“Mississippi John Hurt’s music is as fresh today as when he first recorded it in 1928”
Philip Ratcliffe, biographer.
Mississippi John Hurt, Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings (Columbia/Legacy)
Mississippi John Hurt was known only to a small group of music aficionados outside the State where he lived for most of his life, until he was 71. What was known of him was the music on six 78rpm records made in 1928.
These songs we can now enjoy on Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings.
Born in 1892, John Hurt, whose parents were freed slaves, was the last of a large family of ten. His mother Mary Jane Hurt and her children moved to Avalon in Mississippi when John was a baby and he lived there for most of his life. He picked cotton for long hours when he was a child, but began playing the guitar when he was nine when his mother purchased his first guitar for $1.50 – a major purchase given that a day’s wages for black labourers was under a dollar. John referred to it as “Black Annie”, which he insisted was the brand name of the instrument, and he became an accomplished picker as a teenager, going on to play at local dances (never juke joints).
His guitar style became the inspiration for generations of acoustic guitar players, after his rediscovery in the early sixties after more than thirty years simply working as a farmer. Many of today’s professional artists started their journey of seriously studying guitar by learning the style of John Hurt.
For many, hearing him play for the first time, it sounds like there is more than one guitarist. He keeps a steady alternating bass going, combined with melodies and harmonies picked out on the treble stings, and throws in intricate hammer-ons and slides. Although he developed his guitar style around the same time as Mississippi bluesmen like Son House or Charlie Patton, his more constrained and relaxed approach is far removed from theirs.
There are some similarities between Hurt’s style and the Piedmont style of picking characteristic of musicians like Elizabeth Cotton and Etta Baker from North Carolina, or John Cephas from Virginia. But his friend Jerry Ricks didn’t think John had ever heard any of these musicians and we can’t be sure how he developed what is a very characteristic style. You just know who it is within a couple of bars of any song he’s performing, and you know if anyone is playing in his style.
By all accounts, John was a lovely man, easy-going and friendly, with a gentle smile. He was a great story teller and very humorous, and his deep religious faith was a strong foundation in his life, particularly in later years. His granddaughter, Mary Frances Hurt Wright, said, “My Daddy John had a supernatural spirit that had a far greater effect on people than his music alone.
“I can still visualize Daddy John playing on the dusty circle drawn stage of our front yard, totally absorbed in his music. While the people clapped and stomped their feet in agreement with the music, Daddy John’s smile would widen like a stone thrown in a pond.”
And Larry Hoffman, musician and author, said of him: “It seems as if this gentleman was to enrich every life he touched…His great kindness, generosity and gentle spirit has made him a folk legend, and we remember and treasure him through his music – the loving spirit that flows through time and the generations as does his unforgettable music.”
By the early 1920s, John had teamed up with a white fiddle player, Willie Narmour, to play at local dances, with a repertoire that included blues, spirituals, ballads, and ragtime tunes.
Narmour was picked to record after a fiddle contest by visiting Okeh agents. He then introduced them to Hurt, who agreed to go to Memphis to record. Ten months later, at the age of 35, he was asked to come to New York to record some more. Here he recorded some twenty songs, from which 6 records were released (12 sides in all). John was paid $240. Another song, Big Leg Blues was released at a later date and is included in The Complete Okeh record.
The 13 songs on the album feature simply John singing in his laid-back manner and playing his guitar in his iconic style. The album contains a number of his most famous songs like Frankie, Candy Man, Louis Collins and Stack O’Lee, as well as a couple of spirituals, Blessed Be the Name and Praying on that Old Camp Ground. It’s a glorious mixture of murder songs, blues, and Christian songs, all delivered with good humour, fine musicianship and considerable style.
The album opens up with Frankie, written by Bill Dooley from St Louis in 1899, about an event said to have taken place in a St Louis bar room in the 1890s. “Good girl” Frankie Baker shot and killed Allen (Albert) Britt, a ragtime pianist, for his infidelity with Alice Pryar. “He was my man, and he done me wrong.”
John Hurt’s Stack O’Lee Blues – variously known as Stagolee, Stackalee, Staggerlee – is probably the definitive version of the countless recorded versions of the tune. John explained the background to the song to Tom Hoskins in 1963, as he also does in his introduction to the song on the Mississippi John Hurt: Legend album.
Hurt said that Stackolee and Billy Lyons were white men and the fight took place down in a mine where Stackolee was aiming to rob the miners who were gambling. Jesse James, claimed Hurt, accompanied Stackolee, and also shot one of the miners,. I’m not sure how that exactly tallies with the confrontation in the song about the stealing of Stacklolee’s “ten-dollar Stetson hat.” But the story in the song seems to stand by itself anyway, and it rips along nicely, driven by Hurt’s rapid and rhythmic guitar picking.
Louis Collins was written by John Hurt about a real event. His friend Jerry Ricks reckoned it was about a cousin of John’s, but Hurt himself said it had happened in Memphis. Collins, Hurt said, “was a great man. I know that, and he was killed by two men named Bob and Louis. I got enough of the story to write the song,”
The two Louises in the song had me confused every time I listened to it until I heard John Hurt’s explanation. First, Mrs Collins is weeping “to see her son Louis leaving home” to go to “the old graveyard” after his killing, But in the verse that accounts for Louis’s death, we get, “Bob shot once and Louis shot two, shot poor Louis, shot him through and through.” So, it seems, there were two Louises, one shooter and one shot. Somehow, once again, the violence of the song is counterbalanced by Hurt’s gentle singing and nifty guitar work.
Candy Man, a song full of gleeful sexual innuendo was written by Hurt on the way to New York City for the Okeh sessions. He recalled having written it in pencil and that the lyrics were typed up for him at the recording studio. The comedy in the song is accented by Hurt’s seemingly innocent vocals which accentuate the song’s comic effect perfectly. As one writer put it, he sounds so kind and sincere that you can almost convince yourself that he doesn’t actually mean anything sexually suggestive at all!
Avalon Blues was also written on this New Trip trip, a nostalgic yearning for John’s home town – “Avalon, my hometown, always on my mind.” The bright lights of New York city might be attractive – “New York’s a good town but it’s not for mine,” but it’s nothing compared to Avalon and his “pretty mama.”
Okeh never called on John to record again. The 1930s saw economic collapse and the Great Depression, and along with that a record sales slump. Hurt’s Okeh recordings were unlike anything else recorded at the time and didn’t translate into big sales. He retreated into rural Mississippi life and obscurity.
If was only after producer Harry Everett Smith included some of those old recordings on the Anthology of American Folk Music, which led Tom Hoskins and Mike Stewart to track Hurt down in 1963, that John Hurt was to have a proper music career, playing universities, coffee houses and the 1963 Newport Music Festival.
Alas, it was short lived, with Hurt passing away in 1967. It was enough, however, to make him one of the most influential musicians of the twentieth century.
Mississippi John Hurt remains an iconic figure in the country blues. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1990, and continues to inspire new generations of guitarists, and his gentle spirit lives on in his music – these Okeh recordings, after nearly a hundred years, still sound great and have a great attractive charm.
Check out Philip R. Ratcliffe’s detailed biography
These tribute albums are also worth listening to:
The story of John Hurt’s Guitar – John Oates
Mississippi John Hurt Documentary
Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His times, His Blues, by Philip R. Ratcliffe