Mississippi John Hurt
Mississippi John Hurt
Hurt making a recording for the Library of Congress in 1964.
Raised in Avalon, Mississippi, Hurt taught himself how to play the guitar around age nine. Singing in a loud whisper, to a melodious finger-picked accompaniment, he began to play local dances and parties while working as a sharecropper. He first recorded for Okeh Records in 1928, but these were commercial failures, and Hurt drifted out of the recording scene, where he continued his work as a farmer. After a man discovered a copy of one of his recordings, “Avalon Blues”, which gave the location of his hometown, there became increased interest in his whereabouts. Tom Hoskins, a blues enthusiast, would be the first to locate Hurt in 1963. He convinced Hurt to relocate to Washington, D.C., where he was recorded by the Library of Congress in 1964. This rediscovery helped further the American folk music revival, which had led to the rediscovery of many other bluesmen of Hurt’s era. Hurt entered the same university and coffeehouse concert circuit as his contemporaries, as well as other Delta blues musicians brought out of retirement. As well as playing concerts, he recorded several studio albums for Vanguard Records.
He died in Grenada, Mississippi. Material recorded by Hurt has been re-released by manyrecord labels over the years (see discography); and his influence has extended over many generations of guitarists. Songs recorded by Hurt have been covered by Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Beck, Doc Watson, John McCutcheon, Taj Mahal, Bruce Cockburn, David Johansen, Bill Morrissey, Gillian Welch and Guthrie Thomas.
Born John Smith Hurt in Teoc, Carroll County, Mississippi and raised in Avalon, Mississippi, he learned to play guitar at age nine. He was completely self-taught, playing his mother’s boyfriend’s guitar whenever he stayed over at her house. His style was not reminiscent of any other style being played at the time; it was the way Hurt “thought the guitar should sound”. He spent much of his youth playing old time music for friends and dances, earning a living as a farmhand into the 1920s. His fast, highly syncopated style of playing made his music adept for dancing. On occasion, a medicine show would come through the area; Hurt recalls being wanted by one of them. “One of them wanted me, but I said no because I just never wanted to get away from home.” In 1923 he partnered with the fiddle player Willie Narmour as a substitute for his regular partner Shell Smith.
When Narmour got a chance to record for Okeh Records as a prize for winning first place in a 1928 fiddle contest, he recommended Hurt to Okeh Records producer Tommy Rockwell. After auditioning “Monday Morning Blues” at his home, he took part in two recording sessions, in Memphis and New York City (see Discography below). While in Memphis, Hurt recalled seeing “many, many blues singers … Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bessie Smith, and lots, lots more.” Hurt described his first recording session as such:
… a great big hall with only the three of us in it: me, the man [Rockwell], and the engineer. It was really something. I sat on a chair, and they pushed the microphone right up to my mouth and told me that I couldn’t move after they had found the right position. I had to keep my head absolutely still. Oh, I was nervous, and my neck was sore for days after.
Hurt attempted further negotiations with Okeh to record again, but after the commercial failure of the resulting records, and Okeh Records going out of business during the Great Depression, Hurt returned to Avalon and obscurity, working as a sharecropper and playing local parties and dances.
After Hurt’s renditions of “Frankie” and “Spike Driver Blues” were included in The Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952, and anAustralian man discovered a copy of “Avalon Blues”, there became increased interest in finding Hurt himself. In 1963, a folkmusicologist, Tom Hoskins, supervised by Richard Spottswood, was able to locate Hurt near Avalon, Mississippi using the lyrics of “Avalon Blues:”
Avalon, my home town, always on my mind/Avalon, my home town.
While in Avalon, Hoskins convinced an apprehensive Hurt to perform several songs for him, to ensure that he was genuine. Hoskins was convinced, and seeing that Hurt’s guitar playing skills were still intact, Hoskins encouraged him to move to Washington, D.C., and begin performing on a wider stage. His performance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival saw his star rise amongst the new folk revival audience. Before his death he played extensively in colleges, concert halls, coffee houses and also on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, as well as recording three further albums for Vanguard Records. Much of his repertoire was recorded for the Library of Congress, also. His fans particularly liked the ragtime songs “Salty Dog” and “Candy Man”, and the blues ballads “Spike Driver Blues” (a variant of “John Henry”) and “Frankie.”
Hurt’s influence spanned several music genres including blues, country, bluegrass, folk and contemporary rock and roll. A soft-spoken man, his nature was reflected in the work, which consisted of a mellow mix of country, blues and old time music.