Mississippi John Hurt

TrackSingle / Album
Spike Driver BluesOKeh 8692 (1928)
FrankieOKeh 8560 (1928)
Avalon BluesOKeh 8759 (1928)
Louis CollinsOKeh 8724 (1928)
Coffee BluesMississippi John Hurt Today
Make Me A Pallet On Your FloorMississippi John Hurt Today
I'm SatisfiedMississippi John Hurt Today
Salty Dog BluesFolk Songs And Blues
Boys, You're WelcomeLast Sessions
Trouble I've Had All My DayLast Sessions

Spike Driver Blues, Frankie, Avalon Blues, Louis Collins are available on “Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 OKeh Recordings”; and most of the songs on this short playlist can be found on “D.C. Blues: The Library Of Congress Recordings” if you want to dig deeper.

 

Mississippi John Hurt photo

 

 

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Mississippi John Hurt playlist

 

Contributor: Rick Kronberg

The animating spirit behind most of the exciting popular music of the last fifty years is that anyone can do it. Punk, hip-hop, DJ music – they’re all driven by the idea of “That can be me up there. I can do that.”

That is not the feeling you get when you listen to Mississippi John Hurt. Nobody can be him.

None of us have the biography. We weren’t born in a small shack in the Mississippi Delta in the 1890s. The chances are slim that any of us will invent an entire style of music to “just make it sound like I think it ought to.” And we certainly don’t have the same right hand (more on that later).

There is only one Mississippi John Hurt. But there are endless superlatives to describe him. One of the most charismatic and magnetic performers you will ever see. A guitar God before such a thing existed. A superstar who didn’t hit it big until his seventies. However you choose to define the ‘it factor’, very few had more of it than John Hurt.

I first came to Mississippi John Hurt’s music through the original mixtape, the Anthology Of American Folk Music. After a couple listens to the entire 6 CD set, his two songs leaped out. Do you know how good you have to be to win the Anthology Of American Folk Music? Check out his two contributions, Spike Driver Blues and Frankie.

 

Those two are part of a slew of songs he recorded for OKeh Records in 1928. To broaden the music’s appeal, the record company added the word ‘Blues’ to half the song titles, even though they’re not actually blues songs (proving that record company execs have always been bad news). He sings with none of the raspy grit that is the hallmark of the delta blues. There’s no shouting. Instead his vocals are smooth, warm and understated. The word most often used to describe his singing is ‘gentle.’ It fits.

His guitar playing is something else entirely. It is not an overstatement to say he was one of the most inventive and flat-out skilled guitarists of any era. Self-taught from the age of 9, he created his own style, a highly rhythmic, insanely precise fingerpicking approach that owes more to ragtime than the blues. His right hand is a thing of wonder. You can see it best on this live video of Spike Driver Blues:

As the story goes, an enthusiastic guitar student played Mississippi John Hurt for his teacher, the legendary classical guitarist Andrés Segovia. Segovia wondered who the second guitarist was. There was none.

The heartbreaking Louis Collins and Avalon Blues round out my selections from the 20s. Avalon Blues turned out to be the song that had the biggest impact on John Hurt’s life and career. But it took decades for that to play out.

 

One year after his OKeh recordings, the great depression hit. The musical career of Mississippi John Hurt was effectively over. He stayed in Mississippi, raised 14 children with his (very busy) wife, working a series of jobs, mainly as a sharecropper and laborer, sometimes playing at local dances.

Fast forward 35 years. The folk music boom in college campuses and coffee houses in the northeast was at its peak. Enter Tom Hoskins and Mike Stewart, two folk music collectors and archivists. Inspired by the Anthology Of American Folk Music and Hurt’s OKeh recordings, they decided to try and track down Mississippi John Hurt. All they had to go by was the lyric from Avalon Blues: “Avalon’s my hometown, always on my mind.”

The odds of finding him – let alone with his skills intact – were a billion to one. It hit.

That’s how at age 71, Mississippi John Hurt began an extraordinary and unparalleled comeback. Time had eroded none of his skills. If anything, he just got better, deeper. To listen to these sessions is humbling. How could somebody so goddamn talented be unknown to so many people? The guy is a force of nature.

The perfect introduction to his 1960s music is Coffee Blues. Listen for the chorus. A fairly famous band took their name from it.

For the next three years, starting at age 70, Mississippi John Hurt was a top draw on the folk music circuit. It’s not hard to see why he was an instant smash. He played all the biggest festivals to rapturous responses (check out the astounding footage of him at Newport at the foot of this post) and even was a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor and I’m Satisfied are two obvious highlights. They put all of his strengths on display.

