A Baker’s Dozen of Great Mississippi John Hurt Songs
Mississippi John Hurt has been one of the most influential of the Delta bluesmen, influencing generation after generation of blues guitar pickers and his songs covered by a who’s who of artists since he re-emerged in the 1960s after years of quiet obscurity as a farmer in Mississippi.
By all accounts he was a delightful man, soft spoken and polite, exuding a quiet wisdom and loved by everyone who met him. His faith was important to him, which became apparent to those who knew him during the years of his rediscovery. Holly Ochs, who hosted John during his early days in New York, said, “The depth and quality of that faith was so powerful that it would touch thousands of people in the few remaining years of his life.”
His biographer, Philip R. Ratcliffe notes that Hurt “was always aware of the presence of his God and would always say his prayers at night.”
Born the son of former slaves in 1892, John Hurt started playing guitar when he was nine and by his late teens had developed his own particular style. After hearing John play in 1928, The OKeh Records’ recording director invited him to Memphis where he recorded half a dozen songs and then to New York for another recording session. Songs recorded at these first sessions included many of Hurt’s best loved songs, like Louis Collins, Avalon Blues, Stack O’Lee Blues, Got the Blues Can’t Be Satisfied and Blessed Be the Name.
The Great Depression and the subsequent collapse of record sales, however, ensured that John Hurt’s musical career never took off and he returned to life as a farmer in Avalon, playing occasionally at country dances and parties.
When he was 70, still tending another man’s cows and keeping a few hogs and chickens, and he and his wife Jesse dirt poor, Dick Spottiswood happened upon some of Hurt’s 1928 Okeh recordings and went searching for him. John, though he had no guitar and hadn’t played for at least two years, agreed to go to Washington D.C. with Spottiswood and his friends. Seemingly he assumed he was in some sort of trouble with the government and thought he’d better go!
John Hurt ended up recording again and performed to appreciative audiences in festivals, coffee houses and concert halls until his death in 1966.
John Hurt’s guitar picking style has become a template and springboard for, probably, all acoustic blues guitarists. That solid, rhythmic, alternating base with a syncopated melody on the upper strings is the basis of the guitar work of Chris Smither, Rory Block, Eric Bibb and a host of others. Stefan Grossman played a big part in introducing aspiring musicians to John Hurt’s guitar style through his Guitar Workshop and instructional videos.
Happy Traum, who also met Hurt in the 1960s, has also done his part with his instructional videos. Whatever limited skill I have in playing finger-style blues guitar was set in motion by painstakingly working my way through The Fingerpicking Blues of Mississippi John Hurt, Happy Traum & John Sebastian, on Homespun.
So, in celebration of the great Mississippi John Hurt, here are 13 of his most famous songs covered by other artists. Of course, you ought to go and check out John Hurt himself, and before we get to the covers, here he is with Make Me Down a Pallet on Your Floor.
For a completely different take on it, check out Gillian Welch’s version from her 2003 Soul Journey. But here’s Happy Traum’s version.
Maria Muldaur, Richland Woman Blues
First recorded by John Hurt in 1963, Maria Muldaur’s version appears on her 2001 Richland Woman Blues album, where she is accompanied by John Sebastian, who had named his 1960’s band The Lovin’ Spoonful after a lyric in Hurt’s Coffee Blues. [check out our interview with Maria Muldaur here]
Eric Bibb, Stagalee
Stack O’Lee, Stackalee or as Bibb has it, Stagalee, references a murder in a barroom in St Louis. John Hurt, who first recorded the song in December 1928 in New York, insisted the two men involved were white men and the fight took place in a mine where Stackolee was trying to rob the miners who were gambling. Bibb’s version appears on his 2011 Blues, Ballads and Work Songs, after a live version in 2009 on Live à FIP, 2009). [Our recent interview with Eric Bibb is here]
Chris Smither, Candy Man
Chris Smither has played Mississippi John Hurt songs throughout his long career and his Candy Man appears on his excellent Train Home album from 2003. Candy Man Blues was first recorded in 1928 by Hurt and was a staple of his performances in the 1960s. It’s a bawdy song, rather at odds with the spirituals Hurt would often play, although apparently he was always reluctant to play ribald songs to people he didn’t know, especially ladies. [You can find our interview with Chris here]
Rory Block, Frankie and Albert
This very old song was first recorded by The Leighton Brothers in 1916, and is about an event said to have taken place in a St. Louis barroom where Frankie shot a ragtime pianist for his infidelity with his lover. The song was recorded by John Hurt in his very first recording session in Memphis in 1928 and then in 1966 for his second studio album of the 60s, Today! Rory Block was influenced by John Hurt as a young guitarist in the early 1960s in New York. She recorded a terrific tribute album to Hurt, Avalon Blues in 2013, with ten favourite John Hurt songs. [check out our interview with Rory Block here.]
