Blues of a Different Hue: Mississippi John Hurt

The blues transcends. It doesn’t recognize race or gender, location or time. It’s as relevant now as it was 100 years ago when it was first forming its chords and licks. If the delta is the home of the blues, then the sound of the wind blowing through the magnolia trees resembles the moan of Miss Bessie Smith. The rustle of the cotton carries the echo of Robert Johnson and Son House. The slow babble of the river, churning and weaving between the banks, undoubtedly brings back the dancing rhythm of Mississippi John Hurt, a man all but forgotten by the time he was finally found.

Much like his demeanor would suggest, John Hurt came into the world quietly. So quietly, in fact, that it is disputed whether or not he was born in 1892 or 1893. Born to Mississippi farmers, his father died, leaving he and his siblings in the care of their mother. She had a table full of mouths to feed and a farm to tend, so naturally, John spent much of his young life working on the farm. In spite of this, he managed to foster a love of music, picking up guitar by the time he was 9.

The small town of Avalon, MS was neither on the way to or from any town of any consequence. So the traveling bluesmen making the juke joint rounds never made it to a place where John would have had access to their picking. This proved extremely important, because it forced him to create his own style. Whereas Muddy Waters or Son House probably heard other guitarists play, John didn’t. Instead, he taught himself how to finger-pick: “I taught myself to play the way I thought a guitar should sound”. It gave him a completely different sound than any other major blues artist, without veering away from the delta blues vein. This would become very important later on in life.

Around the age of 13 he began playing local dances and parties, still working on the farm. He picked up songs from field hands and other jobs he held down, playing for himself mostly, and also for the local folks. Being acclaimed by both blacks and whites, he eventually began playing with a white fiddler named Willie Narmour. He often subbed in for Willie’s usual guitarist, Shell Smith. By 1928, John had been playing off and on with Willie, while also working random odd jobs such as railroad hand and sharecropper. When Narmour won a fiddling contest, with an opportunity to record with Okeh Records, he introduced John to producer Tommy Rockwell.

Two recording sessions would sum up his entire early career. The first took place in Memphis, 1928. He cut eight songs, two of which sold well, “Frankie” and “Nobody’s Dirty Business”. This session went so well that it afforded him a trip to New York City for a second round in December of that year. Twelve sides later, one of which was “Avalon Blues”, Mississippi John Hurt was back home working the fields and the local farm dances. He didn’t come home with much money, but he came back with a new moniker: Okeh added Mississippi to John’s name in the hopes of selling more records. Apparently it didn’t work too well, because the rise of the Depression brought on the fall of Okeh Records, and the subsequent silencing of Mississippi John Hurt. For the next 35 years, he did just as he had before; worked the fields and the occasional dance party, raising a family in between and enjoying the sounds of his own guitar.

Fast forward to 1963: After hearing a copy of “Avalon Blues”, folklorist Tom Hoskins made it his personal mission to find Mississippi John. Up until this point, folklorists hadn’t been able to locate the bluesman anywhere, and they had tried. They finally gave him up for dead, closing the book on the Carrol County legend. Thanks to “Avalon Blues”, Hoskins had a place to start, Avalon being named as home by Mississippi John himself. Seeing that John hadn’t lost his ability to play, he convinced him to come to Washington D.C., joining in the recent folk/blues revival. It worked; John left Mississippi for the bright lights of the North.

In the final three years of his life, he achieved status as a blues legend, playing the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, The Tonight Show, colleges, coffee houses, folk venues and festivals, bringing him into the folk arena. His influence has been imparted on musicians such as John Fahey and Peter Case. He had become more popular at age 71 than he ever had before, and perhaps more so than many of his contemporaries ever would. For John, time to play the guitar would run out. He died at home in Mississippi in 1966.

Even though Mississippi John Hurt’s career was brief, it was potent. He is set apart from any other musician of his time, due to his playing style. His finger-picking pulls from the blues, but also the old time music he grew up on, also drawing from veins of country/hillbilly influence. His is a seamless bridge between the 19th and 20th centuries, feet planted steadily in both. His is the sound of the delta in it’s purest, unblemished form. You can hear the leaves shiver in the Carrol County breeze, carrying the soft-spoken roll of guitar strings over the dusty dirt roads, accompanied by an unassuming, reassuring voice, that knows it’s singing exactly what needs to be sung, at just the right time.

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