John Hurt spent nearly all of his life in the whistle-stop farming community of Avalon, Mississippi. With his gentle, soothing voice and a beautifully syncopated fingerpicking guitar style, he created one of the most compelling country blues styles ever recorded. After making a handful of 78s, he faded from public view during the Depression and then arose phoenix-like during the 1960s, his considerable skills intact. Still fresh today, his inspiring recordings provide an aural passport to a bygone era of cakewalks and rags, ballads, and storytelling blues.
Hurt was 35 years old when he journeyed alone, a beat-up guitar and business card in hand, from the Mississippi hill country to Memphis for his first session. His first recording session took place on Valentine’s Day, 1928, and the experience was not entirely pleasant. Hurt remembered going into “a great big hall with only Mr. Rockwell, one engineer, and myself. I sat on a chair and they pushed the microphone right up close to my mouth, and told me not to move after they found the right position. Oh, I was nervous, and my neck was sore for days after.” Several songs were cut that day, but only a single OKeh 78 was issued from the session, “Nobody’s Dirty Business” backed by “Frankie,” one of his songs in open tuning. Hurt was paid about $20 per song, a good fee for unproven talent. The original Columbia file cards for the matrixes described them as “old time music,” but this was later changed to “race.”
Hurt headed home and worked another season. Under his sharecropping arrangement, half of the corn and cotton he grew on 13 acres was turned over to the landowner. In November T.J. Rockwell wrote to Hurt, inviting him to record again. John’s December 21, 1928, session in New York City produced brilliant takes of “Ain’t No Tellin’” (essentially new words set to the “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” melody), the murder ballad “Louis Collins,” and “Avalon Blues,” set to a galloping rhythm.
A week later, Hurt had his final and most productive prewar session, cutting three spirituals and five blues. Of all Hurt’s prewar sides, the one he composed his first day in New York City, “Avalon Blues,” proved to be the most important. More than three decades after its release, it led to his rediscovery:
“Avalon my home town, always on my mind,
Avalon my home town, always on my mind,
Pretty mama’s in Avalon, want me there all the time”
(You can hear and legally download fifteen of Hurt’s OKeh recordings, including “Avalon Blues,” at www.archive.org/details/MississippiJohnHurt-01-15.)
During the 1920s, when its population was less than a hundred people, Avalon, Mississippi, was little more than a ramshackle rail settlement on the edge of the Delta between Greenwood and Grenada. Born in nearby Teoc on March 8, 1892, John Smith Hurt spent most of his life living there in poverty. He and his eight brothers and two sisters grew up without a father. He made it through the fourth grade at St. James School, and then began laboring for Felix Healey, whom he described as “a colored man” who owned a place across the way from his.
Inspired by local musician William Henry Carson, John was nine when he began teaching himself to play on a secondhand guitar his mother bought for him from a neighbor, Johnny Kent, for a dollar and a half. “I always tried to make my strings say just what I say,” he explained to Tom Hoskins in 1963. “I grab it and go my way with it. Use my melody with it.” Resting his right-hand ring and little fingers on the face of his guitar, Hurt thumbed mesmerizing alternating bass lines while his index and middle fingers picked lilting melodies.
By age 12 John was singing “Good Morning, Miss Carrie,” “Satisfied,” “Frankie and Johnny,” and other non-blues songs at house parties, sometimes working with a fiddler. “We had dances,” he told Hoskins. “We called them square dances. Hands up four. Ten Gallons. Oh, I don’t know what you call these little dances. Why, they two-steppin’.”
Some nights, he remembered, he and a friend would awaken neighbors with their playing, a tradition that had been part of American life for many decades: “We go along to people’s private homes, way in the night, midnight, one o’clock. ‘Serenadin’,’ we call it. We knew you well, we tip up on the porch and we’d wake you up with music. Well, you might lay there and listen, you might not get up and ask us in. Sometimes you’d get up and say, ‘Come on in.’”
