Mississippi John Hurt - Biography
Avalon was a legendary island of English mythology where King Arthur supposedly resided after his last battle. A city called Avalon had its place in the mythos of the modern blues: A central Mississippi town of some 100 souls, it was where Mississippi John Hurt lived, and where he was rediscovered, nearly 35 years after he made the 78s on which his considerable reputation rested.
Hurt was the first of the great prewar singer-guitarists to be rescued from obscurity by researchers in the early ‘60s; Son House, Skip James, and Bukka White were among the others who were subsequently unearthed to perform at folk music festivals and coffeehouses, to the awestruck wonder of a legion of young fans.
Hurt was an anomaly among these performers, most of whom played in the rough-hewn Mississippi Delta style, which mainly favored bottleneck slide playing and forceful vocals. He was a fingerpicker with a flowing, subdued style, and his singing was soft, pensive, and almost bashful. Little of his repertoire was what could be called straight blues, though many of his song titles bore the word “Blues”; his ballads and story-songs grew out of an older, pre-blues tradition. It may be best to term him a “songster,” in the same vein as Texas performer Mance Lipscomb, though he was also venerated by blues fans who admired his formidable technique.
While he was a virtuoso on his instrument, his music had a deceptively down-to-earth quality. His producer and friend Patrick Sky said, “The thing that made him a giant was the simplicity of his music, but it was a complicated simplicity. When you first hear it, you think, ‘That’s simple, I can do that.’ But when you try, you go, ‘Forget about it.’”
John Hurt was born in Teoc, Mississippi, on July 3, 1892; his family included eight brothers and two sisters. He made it about halfway through grammar school. He grew up in the nearby farming community of Avalon, a speck on the map just 12 miles north of Greenwood, Mississippi, where bluesman Robert Johnson died in 1938. He began teaching himself to play at the age of nine, impressed by the prowess of a local musician named William Henry Carson. He developed a dense three-finger picking style that demonstrated immense facility, alternating melodic work and an underlying bass line.
Unlike many of the best-known players from the Delta — Charley Patton, House, James, Johnson, Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson — Hurt was not an itinerant professional. In fact, Hurt had little contact with his blues-playing contemporaries until they began sharing festival stages upon their rediscovery in the ‘60s. He spent most of his early years as a farmer, performing only at dances and other social events close to home. For a spell, he lined track for the Illinois Central, and credited that stint for the presence of “Spike Driver Blues” (his “John Henry”/”Nine Pound Hammer” variant) and “Casey Jones” in his repertoire.
Around 1923 Hurt began working as a regular substitute for guitarist S.W. “Shell” Smith with Smith’s partner W.T. “Will” Narmour, one of the best-known and most proficient hillbilly fiddlers in Carroll County, Mississippi. (It is a measure of Hurt’s own skill that he was asked to work with a white performer in the rigorously segregated Deep South.) Narmour & Smith’s 1929 instrumental “Carroll County Blues” was among the most performed fiddle breakdowns of the day.
Hurt’s association bore great fruit in 1928. Okeh Records talent scout T.J. Rockwell signed Narmour & Smith as recording artists, and asked Narmour if he could recommend any deserving local talent. The fiddler suggested Hurt, and, after an in-person audition in Avalon, Hurt was offered a session, and traveled with Narmour & Smith to Memphis in February.
On Valentine’s Day, he made his recording debut, cutting eight sides. “Frankie,” his dizzying, high-velocity rendition of the “Frankie and Johnnie” legend, was released as a 78, backed with his original “Nobody’s Dirty Business.” (Such mainstays of his later concert repertoire as “Monday Morning Blues” and “Casey Jones” were also recorded, as well as the sacred numbers “Blessed Be the Name” and “Meeting On the Old Camp Ground.”) Interestingly, the session cards indicate that Okeh originally planned to market Hurt as “old time music” to hillbilly audiences, but altered his designation later to “race” (i.e., blues) performer. At his arrival, John Hurt — dubbed “Mississippi” by the label — stubbornly defied musical categories and racial barriers.
Sales of “Frankie” were apparently deemed successful enough to warrant a second recording session, so in December 1928 Hurt took the train to New York City for two days of studio work. In addition to re-recording the two spirituals from the February date, he recorded several songs with which he would be identified: “Stack O’ Lee Blues” (his version of the familiar gunfighter ballad “Staggerlee”), “Candy Man Blues,” “Got the Blues Can’t Be Satisfied,” “Louis Collins,” and “Spike Driver Blues.” He also recorded the song that would play a fateful role in his career: “Avalon Blues.”
