockwell, from Okeh Records, was touring Mississippi looking for talent when he was told about Mississippi John Hurt. He found John Hurt and brought him to Memphis to record a few tunes. Those tunes sold so well, that Rockwell brought John to New York for another recording session. His musical career seemed on the verge of a break through, but the great Depression would put John Hurt back into seeming obscurity to everyone but the folks in Carroll County.
After World War II, interests in his old recordings began to rise and folklorists began looking for John Hurt. Unable to find him, it was presumed that he had died, that is until blues collector Tom Hoskins realized that John's song, "Avalon Blues", referred to Avalon, Mississippi. He successfully set out to find John Hurt in 1963. Hoskins convinced John to return with him to Washington, D.C. and after creating quite a reputation, John went on to play at the Newport Folk Festival that year. The Newport performance was such a success that he went on to tour extensively in the later years of his life, although he returned home quite often to Mississippi. He repeated his stunning 1963 Newport performance at Newport in 1964. He recorded for Piedmont Records in 1963 and 1964. After that, Vanguard Records recorded what were to be his remaining albums.
A true American balladeer, Mississippi John Hurt would come to influence many modern blues artists despite his limited time in the public eye. His musical legacy is one that many have come to admire because he played for the shear joy of playing, as was evident by the twinkle in his eyes when he would perform. As you listen to his songs, you can picture him sitting on the stage at Newport smiling wide, with a twinkle in his eyes and relishing every moment.
Mississippi John Hurt Rediscovered
Legend has it that an enthusiastic pupil once played a Mississippi John Hurt record for the great classical guitarist Andres Segovia. Segovia, entranced, wondered aloud who the second guitarist was. There wasn't one, of course, but the story just underlines what an astonishing talent this little man from Avalon, Mississippi was. And, at the time this story supposedly took place, there was nobody who could say with authority that Segovia was wrong. Hurt was just an obscure name on a few impossibly rare records cut for the "race" label Okeh in 1928 and 1929. Absolutely nothing was known of him. This, of course, hardly distinguished him from dozens of other musicians from the Mississippi Delta who had recorded around the same time. There was Charlie Patton, whose records were just as rare, and his rival, Robert Johnson, who was known to be dead, but who had left a legacy of impeccably-played blues behind him and a legend of selling his soul to the Devil. Son House, too, played with a passion that came from see-sawing between the blues and the church, and there was the idiosyncratic Skip James, whose eerie high voice floated above some amazing guitar work. There were others: Tommy Johnson, Geeshie Wiley (a woman, virtually unique in the Mississippi canon), Garfield Akers, Ishmon Bracey, Bukka White. Who these people were was anybody's guess, and, given the circumstances in which they lived and the isolation of the Delta, not to mention the racial divide, it was unlikely anyone would ever find out. Which didn't stop people from trying. As the American folk revival gathered speed in the late 1950s, collectors taped rare 78s and the tapes circulated among young guitarists who were trying to learn these arcane playing styles, as much as a challenge to their technical abilities as anything. Deciphering, if not mastering, many of these players' styles was often easy. But those Mississippi John Hurt records stood out. Nobody else played like that.
Interest in Hurt had been growing since 1952, when Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music included two of his recordings, "Frankie" and "Spike Driver Blues." The Anthology was one of the Bibles of the folk boom, and occasioned a surge of interest in blues and hillbilly 78s. Thus it was that in 1963, two folkies in Washington, D.C., Tom Hoskins and Mike Stewart, got a tape from record collector Dick Spottswood with some new material to learn on it. As always, it was frustrating stuff, and the two had given some thought to going to Mississippi to see if they could locate any of these musicians and maybe press them for lessons. What galvanized their intentions was hearing Hurt's "Avalon Blues" for the first time. Hurt had recorded it in late December, 1928, in New York City, and, a poor tenant farmer who'd had to borrow the guitar he played on the session, he was clearly homesick. "Avalon's my home-town," he sang, "always on my mind." Well, sure, Hoskins and Stewart thought, maybe it is. They got out a map of Mississippi, but there was no Avalon there. Undaunted, they went looking for older maps, until, in an atlas from 1878, they found evidence of a tiny town by that name between Greenwood and Grenada, in the heart of blues country. Packing some clothes, a tape recorder, and their doubts in a car, they headed south. Avalon, as it happened, still did exist, in the form of a store owned by a family called Stinson and the Stinson's house. When they drove up, there were some men hanging out on the store's porch. Hoskins asked them if they'd ever heard of Mississippi John Hurt, and one of the men said he could be found "a mile down that road, third mailbox up the hill. Can't miss it." Down the road and up the hill they went, and turned in at the mailbox. As they got out of the car, a tractor came into view, a little man riding it. "Can I help you?" he asked. "John Hurt?" they asked, and, no doubt expecting trouble from the two white men, he answered "Yes." It seemed like a million-to-one shot had just paid off.
The question, of course, was if he could, and would, still play. The answer was yes. Some of the old songs came rolling out, and onto their tape recorder. Back in Washington, the two made plans, and soon brought Hurt up to play the local folk clubs. With production assistance from Spottswood, Hoskins recorded a couple of albums' worth of material for a label he started, Piedmont, and when the media got the story of the miraculous rediscovery, it spread. A booking for the 1963 Newport Folk Festival was easily made, and, to put it mildly, he was a hit. Fans mobbed him, entranced by his gentle nature and skillful playing, and he took it in his stride. Shortly afterwards, he played the Philadelphia Folk Festival, and the pattern was repeated. He was 71 years old, and he was a star. At this point, we should backtrack for some perspective on just how unlikely this was from John Hurt's point of view. He'd been born in Teoc, Mississippi, in 1892, one of ten children in a family that loved music. John, however, was the only one who took his interest seriously, and taught himself how to play the guitar, which explains why his style was like no one else's. (His explanation in later years was "Well, sir, I just make it sound like I think it ought to.") He married, then divorced, then married again in 1927 to a woman named Jessie, who would be his companion for the rest of his life. Like many black people in the area, he became a tenant farmer, but he made money on the side by playing dances, often in the company of two white musicians, fiddler Willie Narmour and guitarist Shell Smith, who were also farmers.