In his conversations with Tom Hoskins, Hurt described learning “Good Morning, Miss Carrie,” “Salty Dog,” and “Spanish Fandang” on the front porch of his shack. Asked about the first blues he’d learned, Hurt played “Lazy Blues,” a simple, original arrangement in E major that had more in common with Memphis players than Delta musicians such as Charley Patton and Son House:
“Wake up in the morning, a towel tied round her head,
Wake up in the morning, towel tied round her head,
When you speak to her, she swear she almost dead”
Hurt also taught himself to play slide guitar. For “Talking Casey,” for instance, he thumb train rhythms on his bass strings while using a pocketknife slide to imitate bells and quote familiar melodies, a technique similar to Blind Willie McTell in Atlanta and many others. He composed in many keys, including E, A, D, and G, which was especially convenient for a strong alternating bass. But unlike many Delta musicians, Hurt seemed to prefer C, his key for “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,” “Nobody’s Dirty Business,” “Richland Women Blues,” “Louis Collins,” “Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me,” “Corinne, Corinna,” and “My Creole Belle,” among others. Big Bill Broonzy, raised in Mississippi, shared this trait. Hurt also played harmonica, although later in life he was rarely seen doing it. Much of Hurt’s music was probably a souvenir of his childhood. Asked by a white landlord how he created melodies, Hurt responded, “Well, sir, I just make it sound like I think it ought to.”
In his youth, John helped his mother raise cotton, corn, and potatoes. As he grew up, he hired himself out to neighboring farms, while his mother washed clothes and cooked. During 1915 Hurt worked for the Illinois Central, jacking up and leveling railroad ties for $100 a month. His crew, he remembered in an unpublished 1963 interview with Tom Hoskins, kept pace to a work-song rhythm: “Just one man keepin’ time. Verses like ‘Ida when you marry, I want you to marry me/Like a flower held, baby, you never see,’ like that. I learned ‘Spike Driver Blues’ from a railroad hand called Walter Jackson. I just learned that song from calling track. ‘Casey Jones’ too.” John quit the IC after five months, going back to help his mother on the farm. To earn extra money, he cut and hewed oak, pine, and cypress trees into eight-foot cross ties to sell to the railroad at a dollar apiece. It was grueling work, he remembered: “I towed many a cross ties I made across my shoulder.” He married his first wife, Gertrude, from whom he later separated.
Around 1923 Willie Narmour, a white square dance fiddler whose “Carroll County Blues” is still in the repertoire of many old-time musicians, began using Hurt as a substitute for his regular partner, Shell William Smith. Relegated to the role of rhythm keeper, Hurt flatpicked his parts. A few years later, Narmour won a fiddle contest; first prize was a chance to record for OKeh Records. Arriving in Avalon to take Narmour to his field recording equipment in Memphis, producer T.J. Rockwell inquired about other local musicians. Narmour recommended Hurt and brought the OKeh executive to his shack. Hurt auditioned with “Monday Morning Blues,” which led to his Valentine’s Day session. The “Mississippi” tag was added to his name as a sales gimmick.
Hurt had chance encounters with three famous blues personalities during his follow-up recording trip to New York City. He saw Bessie Smith holding a guitar while waiting for an elevator and met Victoria Spivey in the hall outside a studio. “At that time they had a large recordin’ room,” he told Tom Hoskins, “and they had a hallway between these buildings. They keep the door closed, you could hear nothin’. It was a glass door, bottom was wood, and you could ease up to the door and peek through. If you lay your head close upside the door, you could hear like somebody way across town. But you weren’t goin’ to get in there till your time comes, see?”
In Memphis, Hurt had met a man passing himself off as Lonnie Johnson, but on December 28, 1928, he met the real Lonnie Johnson. The most advanced of the prewar blues guitarists, Johnson had recently recorded vocal duets in New York City with Victoria Spivey, as well as unsurpassed guitar duets with jazz guitarist Eddie Lang. “He had did some recordin’ just ahead of me,” Hurt recalled of their meeting. “Me and Lonnie, we was in the recordin’ room there. I had just written this ‘Candy Man.’ I had it written in pencil, and I forget some of the verses, so they typed them on the chart. So I was practicin’ on it while they were gone. And Lonnie says, ‘Ain’t that a little too high? Gotta let it down, son.’ I’ll never forget the manager, T.J. Rockwell, come in and says, ‘Who’s been messin’ with that chart?’ Lonnie says, ‘I did. I didn’t think it would do any harm, it was too high.’ That’s how I know it was for sure Lonnie Johnson. We had us a little ball while we were goin’. I played the guitar, and he played the piano – oh, nice little ball. We went shoppin’ or to his house, have a little party, dance. Oh yeah, had a big time.” During the week between his studio appearances, Hurt saved most of his ten dollar per diem by taking room and board at the home of the man assigned to deliver him to a hotel.
