Mississippi John Hurt
John Hurt was a self taught guitarist, who was given his first guitar by his mother when he was just nine years old. His playing was developed in near isolation as he rarely left his hometown in the remote town of Avalon, Mississippi. He learned much of his repertoire from field hands.
He played primarily for his own enjoyment. He liked to perform solo for friends or local dances, becoming a popular local favorite. Never earning much he earned his living working as a farm hand. For this reason he owes very little debt, if any, to other guitarists of his time. The style he developed was a unique, powerful, flowing fingerstyle incorporating simple and elegant melodies over driving syncopated bass lines. In his words, “I taught myself to play the guitar the way I thought the guitar should sound.” The combination of his guitar playing and his gentle, haunting, and almost conversational vocals, established him as an accomplished, talented and remarkable artist. The combination of his down home lyrics, and topics about legendary figures like ‘Stack O’ Lee’ positioned him somewhere between the modern blues of the day and old time folk music.
In 1912 he began playing parties around Jackson, Mississippi. His reputation grew steadily until he was finally auditioned by Tommy Rockwell for the Memphis based label Okeh records in 1928, who christened him “Mississippi” John Hurt, as a sales gimmick. He recorded eight sides and two of them, “Frankie” and “Nobody’s Dirty Business” sold well. Following his success he was invited to New York for another session where he recorded twelve more sides. His popularity was short lived. The Great Depression hit, record sales dropped and Okeh went out of business.
Hurt was soon forgotten. He returned to Avalon and worked as a sharecropper, farmer and laborer, playing again at the occasional parties or dances. He was rediscovered again in the ‘60’s through the effort of an avid record collector and blues enthusiast named Tom Hoskins, who single-handedly tracked him down and dragged him out of obscurity. If it wasn’t for the song Avalon Blues, he probably never would have been found. When Hoskin’s found him at home and gave him a guitar to see if it was really him, Hurt was convinced this strange man was from the FBI or the police and muttered, ‘I haven’t done anything wrong.’ He was later amazed that not only had people heard of him, but his albums were now worth a lot of money.
Unlike a lot of ‘rediscovered’ artists, John Hurt’s music had lost nothing; instead it had matured and grown. When he rejoined the music scene he became a hugely popular performer and recorded several more albums, all of which were greatly received. His newfound popularity lasted only three years until his death in 1966 at the age of 74.
Here is MJH performing Spike Driver Blues. This is from Pete Seeger’s “Rainbow Quest” series which was recorded in 1965/1966 for a New Jersey public television station.
You can’t go wrong with Mississippi John Hurt, no matter what albums you buy. Listening to his music for the first time will flick a switch in you, somewhere inside a little light will go on. You’ll feel it, even if you can’t pinpoint what it is, and you’ll be different. It’s hard to listen to this music and not take something away from it. That being said, in our opinion the complete 1928 Okeh recordings collection is an indispensable album, containing all of the original sides of his first recording sessions. This is MJH in his prime.
And secondly, this is everything the man recorded in the 60’s for Vanguard Records. Absolutely brilliant.
For Further Study:
Mississippi John Hurt, by Stefan Grossman.
Shake That Thing The Guitar of Mississippi John Hurt, Volume 1, by Stefan Grossman.
DVD-The Fingerpicking Blues Of Mississippi John Hurt, by John Sebastian and Happy Traum