No blues singer ever presented a more gentle, genial image than Mississippi John Hurt. A guitarist with an extraordinarily lyrical and refined fingerpicking style, he also sang with a warmth unique in the field of blues, and the gospel influence in his music gave it a depth and reflective quality unusual in the field. Coupled with the sheer gratitude and amazement that he felt over having found a mass audience so late in life, and playing concerts in front of thousands of people -- for fees that seemed astronomical to a man who had always made music a sideline to his life as a farm laborer -- these qualities make Hurt's recordings into a very special listening experience.
John Hurt grew up in the Mississippi hill country town of Avalon, population under 100, north of Greenwood, near Grenada. He began playing guitar in 1903, and within a few years was performing at parties, doing ragtime repertory rather than blues. As a farm hand, he lived in relative isolation, and it was only in 1916, when he went to work briefly for the railroad, that he got to broaden his horizons and his repertory beyond Avalon. In the early '20s, he teamed up with white fiddle player Willie Narmour, playing square dances.
Hurt was spotted by a scout for Okeh Records who passed through Avalon in 1927, who was supposed to record Narmour, and was signed to record after a quick audition. Of the eight sides that Hurt recorded in Memphis in February of 1928, only two were ever released, but he was still asked to record in New York late in 1928.
Hurt's dexterity as a guitarist, coupled with his plain-spoken nature, were his apparent undoing, at least as a popular blues artist, at the time. His playing was too soft and articulate, and his voice too plain to be taken up in a mass setting, such as a dance; rather, his music was best heard in small, intimate gatherings. In that sense, he was one of the earliest blues musicians to rely completely on the medium of recorded music as a vehicle for mass success; where the records of Furry Lewis or Blind Blake were mere distillations of music that they (presumably) did much better on-stage, in John Hurt's case the records were good representations of what he did best. Additionally, Hurt never regarded himself as a blues singer, preferring to let his relatively weak voice speak for itself with none of the gimmicks that he might've used, especially in the studio, to compensate. And he had no real signature tune with which he could be identified, in the way that Furry Lewis had "Kassie Jones" or "John Henry."
Not that Hurt didn't have some great numbers in his song bag: "Frankie," "Louis Collins," "Avalon Blues," "Candy Man Blues," "Big Leg Blues," and "Stack O' Lee Blues," were all brilliant and unusual as blues, in their own way, and highly influential on subsequent generations of musicians. They didn't sell in large numbers at the time, however, and as Hurt never set much store on a musical career, he was content to make his living as a hired hand in Avalon, living on a farm and playing for friends whenever the occasion arose.
Mississippi John Hurt might've lived and died in obscurity, if it hadn't been for the folk music revival of the late '50s and early '60s. A new generation of listeners and scholars suddenly expressed a deep interest in the music of America's hinterlands, not only in listening to it but finding and preserving it. A scholar named Tom Hoskins discovered that Mississippi John Hurt, who hadn't been heard from musically in over 35 years, was alive and living in Avalon, MS, and sought him out, following the trail laid down in Hurt's song "Avalon Blues." Their meeting was a fateful one; Hurt was in his 70s, and weary from a lifetime of backbreaking labor for pitifully small amounts of money, but his musical ability was intact, and he bore no ill-will against anyone who wanted to hear his music.
A series of concerts were arranged, including an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, where he was greeted as a living legend. This opened up a new world to Hurt, who was grateful to find thousands, or even tens of thousands of people too young to have even been born when he made his only records up to that time, eager to listen to anything he had to sing or say. A tour of American universities followed as did a series of recordings: first in a relatively informal, non-commercial setting intended to capture him in his most comfortable and natural surroundings, and later under the auspices of Vanguard Records, with folk singer Patrick Sky producing.
It was 1965, and Mississippi John Hurt had found a mass audience for his songs 35 years late. He took the opportunity, playing concerts and making new records of old songs as well as material he'd never before laid down; whether he eventually put down more than a portion of his true repertory will probably never be clear, but Hurt did leave a major legacy of his and other peoples' songs, in a style that barely skipped a beat from his late-'20s Okeh sides.
As with many people to whom success comes late in life, certain aspects of the success were hard for him to absorb in stride; the money was more than he'd ever hoped to see, even if it wasn't much by the standards of a major pop star; 1,000 dollar concert fees were something he'd never even pondered having to deal with. What he did most easily was sing and play; Vanguard got out a new album, Today!, in 1966, from his first sessions for the label. Additionally, the tape of a concert that Hurt played at Oberlin College in April of 1965 was released under the title The Best of Mississippi John Hurt; the 21-song live album was just that, even if it wasn't made up of previously released work (more typical of a "best-of" album), a perfect record of a beautiful performance in which the man did old and new songs in the peak of his form. Hurt got in one more full album, The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt, released posthumously, but even better was the record assembled from his final sessions, Last Sessions, also issued after his death; these songs broke new lyrical ground, and showed Hurt's voice and guitar to be as strong as ever, just months before his death.
Mississippi John Hurt left behind a legacy unique in the annals of the blues, and not just in terms of music. A humble, hard-working man who never sought fame or fortune from his music, and who conducted his life in an honest and honorable manner, he also avoided the troubles that afflicted the lives of many of his more tragic fellow musicians. He was a pure musician, playing for himself and the smallest possible number of listeners, developing his guitar technique and singing style to please nobody but himself; and he suddenly found himself with a huge following, precisely because of his unique style. Unlike contemporaries such as Skip James, he felt no bitterness over his late-in-life mass success, and as a result continued to please and win over new listeners with his recordings until virtually the last weeks of his life. Nothing he ever recorded was less than inspired, and most of it was superb. ~ Bruce Eder