Upon his return to Avalon, John Hurt settled into a quiet rural life with his bride Jessie Lee, whom he had married in 1927. His records had little immediate impact on his career, but he still played Saturday night dances around Avalon, Carrollton, and Greenwood, sometimes working with fiddler Lee Anderson. His 78s did influence other musicians, though, particularly Doc Watson, who explained to Sing Out! magazine: “My first introduction to the blues was on the earlier recordings that came out with our first wind-up Victrola. This was about 1929 or 1930, and there was a record or two in there by John Hurt. I was just a young ’un, and his music struck a responsive note in me.” During the Depression Hurt worked for the WPA, earning three dollars a day felling trees, building dams and levees, and cutting gravel roads. His WPA schedule of seven days on followed by seven days off enabled him to continue farming.
John Hurt never learned to drive a car and lived without electricity for most of his life. Around the end of World War II, he moved his family into a three-room house on A.R. Perkins’ land, where he tended cows and farmed until the 1960s. Unbeknownst to Hurt, Folkways Records re-released two of his old 78 sides in the early 1950s as part of its American Folk Music series, and he had gained a new circle of admirers who marveled at his appealing voice and dexterous fingerpicking. Most figured he was long dead, but Dick Spottswood, an authority on 78 records, had his doubts. He found Avalon on an 1878 atlas and shared his research with Tom Hoskins, a blues aficionado who headed to Avalon, population 200. Locals at Stinson’s, which served as the community’s general store, gas station, and post office, directed Hoskins to the third mailbox up the hill, where, sure enough, dwelled Mr. Hurt. At the time, John was earning $28 a month for herding cattle, cutting hay, and helping with cotton and corn harvests, while his wife cooked free meals for the farmer who owned their land. Hoskins was thrilled to discover that Hurt’s musical skills were intact. He talked him into coming to Washington, D.C., to begin a new career. “I thought he was the police,” Hurt explained to Time magazine. “When he asked me to come up North, I figured if I told him no, he’d take me anyway, so I told him yes.”
In late March and early April 1963, Hurt recorded his first commercial LP. Produced by Dick Spottswood and originally released by the Piedmont label as Folk Songs and Blues, the album included re-cuttings of several of the OKeh 78s, as well as two of the first songs John learned as a boy, “Salty Dog” and “Spanish Fandang.” In 1964, Piedmont issued a second album from these sessions, Worried Blues, which has been reissued as the Rounder CD Worried Blues 1963.
Hurt recorded again on July 15, 1963, this time for the Library of Congress. The venue was Coolidge Auditorium, and Hurt’s output that Monday morning – 39 songs – rivaled that of two other great bluesmen who recorded for the L.O.C. decades earlier, Leadbelly and Blind Willie McTell. Hurt reprised many of his old 78s and pulled out his pocketknife for the slide effects in “Talking Casey Jones” and “Pera-Lee.” Asked to play his favorite song, he launched into “Trouble I’ve Had It All My Days.” Near the end of the session, he played a wonderful set of church songs that included “Beulah Land,” “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep,” Glory Glory Hallelujah,” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Before his final performance, Hurt said, “Let me do this one for you before we go. It’s a love song, see?” John dedicated “Waiting for You” to his wife Jessie. Here’s the version of “You Are My Sunshine” he recorded that day:
Later that month, the 69-year-old gave his first major concert appearance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, appearing on a bill that included Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, John Hammond, Rev. Gary Davis, John Lee Hooker, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. Hurt’s set included “See See Rider,” “Stagolee,” “Spike Driver Blues,” “Candy Man, “Frankie,” “Trouble I’ve Had It All My Days,” and “Coffee Blues.” The lamb went over like a lion, graciously received his fans, and then headed home to pick cotton. He was soon back in the spotlight, though, triumphing at the Philadelphia Folk Festival a month later, with John Sebastian sitting in on harmonica for “Make Me a Pallet.” Vanguard Records included his performances on their anthologies Newport Folk Festival 1963, Great Bluesmen at Newport, and Blues at Newport. Hurt’s 1929 OKeh 78s were reissued as well, initially on small-label anthologies, and then as a Biograph album. Today, they’re available on the Yazoo CD 1928 Sessions and Columbia’s Avalon Blues: Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings.
