In the August 2010 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, interviewer Jeffery Pepper Rodgers asks singer/songwriter/guitarist Jakob Dylan about the Folk fingerpicking style he uses on his two solo albums, including his latest Women and Country. Dylan replies: “My favorite with that stuff has always been someone like Mississippi John Hurt.”
Mississippi John Hurt, guitarist, singer and songwriter, was born John Smith Hurt on July 3, 1893 in Teoc, Mississippi. (A few sources list his birthdate as March 8, 1892 or 1893.) He was one of ten children. He grew up and lived most of his life in the nearby town of Avalon.
At the age of 9, his mother bought him his first guitar, a “Black Annie” for $1.50. His method of teaching himself how to play was: “I just make it sound like I think it ought to.” By the age of twelve he knew enough songs to play on weekends at local house parties and to go late-night “serenadin.'” In his later years, Hurt worked many different jobs including tenant farming, picking cotton, cutting lumber and working the rails for the Illinois Central railroad.
In late 1927, two popular, local, white, country musicians, with whom Hurt occasionally played, recommended him to visiting OKeh Records recording director Tommy Rockwell. Rockwell auditioned Hurt at his home in Avalon and offered to bring him to Memphis, TN for a recording session.
On Feb. 14, 1928, Mississippi John Hurt recorded 8 songs or “sides” for OKeh, only two of them being released: “Frankie” and “Nobody’s Dirty Business.” He was paid $240.00 plus expenses for the session.
The record sold well enough for OKeh to invite him to New York City later that year. In two sessions on December 21 and 28, 1928, he cut 20 sides. Ten in all were released, including “Louis Collins,” “Candy Man Blues,” “Spike Driver Blues” and “Avalon Blues.” He returned to Avalon and that, except for playing locally almost every Saturday night, was that for his career as a professional musician.
Until… In 1952, Folkways Records released The Anthology of American Folk Music, a six album, three volume set compiled by record collector Harry Smith. The collection contained two songs by Mississippi John Hurt: “Frankie” and “Spike Driver Blues.” According to David Brown from the 1976 article “From Avalon to Eternity:” “From those two songs Hurt aquired a circle of admirers who listened for the secret of the marvelous finger picking of a man they thought was dead.”
In early 1963, record collector Richard Spottswood gave two young Washington D.C. blues musicians, Tom Hoskins and Mike Stewart, a tape of Hurt’s “Avavlon Blues.” The musicians had been trying to learn Hurt’s guitar music from old 78 rpm records, but thought that the best way to learn would be to locate him and learn first hand. Inspired by the first line of the song: “Avalon my home town, always on my mind,” the two fans finally found the town of Avalon, MS in an atlas from 1878. In mid-1963, Hoskins drove to Mississippi.
Armed with a guitar and a tape recorder, Hoskins arrived in Avalon and pulled up around sunset in front of Stinson’s, the town’s general store/gas station/post office. Asking one of the men out in front of the store if they knew of a singer named Mississippi John Hurt, they gave him directions: “’bout a mile down that road, third mail box up the hill. Can’t miss it.”
When John Hurt answered the knock on his door, he was quite skeptical of this young white man from Washington D.C. His first thought was that he was from “the police or the FBI or something like that.” Hoskins, amazed by his good luck but not knowing what to expect, asked Hurt if he could still play. Hurt, having no guitar and muttering that he “hadn’t done anything wrong,” played the one Hoskins brought and soon proved that the legend was alive and well.
In the following years, the life of Mississippi John Hurt changed completely. Hoskins brought him to Washington, arranged performances and, in April 1963, informal recording sessions. Hurt was featured in articles and reviews in Time, Newsweek and The New York Times. He performed at the Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 1963 and became the first performer to be invited back for two consecutive years. He travelled the country giving concerts at other festivals, in coffee houses and on college campuses. He made recordings for the library of Congress and commercial recordings for Vanguard Records.
During all of this, he lived in Washington D.C. But after two years of city life, he’d had enough. Having achieved financial security, he moved back to Mississippi and bought a small house. He did his last recording session for Vanguard in July of 1966. As his wife Jessie said at this time: “By rights, you know, John went into this when he ought’ve been coming out.”
Mississippi John Hurt passed away on Nov. 2, 1966 in Grenada, MS.
The music of Mississippi John Hurt can not really be described, but many people have tried. The words “gentle,” “unique,” “organic” and “graceful” occur often. Phrases like “deceptively simple,” “disciplined intensity,” “clear, rolling tone” and “engagingly interesting” come close. To say that he was influential in the world of guitar playing would be a huge understatement.
I will simply add that his music is a joy to listen to. I highly encourage you to take the time, seek out his recordings, watch the films, and hear and see for yourself.
It’s amazing how, but for the efforts of a few people who recognized something special in these old recordings, they would have been lost forever. I’ve heard a couple of Hurt’s tunes over the years but will re-visit…. A great piece, Eric.