Monday, December 10, 2012

Mississippi John Hurt, Discovery

Mississippi John Hurt, Discovery: The Rebirth of Mississippi John Hurt (Spring Fed Records, 2011)

Cow Hookin’ Blues : Interview: John & Jessie Hurt (by Tom Hoskins) : Nobody’s Business : Casey Jones : Stack O’Lee : Richland Woman Blues : Coffee Blues : Do Lord, Remember Me : Take My Hand : Candy Man : Waiting for You : Conversation : A Song for Mr. Clark : Got the Blues : Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me : Ain’t Nobody But You : Pallet on the Floor : Spike Driver Blues : Preaching on the Old Campground / Glory Glory : Louis Collins / End of session

Recorded March 3, 1963, Avalon, Mississippi
Playing time 68:17

John Smith Hurt (1892–1966), Mississippi John Hurt, was a guitarist and singer from the hamlet of Avalon, Mississippi. Recommended to a recording agent by the fiddler Willie Narmour, Hurt recorded thirteen sides for Okeh Records in 1928, twelve of which were issued. He then returned to life as a farm laborer in Mississippi. Harry Smith included two of Hurt’s 1928 recordings, “Frankie” and “Spike Driver Blues,” in Folkways’s Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), the rich and strange compendium of pre-WWII rural black and white revenants that would shape the folk boom of the 1960s. (Listening to the Anthology, it is impossible to believe that its musicians lived on the same planet as, say, Bing Crosby and Kate Smith, much less in the same country.) Hurt’s two Anthology sides contain, in a curious way, the twin appeals of his music for later audiences: “Spike Driver Blues” is a piece that might make any fairly competent player think I can do that, while “Frankie” is the work of a master guitarist. The one recording puts the music of the past within fairly easy reach; the other puts the would-be performer to a task that, if accomplished, will dazzle. The story goes that Andrés Segovia, listening to “Frankie,” believed it to be the work of two guitarists.

Hurt was rediscovered in 1963. “Rediscovery” was a curious phenomenon of the early 1960s (and a crucial part of my musical education). The word describes the efforts of record collectors who found, against long odds, some of the great blues musicians of the 1920s and ’30s, men whose scantly documented lives would seem to have defied any possibility of retrieval. “Rediscovery” was a phenomenon with troubling implications: in some cases, the finders became keepers, tying rediscovered musicians to publishing and recording contracts of dubious merit. The words of Hurt’s “Avalon Blues” — “Avalon’s my hometown, always on my mind” — and an old map led Tom Hoskins to Hurt’s shotgun shack on March 2, 1963. The rest was musical history: several years of modest fame for Hurt followed, along with deep affection from young folk audiences. And hundreds if not thousands of guitarists figured out how to fingerpick by listening to Hurt’s recordings. The elements of his style — solid, unvarying bass, lightly syncopated figures on the upper strings — are everywhere.¹

These recordings give us John Hurt in the circumstances in which he must so often have made music — in a parlor, singing for, and sometimes with, family members (present are Hurt’s wife and ex-wife, his ex-wife’s sister, and two grandchildren). Hurt didn’t own a guitar at the time; playing Hoskins’s Gibson, he is is a bit plodding and insistent, not nearly as nimble as he would be on later recordings. His attempt at “Candy Man” falters: the chops just aren’t there yet. He is in good voice despite a cold: there must have been much singing in this house through the years, guitar or no guitar. To listen to these recordings is to hear Hurt in two worlds at once: the one a world of private jokes and laughter and the occasional rooster, the other a world in which he was hardly at ease but, it seems, game. The recording ends with talk of having to go feed Mr. Perkins’s cows. Less than five months later, Hurt was playing the Newport Folk Festival.

My debt to John Hurt’s music is large and unpayable. To hear these recordings, now available for the first time, is to discover that music all over again.

Related posts
Mississippi John Hurt
Mississippi John Hurt for Chevy

¹ Listen, for instance, to the Beatles’ “Julia” with Hurt in mind.

comments: 4

Andrew Hickey said...

I'll have to check this out -- I love John Hurt's stuff.
I disagree though that the Beatles' Julia is especially inspired by Hurt -- Lennon's playing in a style he was taught by Donovan, and while Donovan was, of course, influenced by Hurt (see his cover version of Candy Man as an example) he was far more influenced by British folk guitarists like Bert Jansch, Martin Carthy and Davey Graham.

Michael Leddy said...

I didn’t mean to suggest that the song was Hurt-inspired. But I think that the alternating bass and the syncopations on the treble strings owe something to his playing. Every U.S. coffee commercial with a plaintive guitar in the key of C owes something to Hurt. In other words, I think it’s everywhere.

Donovan’s “Candy Man” is a different one from Hurt’s — maybe derived from Reverend Gary Davis? There’s a great Rainbow Quest clip with Donovan and Shawn Phillips sitting, jaws dropping, listening to Davis. (Now gone alas from YouTube.)

Andrew Hickey said...

"Donovan’s “Candy Man” is a different one from Hurt’s"

Of course it is. That's what I get for posting comments before I have any coffee.

Michael Leddy said...

Try Maxwell House, Andrew. Just a spoonful of Maxwell House will do you as much good as two or three cups of this other coffee. :)