In September 1963, John, Jessie, and their grandchildren Ella Mae and Andrew Lee moved to Washington, D.C., where they stayed in a third floor apartment in a row house on Rhode Island Avenue N.W. Rory Block was among those who made the pilgrimage to visit them there. “Mississippi John had recorded way back in the days of intense separatism,” she says, “and then all of a sudden he was rediscovered by young white people, and he couldn’t help but wonder what was going on. He never expected that anyone would be listening to his music again, especially young white people, whom he never thought would be interested in his music. He appreciated it, though. He was very quiet, very thoughtful, and very sweet. He wanted to make sure you were comfortable, that you had a cup of coffee.” Between concert appearances around the country, he worked as resident guitarist at the Ontario Place coffeehouse. In less than six months, he’d seen his take-home pay jump from $28 a month to $200 a week.
With his angelic, wizened face and diminutive size – 5’4″, without the old brown fedora – Mississippi John Hurt was as folkish and non-harrowing as his music. He rapidly became a cultural hero. “Hurt wasn’t just a good musician,” noted Dick Spottswood, “he had something which was very important in the 1960s. He had old record credentials, and he had been a legend for years. The myth was accessible instantly, and he had the music to back it up.” Rave reviews rolled in for his recordings and concerts: “The most important rediscovered folk singer to come out of Mississippi’s Delta country, the traditional home of Negro country blues singers,” described Time, while Down Beat characterized him as “warm, gentle, wistful, quietly pulsant and wholly musical. The guitar work is stunningly complex.” The New York Times praised his “compelling artistry” and added, “His performances have the quiet, introspective quality of chamber music.” He even made it onto national TV, appearing on The Tonight Show.
Hurt played Newport again in 1964, and went on to record several albums’ worth of material for Vanguard, often in collaboration with producer and occasional second guitarist Patrick Sky. Today came out in 1966, followed by the The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt in 1967. The label’s 1968 release, Best of Mississippi John Hurt, was recorded in concert at Oberlin College in 1966. (This album, and its subsequent reissues, state the year as 1965, but the April 15, 1966, issue of The Oberlin Review has a front-page photo of Son House with the caption, “Mississippi John Hurt, who only recently came out of retirement, and Son House, legendary blues singer, will present a program of ballads and blues in Wilder Main Lounge, tonight at 8 PM. Tickets are $1 at the door.”) Vanguard’s Rediscovered CD anthologizes 24 tracks from these three albums.
Musicians who knew Mississippi John Hurt after his rediscovery often describe him as a wise and gentle man. “John Hurt was very Christ-like and perfect,” remembers Stefan Grossman, who studied guitar with him. “He had a repertoire of about 80 tunes, all of them gems. He was more of a songster than a blues musician, with a near-perfect guitar style. Onstage, he would rock back and forth with a little smile, very unlike someone like Son House. He was incredible, the storybook grandfather full of wise tales and wonderful stories.”
Doc Watson echoed this sentiment to Sing Out! magazine: “John was one of the finest men that I have ever met. He was a kind, gentle-hearted person who loved people and loved life. And he enjoyed showing people his licks on the guitar.” John Sebastian, who named his rock group Lovin’ Spoonful in honor of Mississippi John Hurt, was likewise deeply moved by Hurt’s willingness to share his techniques. “John Hurt was the very first blues musician to arrive in the Village with a very open attitude about sharing his guitar styles and licks,” he told Sing Out! “It was like having our very own blues ‘Yoda.’ Whereas other musicians would hold back their tricks, except in concert, John would happily take you into the dressing room of the Gaslight and show you exactly what his hands were doing. We had all listened to his 1930s performances, but another striking difference was that John had gotten better!”
