Mississippi John Hurt
|Birth name||John Smith Hurt|
|Born||March 8, 1893|
Teoc, Mississippi, United States
|Died||November 2, 1966 (aged 73)|
Grenada, Mississippi, US
|Genres||Country blues, delta blues, folk|
Raised in Avalon, Mississippi, Hurt taught himself to play the guitar around the age of nine. He worked as a sharecropper and began playing at dances and parties, singing to a melodious fingerpicked accompaniment. His first recordings, made for Okeh Records in 1928, were commercial failures, and he continued to work as a farmer.
Dick Spottswood and Tom Hoskins, a blues enthusiast, located Hurt in 1963 and persuaded him to move to Washington, D.C. He was recorded by the Library of Congress in 1964. This helped further the American folk music revival, which led to the rediscovery of many other bluesmen of Hurt's era. Hurt performed on the university and coffeehouse concert circuit with other Delta blues musicians who were brought out of retirement. He also recorded several albums for Vanguard Records.
Hurt returned to Grenada in 1966, where he died at the age of 73.
Material recorded by him has been re-released by many record labels. His songs have been recorded by Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Jerry Garcia, Beck, Doc Watson, John McCutcheon, Taj Mahal, Bruce Cockburn, David Johansen, Bill Morrissey, Gillian Welch, The Be Good Tanyas, Josh Ritter, Chris Smither, Guthrie Thomas, Parsonsfield, and Rory Block.
Hurt was born in Teoc, Carroll County, Mississippi, and raised in Avalon, Mississippi. He taught himself to play guitar at the age of nine, stealthily playing the guitar of William Henry Carson, a friend of his mother Mary Jane's, who often stayed at the Hurt home while courting a woman who lived nearby. As a youth, he played old-time music for friends and at dances. He worked as a farmhand and sharecropper into the 1920s.
His fast, highly syncopated style of playing was meant for dancing. On occasion, a medicine show came through the area. Hurt recalled that one wanted to hire him: "One of them wanted me, but I said no because I just never wanted to get away from home." In 1923, he played with the fiddle player Willie Narmour as a substitute for Narmour's 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 producer Tommy Rockwell. After auditioning "Monday Morning Blues" at his home, Hurt took part in two recording sessions, in Memphis and New York City. While in Memphis, he recalled seeing "many, many blues singers ... Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bessie Smith, and lots, lots more." Hurt described his first recording session:
... 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 his records were commercial failures. Okeh went out of business during the Great Depression, and Hurt returned to Avalon and obscurity, working as a sharecropper and playing at local parties and dances.
Rediscovery and death
Hurt's renditions of "Frankie" and "Spike Driver Blues" were included in The Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952 which generated considerable interest in locating him. When a copy of "Avalon Blues" was discovered in 1963, it led musicologist Dick Spottswood to locate Avalon, Mississippi, in an atlas, and ask Tom Hoskins, who was traveling that way, to enquire after Hurt.
Avalon, my home town, always on my mind / Avalon, my home town.— Mississippi John Hurt, "Avalon Blues"
Upon locating Hurt, Hoskins persuaded him to perform several songs, to ensure that he was genuine. Hoskins was convinced and, seeing that Hurt's guitar playing skills were still intact, encouraged him to move to Washington, D.C., and perform for a broader audience. His performance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival caused his star to rise in the folk revival occurring at that time. Soon after, in 1964, he recorded live for radio in Massachusetts with Skip James.
For a few short years, Hurt performed extensively at colleges, concert halls, and coffeehouses and appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He also recorded three albums for Vanguard Records. Much of his repertoire was also recorded for the Library of Congress. 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, spirituals, 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.
Hurt died on November 2, 1966, of a heart attack, in hospital at Grenada, Mississippi. His last recordings had been done at a hotel in New York City in February and July of that year, and were not released until 1972 on the Vanguard LP Last Sessions.
Hurt used a fast, syncopated fingerpicking style of guitar playing that he taught himself. He was influenced by few other musicians, among whom was an elderly, unrecorded blues singer from the area where he lived, Rufus Hanks, who played twelve-string guitar and harmonica. He also recalled listening to the country singer Jimmie Rodgers. On occasion, Hurt would use an open tuning and a slide, as he did in his arrangement of "The Ballad of Casey Jones". According to the music critic Robert Christgau, "the school of John Fahey proceeded from his finger-picking, and while he's not the only quietly conversational singer in the modern folk tradition, no one else has talked the blues with such delicacy or restraint."
