Mississippi John Hurt

A testament to how the best and the brightest can go totally unnoticed

Posted 07 Feb 2017    Edited 08 Feb 2017

The story of Mississippi John Hurt is not documented consistently online, and I only used online resources to compile this information, so this is just adding to the slurry of crap that there already is.

The Delta Blues

After World War Two, a few blues enthusiasts and music historians started loving the blues [which were kinda not cared about during the thirties] and they came across these albums:

From the Dolgoff Records blog

They were released in 1928 and 1929 by the Okeh record label [which basically went extinct in 1970] and became super rare. They were the recordings of a guy called Mississippi John Hurt.

The music people were like transfixed. Hurt's style [especially his guitar picking technique] was completely unique. People started to ask who this guy was. "Where is Mississippi John Hurt?" they asked.

Nothing happened, though.

Until 1963.

Finding Mississippi John Hurt

This blues collector guy named Tom Hoskins from Washington, DC was determined to find Hurt. He pulled a blues version of Sherlock Holmes and figured out where Hurt lived from the music in the albums.

He listened to this song:

There are three specific things I like about this version of the song on YouTube: [0] it spells Mississippi wrong in the title, [1] it contains a snippet from an interview Hurt gave in his later years explaining the background of the song, and [2] it doesn't have a caption that steals my thunder in describing the story.

It's a song about a guy being in New York and missing Avalon, his home town. Hoskins was like, "What if this is a true song?" and he got an atlas or whatever and looked up Avalon. And he found it [maybe not surprisingly] in Mississippi.

So he went there, and he was like, "Hey, I'm looking for Mississippi John Hurt," and the people are like, "You mean John Hurt the farmer?" and he's like, "Uh... yeah."

So Hoskins finds him, and he's like, "Hey, did you cut a few records back in the twenties?" and he was like, "Yeah," and Hoskins is like, "Yeeeesssssssss."

John Hurt

Grew up in Avalon, Mississippi. He taught himself how to play the guitar when he was a little kid by secretly playing an old guitar that his mom's friend had. He got pretty good and developed his own style. Whether he knew it or not, the way he wrote and performed music was completely revolutionary. Blues historians view his work as being some of the most influential in early blues history.

In the liner notes to the Avalon Blues compilation album, it says he was asked to be a member in a traveling band, but declined because he "just never wanted to get away from home." So he just stayed home and played at dances and things.

In 1928, when Hurt was thirty-six, this guy from Okeh records was touring around rural Mississippi as a talent scout. He heard about Hurt from the locals and had him cut a record. The sales were good enough that he invited him for another recording session in New York, which is where the Avalon Blues recording happened.

Whether or not Hurt's albums were appealing, any success he may have had was fuffed by the great depression. He went back to Avalon and sharecropped for basically the rest of his life; which is the biggest tragedy in music history, as far as I know and in my opinion.

When he was approached by Hoskins in '63, he was already in his seventies. He was really skeptical about Hoskins's interest, but after seeing that he was genuinely excited about the music [and hearing that a lot of other people were, too], Hurt agreed to follow Hoskins to Washington, DC and record his work afresh. A pretty good collection of Hurt's music was saved in the Library of Congress.

He toured and recorded and enjoyed much of the commercial success that he'd unlucked out on as a younger man. He was kinda the poster boy of the Delta Blues revival, that brought many artists from his era out of obscurity. Someone on a forum somewhere said that Hoskins acted as Hurt's agent for basically his whole career after the rediscovery and basically screwed him out of most of the money. But it's cool that he was finally recognized.

He died in 1966, just three years after his rediscovery.

One of the coolest things about Mississippi John Hurt was how cool of a guy he was. Because he lived most of his life in poverty and obscurity, I think he was spared of ever thinking too much of himself. A lot of the recordings that exist from his twilight recordings also contain interview dialogue, or his interactions with live audiences and stuff. He just seems like a freaking awesome dude.

Ed Ward, a rock music historian who worked for NPR, said of Hurt:

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.

He was such a great blues artist. His story is really inspiring. And his music is rad. I encourage a good, long listen.

Coffee Blues is a great one, and Candy Man is super funny. It's about a big-dicked guy that gives everyone STDs.

Maybe it's because I'm Mormon, but his spirituals are my favorite.