One of the most intriguing figures of the blues revival of the early-1960s was Mississippi John Hurt, hailing from the small Delta town of Avalon. Born in 1892, Hurt was a lifelong farmer who, like contemporaries such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton and Leadbelly, predated the blues genre. A "songster" in the truest sense, Hurt's repertoire included folk ballads, work songs, spirituals, ragtime numbers, and his own interpretations of popular songs of the era, in addition to the blues. Hurt initially learned to appreciate music and guitar playing from William Carson, a teacher at the St. James School in Avalon. It was there, around the turn of the century that Hurt learned to play the guitar at the age of nine years old. Shortly afterwards, his mother bought him his first second-hand guitar (for the price of $1.50!) and before long he partnered up with fiddle player, Shell Smith, entertaining at local parties and dances.
In 1923, as a substitute for Smith, Hurt teamed up with Willie Narmour, who five years later won first prize in a regional fiddle contest, earning the chance to record for Okeh Records. Narmour recommended Hurt to Tommy Rockwell, producer at Okeh, who arranged a Memphis audition in February of 1928, where Hurt recorded two songs, "Frankie" and "Nobody's Dirty Business." That December, Hurt was invited back, this time to New York City, where he recorded 11 additional sides for Okeh. In addition to the February recordings, these new recordings would become his first album, Avalon Blues, now with the "Mississippi" tag added to his name by Rockwell as a sales gimmick. Despite the fact that these recordings contained such future classics as "Louis Collins," "Spike Driver Blues," "Candy Man Blues," and the ubiquitous, "Stack O' Lee," the timing couldn't have been worse. With the coming of the Great Depression, the release was a commercial failure and Okeh Records went out of business. Hurt returned home to Avalon, where he continued working as a sharecropper and performing at local parties and dances in obscurity.
Despite spending his entire life in the Delta, Hurt remained uninfluenced by the great Delta musicians, like Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and Skip James. Instead of the rough extroverted singing style and aggressive guitar playing that typified these other Delta legends, Hurt sang in a gentle, quiet voice and played intricate and often delicate guitar patterns. With a particular fondness for songsters that had blues leanings in their repertoires, like Leadbelly and Josh White, Hurt developed into an extraordinarily lyrical guitarist with a refined finger-picking style. His tender singing exuded a warmth unique to the blues genre, and the gospel influence so prominent in his music gave his songs a depth and reflective quality that would resonate with blues fans and scholars decades later in his life. Throughout his life, Hurt remained a humble, hard working farmer who never pursued fame or fortune through his music.
He virtually disappeared until a musicologist named Tom Hoskins, inspired by his 1928 Okeh recordings and clued in to his whereabouts by Hurt's own song "Avalon," tracked him down in the early 1960s. Hurt was astounded to meet anyone who even remembered his 1928 recordings. Hoskins encouraged Hurt to relocate to Washington, DC, where he first began performing to appreciative audiences on the local folk club circuit. 1963 recording sessions for the Library of Congress and a now legendary performance at the Newport Folk Festival that same year, firmly established his reputation among the folk and blues revival audience, and Hurt began touring colleges and clubs, finally gaining attention and appreciation for his music when he was well into his 70s.
This truly remarkable live recording captures Mississippi John Hurt performing at the West Coast epicenter of the folk and blues revival, the Ash Grove, just a year after his legendary breakthrough at Newport. Performing several spirituals, as well as a handful of his most classic songs, this is a superb introduction to Hurt's music that can be appreciated by burgeoning listeners and blues scholars alike.
The set begins with a pair of Southern spirituals, "Bye And Bye I Will See Jesus" and "I Shall Not Be Moved," proving that Hurt's graceful, fluid finger-picking and warm conversational singing style had remained unchanged since his earliest recordings. The former, one of his more obscure songs (that would be included on a compilation of 1964 Newport Festival performances by various artists), displays one of his most unique and endearing musical qualities—finishing his vocal lines with his guitar, making the guitar an extension and essential part of his voice.
However, it is the remainder of the set that truly displays Hurt's intricate and beautifully styled finger-picking and engaging personality. This begins with the folk narrative, "Ballad Of Casey Jones," the tale of Illinois Central train engineer, John Luther "Casey" Jones, a local legend who had a trademark way of blowing the train's whistle and died in a well-publicized train wreck in 1900. Here Hurt plays with an alternating thumb and several fingers, with no pick to change the tonality of the strings. His bass line remains dead on the beat and his gentle singing weaves into the guitar rhythm, creating syncopation out of unexpected silences. Fans of Jerry Garcia will be delighted to discover many of his trademark acoustic guitar stylings originated with Hurt. This song and "Louis Collins" performed later in the set, one of Hurt's greatest songs and possibly the best murder ballad ever recorded, are prime examples.
Two popular songs are also featured here, including an infectiously melodic reading of "My Creole Belle" and a lovely "You Are My Sunshine." The latter, often performed by Hurt as a sing-along with the audience, displays the rapturous attention of the Ash Grove audience, which remains dead silent throughout. The cliché' "so quiet, you could hear a pin drop" actually applies here and listeners will actually hear something in the distance (possibly a kitchen utensil?) hit the floor midway through the song. His warmth comes through on this recording with such emotional intimacy that one cannot help being moved.
This remarkable set concludes with the now classic bluegrass staple, "Salty Dog." Unlike more familiar versions, Hurt's take is far bluesier, with a bouncy rhythm that sounds more organic and natural, making this a special listening experience. Like most of the songs on this set, Hurt's ragtime-tinged finger-picking reveals more complexity the closer one listens.
Mississippi John Hurt was a man who conducted his life in an honest and honorable manner and brought this same sense of gentleness, grace, and beauty to his music. His musicianship wouldn't be recognized until the last several years of his life, but he remained humble, amazed, and grateful at suddenly having a large following, right up until his death in 1966. Mississippi John Hurt is truly in a category of his own and one of the most lyrical and endearing country blues artists who ever lived.
Written by Alan Bershaw