Then and now, countless guitarists have attempted to master John’s so-called “effortless” fingerpicking. “To a beginner,” Stefan Grossman explains, “John Hurt seems really simple. He’s playing like a piano, with treble on top of a boom-chick, boom-chick bass. But when you dissect them, every one of his arrangements has something unique. He’d stop the bass, or the bass wasn’t where you’d expect it to be. He had unusual chord positions. He’d play set arrangements, but there would be little variations each time. He used three fingers to play, resting his ring and little finger on the face of the guitar while he fingerpicked. John’s thumb strokes were the source of his unique sound. His alternating bass can stand by itself without any melody lines and still sound musical.” Luckily, excellent footage survives of Mississippi John Hurt and his amazing hands. Culled from an appearance on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest television show, Hurt’s performances of “Spike Driver” and “You’re Going to Walk That Lonesome Valley Blues” are available on the Legends of Country Blues Guitar Volume One DVD. This is must-viewing for anyone trying to master his guitar style.
Stefan Grossman observed that Hurt’s choice of instruments seemed in keeping with his humble demeanor: “The Newport Festival wanted to buy John Hurt a guitar, so he came up to Marc Silber’s Fretted Instrument Shop. We showed him a Martin OO-42, an expensive guitar with pearl inlays. And he just went for a simple Guild guitar that he picked off the wall. It was nothing special, not even a great-sounding guitar. It was very modest, just like he was. For his studio sessions on Vanguard, he used my OM-45 Martin, which happened to be an incredible sounding guitar. You can hear the difference between those recordings and the live Vanguard album that he did with the Guild.”
When his bookings and albums brought him enough to buy a house in Grenada, Hurt packed up his guitar and headed back to Mississippi. “By rights,” his wife Jessie insisted, “John went into this when he ought’ve been coming out.” Mississippi John Hurt paid his final visit to New York City during the summer of 1966, cutting the songs that appear on Vanguard’s Last Sessions album. “He got uncomfortable with people fighting to control his recording,” Grossman details, “so he went back home and died in his sleep. He came in gently, left gently.” Mississippi John Hurt passed away on November 2, 1966. His funeral was held in St. James Church, and he was buried a few miles north of A.R. Perkins’ house in rural Carroll County. His only son, John “Man” Hurt, who knew how to play pieces popularized by his father, played festivals for a while.
In 2002, Hurt’s granddaughter Mary Hurt Wright arranged to have his three-room shack moved from Teoc to nearby Avalon. It’s now the Mississippi John Hurt Museum. Mary’s grandmother, Hurt’s first wife, Gertrude Conley, lived to be 111 and is also buried in the Hurt family graveyard. In 2004, the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation oversaw the installation of a state historical marker along Highway 7 in Avalon. It’s inscribed, “John S. Hurt (1893-1966) was a pioneer blues and folk guitarist. Self-taught, he rarely left his home in Avalon, where he worked as a farmer. Although he recorded several songs in 1928, including ‘Avalon Blues’ and ‘Frankie,’ he lived in relative obscurity before he was ‘rediscovered’ in the blues revival of the 1960s.”
Since Mississippi John Hurt’s passing, many acclaimed musicians have written and recorded songs about him, including John Fahey, Tom Paxton, Dave Van Ronk, Doc and Merle Watson, Chris Smither, Happy and Artie Traum, Taj Mahal, and Stefan Grossman. To this day, his unique and transcendent style resounds in the repertoire of many players. I can’t help thinking that Mr. Hurt, in his gentle, self-effacing way, would be pleased.
Thanks to Stefan Grossman, Rory Block, and Dick Spottswood for their contributions. For an illustrated Mississippi John Hurt discography, visit http://www.wirz.de/music/hurtfrm.htm. For a wealth of posts, many from the bluesman’s relatives, visit http://myforum.mississippijohnhurtnews.com/user/Discussions.aspx.
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© 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.