There is a memorial to Hurt in Avalon, Mississippi. It is parallel to RR2, the rural road on which he grew up.
The singer-songwriter Tom Paxton, who met Hurt and played on the same bill with him at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village around 1963, wrote and recorded a song about him in 1977, "Did You Hear John Hurt?".
The first track of John Fahey's 1968 solo acoustic guitar album Requia is "Requiem for John Hurt". Fahey's posthumous live album, The Great Santa Barbara Oil Slick, also features a version of the piece, entitled "Requiem for Mississippi John Hurt".
Norman Greenbaum's eclectic minor hit, "Gondoliers, Shakespeares, Overseers, Playboys And Bums" refers to Mississippi John Hurt singing the blues.
The New England singer-songwriter Bill Morrissey released the Grammy-nominated album Songs of Mississippi John Hurt in 1999.
In 2017, John Hurt's life story was told in the documentary series American Epic. The film featured footage of Hurt performing and being interviewed, and improved restorations of his 1920s recordings. Director Bernard MacMahon stated that Hurt "was the inspiration for American Epic". Hurt's life was profiled in the accompanying book, American Epic: The First Time America Heard Itself.
- "Frankie" / "Nobody's Dirty Business" (Okeh Records, Okeh 8560), 1928
- "Stack O' Lee" / "Candy Man Blues" (Okeh Records, OKeh 8654), 1928
- "Blessed Be the Name" / "Praying on the Old Camp Ground" (Okeh Records, OKeh 8666), 1928
- "Blue Harvest Blues" / "Spike Driver Blues" (Okeh Records, OKeh 8692), 1928
- "Louis Collins" / "Got the Blues (Can't Be Satisfied)" (Okeh Records, OKeh 8724), 1928
- "Ain't No Tellin'" / "Avalon Blues" (Okeh Records, OKeh 8759), 1928
- Folk Songs and Blues (Piedmont Records, PLP 13157), 1963
- Worried Blues, live recordings (Piedmont Records, PLP 13161), 1964
- Today! (Vanguard Records, VSD-79220), 1966
- The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt (Vanguard Records, VSD-79248), 1967
- The Best of Mississippi John Hurt, live recording from Oberlin College, April 15, 1965 (Vanguard Records, VSD-19/20), 1970
- Last Sessions (Vanguard Records, VSD-79327), 1972
- Volume One of a Legacy, live recordings (Piedmont Records, CLPS 1068), 1975
- Monday Morning Blues: The Library of Congress Recordings, vol. 1 (Flyright Records, FLYLP 553), 1980
- Avalon Blues: The Library of Congress Recordings, vol. 2 (Heritage Records, HT-301), 1982
- Satisfied, live recordings (Quicksilver Intermedia, QS 5007), 1982
- The Candy Man, live recordings (Quicksilver Intermedia, QS 5042), 1982
- Sacred and Secular: The Library of Congress Recordings, vol. 3 (Heritage Records, HT-320), 1988
- Avalon Blues (Flyright Records, FLYCD 06), 1989
- Memorial Anthology, live recordings (Genes Records, GCD 9906/7), 1993
Selected compilation albums
- The Original 1928 Recordings (Spokane Records, SPL 1001), 1971
- 1928: Stack O' Lee Blues – His First Recordings (Biograph Records, BLP C4), 1972
- 1928 Sessions (Yazoo Records, L 1065), 1979
- Satisfying Blues (Collectables Records, VCL 5529), 1995
- Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings (Columbia Records, CK64986), 1996
- Rediscovered (Vanguard Records, CD 79519), 1998
- The Complete Recordings (Vanguard Records, CD 70181–2), 1998
- Candy Man Blues: The Complete 1928 Sessions (Snapper Music, SBLUECD 010), 2004
- American Epic: The Best of Mississippi John Hurt (Lo-Max / Sony Legacy / Third Man, TMR-459), 2017
- There is uncertainty about his date of birth. March 8, 1893, is the date written in his family's Bible and accepted by his biographer Philip Ratcliffe and by the researchers Bob Eagle and Eric LeBlanc as the most likely. Other possible dates include March 3, 1892 (shown on his gravestone); March 8, 1892; March 16, 1892; July 2, 1892; July 3, 1893; and May 5, 1895.