I’m Satisfied is a particular standout. One thing you notice about his music is how happy so much of it is. There can be little doubt he lived a hard life in Jim Crow Mississippi. But that pain and struggle isn’t necessarily reflected in his music. What comes through is his warmth, gentle spirit, and the force of his otherworldly talent that time could not extinguish.

 

For the bulk of his life, Hurt played small juke joints in the Mississippi delta, where the most important job was to keep everyone dancing. It’s easy to imagine Salty Dog Blues getting everyone out on the floor.

If I had to choose a favorite, right now it would be Boys, You’re Welcome. This is just one of the flat-out catchiest songs you will ever hear. His guitar playing is always flawless, (as if he has three hands and forty-three fingers), but what gets me here is his voice. It was recorded just a few months before he passed away at 73, for what became his Last Sessions album. Finally sounding worn down from age, some of his smoothness is gone, but his friendliness and irrepressible spirit are undiminished. Mississippi John Hurt went out on top.

We’ll close out with Trouble, I’ve Had All My Day from his D.C. Library of Congress sessions. In just two days, he recorded 36 songs live in the studio, him and his guitar. The degree of difficulty is off-the-charts. It’s safe to say that there are only a few people in history who could sing and play like this. That’s what strikes me most about Mississippi John Hurt. The guy was an immortal. The fact that Hoskins and Stewart were able to track him down and convince him to start playing again after decades (he didn’t even own a guitar when they found him) is one of history’s greatest gifts.

That’s my top ten for Mississippi John Hurt. Ask me next week and I can find ten, twenty, or thirty more (Candy Man, First Shot Missed Him, Stack O’ Lee leap to mind). There are no bad Mississippi John Hurt songs. How could there be? Look who’s performing them.

 

 

Mississippi John Hurt performing “Talking Casey” at Newport 1964

 

“He was born, John Smith Hurt, however, his actual date of birth is a bit of a mystery. The most likely is March 8th, 1893. This is the date written in the Hurt family Bible, and accepted by his biographer and several other researchers. The birth date on his grave stone, however, is March 3rd, 1892.” (American Blues Scene)

Mississippi John Hurt (1893-1966)

 

The Mississippi John Hurt Foundation

Mississippi John Hurt Illustrated Discogaphy (from Stefan Wirz)

“Mississippi John Hurt – His Life, His Times, His Blues”
by Philip R Ratcliffe (University Press of Mississippi, 2018)

Mississippi John Hurt biography (AllMusic)

Rick Kronberg is a music geek and advertising professional hailing from New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and three children who do not want to hear him mansplain about Elvis. You can follow him on twitter at @RickySKron.

TopperPost #887

3 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Jul 18, 2020

    Thanks for this great piece Rick. Along with Bert Jansch, Davey Graham and John Renbourn, MJH is my favourite guitar player of all time. And he made it look so effortless.
    Dock Boggs once said that ‘if he had his life to do over again, he’d learn to play guitar like Mississippi John Hurt.’
    Might have to have ‘Richland Woman Blues’ and “Since I Laid My Burden Down’ in my top ten though. Thanks again.

  2. Cal Taylor
    Jul 22, 2020

    It’s great to see artists like Mississippi John Hurt on Toppermost. An excellent article, Rick – thank you very much.
    I’ve been a MJH fan since the mid-1960’s and I hope this informative piece will introduce his unsurpassed guitar work and storytelling vocals to new converts.
    My favourite MJH recording still remains ‘Stack O’Lee Blues’ (1928). This was recently highlighted at the end of Dave Stephen’s recent Lloyd Price Toppermost.
    One person who deserves a mention in this story is Dick Spottswood. I think it was Dick who introduced Tom Hoskins to MJH’s music and encouraged the expedition to Mississippi to try to find John Hurt. When, against the odds, it was successful it is maybe telling that Tom’s first port of call on his journey back home was to Dick’s house. A little later that led to a return visit to Avalon to bring MJH back to record again and eventually move up country for the last productive three years of his life.

  3. Ilkka Jauramo
    Jul 24, 2020

    A great piece on country blues, indeed. Thanks. – ‘Stack O’ Lee’ has been mentioned here, too. It is my favorite and an essential part of the tradition where blues men are singing about outlaws. There are many, of course, but I am humming ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ and ‘John Wesley Harding’ for the moment. (…even if not the blues.)

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