In the late 1920s, the record business in America had taken off, and among the discoveries those who ran it made was that "race" and hillbilly music sold well. This was a fortuitous discovery: unlike urban orchestras and pop singers, these musics were made by small groups or soloists, and it was easy and cheap to record them. The musicians welcomed the $20 or so they got per recording, nobody bothered with copyrights, and a hit could mean significant revenue for the label. Plus, as early scouts reported, the South was alive with musicians, of whom were excellent. You could go to a fiddlers' contest, or stop by a music store, find out who the local talents were, spread some publicity that you were in town, and musicians, black and white alike, would flock to you for the chance to record. Since this music wasn't played on any radio station (in fact, recorded music on the radio was virtually unheard of at the time), people would have to buy the records to hear the music.
So when Willie Narmour won a fiddlers' contest in Carroll County, Mississippi, he was approached by Tommy Rockwell, an Okeh scout, to record, he was also routinely asked if he knew any other good musicians in the area. He mentioned John Hurt, and one night Narmour and Rockwell showed up at the Hurt's house. Rockwell told Hurt he'd pay him to play a couple of numbers, according to Jessie, and after one, he told him to stop. Rockwell was on his way back to New York, but he'd be stopping in Memphis first, and asked Hurt if he'd join him there to make a couple of recordings. On February 14, 1928, he recorded two tracks in Memphis, "Frankie," and "Nobody's Dirty Business," which were subsequently released as Okeh 8560. The record didn't sell, but Rockwell was certain Hurt could be successful, so that December he sent him a ticket to New York. On December 21, Hurt recorded four more songs, and a week later, seven more. No doubt it was the experience of spending Christmas in the bewilderingly large city, with its cold and bustle, that caused John Hurt to record "Avalon Blues" at that last session.
Although Okeh released all but one song that they'd recorded, the sales figures were pathetic, only a few hundred each. There was no question of trying more, and at any rate, by the end of 1929, the entire record industry would crater as the Depression took hold. Naturally, the rural blacks and whites which formed the core of Okeh's business were the first, and hardest, hit. John Hurt didn't care. He didn't have dreams of stardom, and he was happy with the money he'd been paid, which was more than he'd have made in the same time farming. He went back to work, playing Saturday night dances for $5, and working regularly. In the mid-1940s, he moved onto the property where Hoskins and Stewart found him, and was content to farm and raise his family.
In retrospect, it's easy to see why the Okeh records failed. For one thing, despite the fact that a number of his songs have the word "blues" in the title (a concession to commercial trends of the time as much as anything, perhaps), they're not blues. Hurt belongs to an older, pre-blues tradition. Although people often think of the blues as an ancient music, overwhelming evidence points to its having come into being in the early years of this century. The fact that John Hurt worked with fiddle players shows that he was more conversant with older styles. Furthermore, the large number of story-songs in his repertoire puts him in what is known as the "songster" tradition, since blues, for the most part, have no narrative content. And finally, you won't hear a bent note in any of John Hurt's music (although he does play slide guitar on one track on this collection, "Talking Casey," a song he probably learned much later). His style owes more to the pre-blues ragtime technique than it does to any of the more modern music being made just a few miles away from where he grew up. Also, he was older than the majority of the blues musicians being recorded at the time, so it makes sense that his music would hearken to an earlier time.
But the reasons for his failure then were also the basis for his later success. As becomes evident within the first few seconds of putting this CD on, there is a charm, a sweetness, to Mississippi John Hurt's music that is unlike any other. True, it took him a little while to regain the confidence that shines through here; by the time he signed with Vanguard, he had seen the miracles at Newport and Philadelphia, and was certain people liked him. He became a true entertainer: besides his own repertoire, only a bit of which had been touched by Okeh, he integrated hymns and old pop songs into his act, even admitting, on "Goodnight Irene," that he'd learned the song from a Leadbelly record that he surely didn't have back in Avalon.
Mississippi John Hurt's Vanguard recordings are, by consensus, his best, and we're lucky to have them. His revived career only lasted three years; he died, back in Avalon, on November 2, 1966. I am lucky enough to have been one of the many people John Hurt touched with his music, so let me close with a story about the time I met him.
I was at college, and somehow the local folkies heard of a concert being held a couple of hundred miles away. This being John Hurt, we thought nothing of piling into a car and driving several hours there and back, and we were rewarded with a typically spellbinding show. During the intermission, I saw him sitting over to one side, alone, so I walked over to him to tell him how happy I was to have seen him. I guess I startled him: a silver flask was halfway to his lips. But he heard me out, and grinned in a way that still warms me when I remember it. Taking the shot glass-shaped cap off the flask, he poured some whiskey into it. "Now, I know you're not old enough," he told me with a wink. "But don't you tell nobody. I'm too old to be getting into trouble." The whiskey burned its way down my throat, but I knew better than to refuse. It wasn't an old man giving alcohol to a teenager, it was communion. And I've kept my promise to him until now. Somehow, I don't think he'd mind.
Ed Ward is the rock historian for National Public Radio's Fresh Air, and writes for a variety of publications. He lives in Berlin, where he hosts Blue Monday on Jazz Radio 101.9.
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