Discovery: The Rebirth of Mississippi John Hurt

by: Mississippi John Hurt

Mississippi John Hurt recorded 20 tracks for OKeh Records in three sessions (one in Memphis and two in New York City) in 1928, and of these, seven were never issued and are now lost, leaving 13 tracks that vanished out into the world almost as quickly as they were recorded. In a genre known for slashing bottleneck stylists and gruff-voiced shouters suited to street corners and gin mills, Hurt was an unassuming front-porch performer with an intricate, delicate guitar style and a soft, gentle voice. The recording studio microphones allowed the gentle nuances of his songs to be heard, and Hurt’s guitar style, a bluesy blend of ragtime rhythms and Piedmont-style picking, is completely his own. Then the Great Depression hit, and many record companies and their artists, Hurt among them, were washed away. Hurt returned to his home in Avalon, Mississippi, and he stepped back into his life there for the next 30 years or so, occasionally playing porch parties, picnics, and other community functions. Then one day in 1963, Thomas Hoskins knocked on the door of Hurt's small home in rural Mississippi. Hoskins, a serious blues fanatic and deeply involved in the folk and blues revival then sweeping colleges and the hip big-city intellectual centers, had found Hurt by following the lyrics to one of Hurt's 1928 recordings, “Avalon Blues,” in which Hurt sings “Avalon’s my home town, always on my mind....” Hoskins drove to Avalon from the East Coast, and started inquiring about a guitar player named John Hurt, thus eventually ending up at Hurt's door. He had brought a guitar and a tape recorder. When he opened the door, Hurt was hardly expecting to be talking about music. It was the last thing on his mind. He no longer even owned a guitar and hadn’t played in ages. Plus he had a sore throat and wasn’t feeling well. But Hurt did his best to accommodate, and using Hoskins' guitar, he began to remember lyrics, chord progressions, picking patterns, and arrangements, and Hoskins catches all of this on tape. Sometimes Hurt's wife, Jessie, sings with him. There are roosters crowing and other sounds that filter in from life in rural Mississippi in 1963. Hoskins' tape is a remarkable document, catching Hurt exactly at the moment when he is about to step back into his recording and performing career, some 35 years after he cut that handful of tracks in 1928. Hurt went on to record albums for Vanguard Records and was a popular draw on the folk and blues circuit for the next three years of his life, creating a wonderful and beloved last act as a musician before he passed in 1966. These fascinating field recordings, done the exact day Hurt was rediscovered by Hoskins, are priceless. The recordings are raw at times, but they're full of the kind of intimate details that life brings into each day, people talking, roosters crowing, and at the center of it is a gentle old blues player taking his first steps into remembering his musical calling. Hoskins' warm field recording of Hurt is a treasure. This is where it all begins again. ~ Steve Leggett

Please enable Javascript to view this page competely.