Okeh issued five more 78s by Hurt. But his career was not helped by the withering of the market for recorded music following the 1929 stock market crash, and in its wake Mississippi John Hurt disappeared from the recording studio and the public eye. He contented himself with farm work in Avalon, and continued to play at events in his immediate area, seldom straying far from home.
Hurt would have swept into the mists of legend were it not for a burgeoning interest in blues and hillbilly artists of the ’20s that developed following World War II. A signal event was the inclusion of Hurt’s “Frankie” and “Spike Driver Blues” on Anthology of American Folk Music, the six-LP compilation of vintage commercial sides assembled by the eccentric artist and collector Harry Smith and released in 1952 by Moses Asch’s Folkways Records. As the decade progressed, an entire school of fans, researchers, and collectors — many of whom bought or traded old 78s and passed music hand-to-hand on reel-to-reel tape copies -- began to poke around, traveling hitherto unexplored back roads in an attempt to learn more about the obscure, long-forgotten musicians who fascinated them.
According to blues historian Ted Gioia’s book Delta Blues, the first researcher to pick up Mississippi John Hurt’s trail was the tenacious Mack McCormick. His only clue lay in the song Hurt had recorded in New York on Dec. 21, 1928, “Avalon Blues”; its lyric ran, “Avalon, my hometown, always on my mind.” The town was so small that it didn’t even appear on contemporary maps, but in 1962 McCormick located it in a prewar Encyclopedia Britannica, and called the general store. He was told, “John was just here. Do you want me to get him?” He later interviewed Hurt and took down the basic details of his life.
However, it was Washington, D.C., blues aficionado Tom Hoskins, a friend of the noted local collector Dick Spottswood, who located Avalon in an 1878 Rand-McNally atlas and took to the road to find Hurt. Upon his arrival at the town general store, Stinson’s, in 1963, Hoskins was told to look for Hurt a mile up the road, at the third mailbox up the hill. The suspicious musician at first took his fan — one of the few white Northerners to be seen in the region — to be an FBI agent.
Hoskins wasted no time in bringing his discovery to Washington, D.C., where Hurt recorded his repertoire for the Library of Congress. He also performed commercial sessions for Spottswood’s independent label Piedmont Records (later reissued in their entirety on CD by Rounder Records). In July 1963, he made a deliriously received appearance before astonished folk music buffs at Rhode Island’s Newport Folk Festival. The ‘60s blues revival — soon to be fed by the rediscovery of other “lost” blues artists -- probably began in earnest with Hurt’s Newport set. In 1964, he was joined there by Skip James, Rev. Robert Wilkins, and Sleepy John Estes; Son House arrived in 1965.
Hurt was soon signed to Vanguard Records, the independent New York folk label. His sessions for the company were produced by singer-songwriter Patrick Sky, who kept things intimate by barring everyone except the artist, himself, and the recording engineer from the studio. Three days of work produced enough material for three albums: Mississippi John Hurt Today! (1966), The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt (1967), and Last Sessions (1972). These albums contain the best-known latter-day versions of his songs. Vanguard also recorded Hurt extensively at Newport.
In his 70s, the charming and soft-spoken Hurt became a much-beloved figure on the coffeehouse folk circuit, and even something of a national celebrity, appearing with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. (Footage of that show has apparently not survived, but Hurt’s delightful appearance on Pete Seeger’s show Rainbow Quest is readily available on YouTube.)
Despite his popularity, he remained humble, and even somewhat skeptical of his own talents. Manager Dick Waterman observed to writer Peter Guralnick, “Well, John thought very little of his own music, it was just a whole bunch of songs that everyone had been doing at home, and he thought of himself as just a no-talented little picker in comparison to Skip [James].”
He died Nov. 2, 1966, in Grenada, Mississippi, just miles from his beloved Avalon.
Hurt was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1988. A museum has been established in his name near Avalon, which also hosts a Mississippi John Hurt Blues Festival. In 2001, Vanguard released Avalon Blues: A Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurt; produced by Peter Case, who recorded for the label, the album included performances by Beck, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Taj Mahal, John Hiatt, and Case and Dave Alvin. It received a Grammy Award nomination as best traditional folk album.