- Ratcliffe, Philip R. (2011). Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His Times, His Blues. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
- James, Steve (July 2018). "Gaslight Memories: Mississippi John Hurt's Influence on the 1960s Folk Scene and Beyond". Acoustic Guitar. Retrieved April 9, 2022.
- Eagle, Bob; LeBlanc, Eric S. (2013). Blues: A Regional Experience. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger. p. 214. ISBN 978-0313344237.
- "Mississippi John Hurt: American Singer and Musician". Britannica.com.
- "Trail of the Hellhound: Mississippi John Hurt". nps.gov. Retrieved May 29, 2008.
- Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books. p. 121. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.
- Segal, David (June 24, 2001). "Mississippi John Hurt, Discovered Again". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved February 27, 2018.
- Block, Rory (June 4, 2013). "Avalon: A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt". Stony Plain Records. Retrieved December 11, 2013.
- Cohen, Lawrence (1996). Liner notes to Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings. Columbia/Legacy CD.
- MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT tells of making his first record in 1927, retrieved August 24, 2022
- Eder, Bruce. "Mississippi John Hurt: Biography". AllMusic. Retrieved May 30, 2009.
- Giles Oakley (1997). The Devil's Music. Da Capo Press. p. 121. ISBN 978-0-306-80743-5.
- Dahl, Bill (1998). Liner notes to D.C. Blues: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings, Vol. 1. Fuel 2000 Records CD.
- "Graded on a Curve: Mississippi John Hurt, Last Sessions – The Vinyl District". The Vinyl District. April 17, 2012. Retrieved February 27, 2018.
- Mississippi John Hurt & Skip James - Live At Wtbs-fm In Cambridge. Ma October 1964, retrieved April 8, 2022
- "Mississippi John Hurt And Skip James - In Session - 1964 - Nights At The Roundtable: Session Edition". Past Daily: News, History, Music And An Enormous Sound Archive. June 19, 2014. Retrieved April 8, 2022.
- Christgau, Robert (1981). "Consumer Guide '70s: H". Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies. Ticknor & Fields. ISBN 089919026X. Retrieved February 26, 2019 – via robertchristgau.com.
- Christgau, Robert (March 11, 1997). "Consumer Guide". The Village Voice. New York. Retrieved July 21, 2013.
- "Mississippi John Hurt". Tom Paxton. February 18, 2008. Retrieved June 16, 2022.
- Greenbaum, Norman; Dr. West's Medicine Show And Junk Band (1969). "Norman Greenbaum With Dr. West's Medicine Show And Junk Band". Retrieved August 16, 2021.
- "BBC – Arena: American Epic – Media Centre". bbc.co.uk. Retrieved February 27, 2018.
- "For Lovers of Recorded Music and its History, "American Epic" Is Must See PBS TV". Analog Planet. May 10, 2017. Retrieved February 27, 2018.
- "Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock Top 10: The Epic Tradition". Retrieved February 27, 2018.
- "American Epic". Stereophile. June 12, 2017. Retrieved February 27, 2018.
- Lewis, Randy (May 14, 2017). "'American Epic' explores how a business crisis ignited a musical revolution". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 27, 2018.
- MacMahon, Bernard; McGourty, Allison; Wald, Elijah (May 2, 2017). American Epic. ISBN 9781501135606.
- "Mississippi John Hurt Discography". Wirz.de. Retrieved July 10, 2010.
- Dixon, Robert M. W.; Goodrich, John M. W.; Rye, Howard W. (1997). Blues & Gospel Records 1890–1943 (4th ed.). Clarendon Press. pp. 418–419. ISBN 0-19-816239-1.
- "Mississippi John Hurt: Discography". AllMusic. Retrieved July 10, 2010.
- Mississippi John Hurt Foundation, official website, includes information about the annual Mississippi John Hurt Music Festival in Avalon, Mississippi.
- Mississippi John Hurt Museum, official website.
- Mississippi John Hurt News. Website run by Hurt's grandnephew Fred Bolden, with forums and discussions open to the public.
- Illustrated Mississippi John Hurt discography
- Works by or about Mississippi John Hurt at Internet Archive
- Mississippi John Hurt discography at Discogs
- Mississippi John Hurt at IMDb
- Mississippi John Hurt's "Stackolee", Recording, sheet music, and guitar tab.