Mary Flower, Monday Morning Blues
Mary Flower is an amazing acoustic guitarist who specializes in Piedmont-style finger picking with dashes of Delta, ragtime and jazz and jazz. Her Monday Morning Blues is on her 2007 Ragtime Gal album. John Hurt first recorded it in Memphis in February 1928. [You’ll find our interview with Mary here]
Brooks Williams, Louis Collins
John Hurt said that “He [Collins] 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.” Hurt’s is the only version of the song and is almost certainly about a real event. He first recorded it in 1928 in New York. (Check out Patrick Blackman’s take on the song here). Brooks Williams is a sensational acoustic guitarist and singer and his version of Louis Collins on his 2010 Baby O! album is masterful.
Also of note is English-bluesman-in-France Paul Cowley’s wonderful interpretation of the song on his 2021 Long Time Comin’ [You’ll find our terrific interview with Paul here]
Taj Mahal, My Creole Belle
Taj Mahal sounds remarkably like John Hurt on his recording of the song on his 2016 Labor of Love. John Hurt recorded the song in 1963 on Folk Songs and Blues, his first recording on the Piedmont label after being rediscovered. Creole Belles was a song by Lampe and Sidney, first recorded in 1901.
Lonesome String Band, Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me
Originally written by William Myer, and set by John Hurt to the tune of Jimmie Rodgers’s Waiting for a Train, this is one of the lesser known Mississippi John Hurt songs, which he recorded in 1966. The Lonesome String Band on their When the Sun Comes Up album in 2018, give it a quite different feel, with the banjo and fiddle to the fore.
Catfish Keith, Satisfied and Tickled Too
Catfish Keith is a quite remarkable exponent of acoustic blues and his Satisfied and Tickled Too, which also features his wife, Penny, on his 2007 If I Could Holler album, features everything you expect from Catfish’s outstanding guitar work – slides, bends, rock solid rhythm and complex picking. [Here’s our interview with Catfish]
Hans Theessink with Big Daddy Wilson, Pay Day
Danish blues guitarist Hans Theessink has been one of Europe’s top blues artists for decades and his version of Pay Day, with his warm baritone voice melding with Wilson’s sweet tenor on their 2021 Pay Day album, is delightful.
Bruce Cockburn, Avalon Blues
Avalon in Mississippi was, of course, John Hurt’s home town, and the song records Hurt’s preference for the rural scene he was used to over the big city: “New York’s a good town but it’s not for mine, Goin’ back to Avalon, near where I have a pretty mama all the time”. Bruce Cockburn, a hugely skilled finger-style guitarist, performs his version of the song on Avalon Blues: A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt from 2001. This is a wonderful album of John Hurt songs by a top-class field of roots musicians. Avalon Blues is the second song.
Gillian Welch, Beulah Land
Hurt’s faith was important to him and he recorded a number of gospel songs, including Beulah Land, an old spiritual, in 1966 on his Today! album. Gillian Welch’s version on the 2001 Avalon Blues tribute album is very different from Hurt’s – more O Brother Where Art Thou, but a very fine version, nonetheless.
And it’s worth including this short video of John Oates telling the story of John Hurt’s guitar, which also features a version of Spike Driver’s Blues.
Finally, don’t miss this Mississippi John Hurt Documentary (20 mins)