Mississippi John Hurt had one of those kind of soft gentle voices that seem to radiate friendship. His version of ‘Staggerlee’ (he says ‘Stack-o-lee’) sounds a bit like ‘Midnight Special’ due to his country influences and velvety vocal. Here’s another of those experts at syncopated guitar finger picking – smooth and easy sounding like his voice.
Hurt was born in Teoc in Carroll County, Mississippi sometime between early 1892 and 1894, though March 8, 1892 is usually given as his date of birth. As a child he moved to Avalon, Mississippi where he was raised with seven brothers and two sisters. Hurt attended school until the fourth grade, long enough to learn to read and write. He grew up in a family of music lovers, and around the time he was nine his mother gave him a guitar which he taught himself to play developing an intricate syncopated finger-picking style in which the thumb played rhythm on the bass strings and three fingers, played melody or chords, (which qualifies the ‘intricate’, most of us use two fingers or even just one).
Around 1910, Hurt played his first public performances. Hurt did not play at dances like most other Mississippi bluesmen, his guitar style was too intricate to provide the stronger, louder rhythm needed for dancing, and his singing was too restrained to cut through the noise of a Saturday night juke joint on the Delta.
During his early adult life, Hurt worked first as a sharecropper, then as a day labourer, which included five months laying train track. There, it is believed, he learned railroad songs like “Spike Driver Blues.” Around 1923 Willie Narmour, a white farmer in Avalon who played fiddle at local square dances, asked Hurt to play with him when his regular guitarist could not. This was a remarkable tribute to Hurt’s musical ability, considering the degree of racial segregation that existed in Mississippi at the time.
Companies like Okeh Records were combing the South, in the mid-1920s, looking for artists to record for the popular new medium of the phonograph. A man called Rockwell (of Okeh) heard about John Hurt and set up an audition. Halfway through the second song, Rockwell told him to stop, he had heard enough. Hurt was invited to go to Memphis for a recording session. On February 14, 1928, John Hurt became ‘Mississippi’ John Hurt. He recorded eight songs and that same year, two of them were released on Okeh, ‘Frankie’ and ‘Nobody’s Dirty Business.’
In December 1928 John Hurt travelled to New York City where he recorded five more 78rpm records and met Lonnie Johnson, then the most popular blues guitarist in America.
Less than a year after Hurt’s second recording session, the Great Depression hit America. The poor audiences, black and white alike, could no longer afford to buy records. Hurt just settled down with Jessie Lee, his second wife, back in Avalon. He raised a family, found non-musical work, played guitar around town when he could and forgot about a career in music.
In the early 1960s, two young folk musicians in Washington, D.C., Tom Hoskins and Mike Stewart, heard ‘Avalon Blues’ from a record collector. When they went to the Delta with their tape recorder, they discovered that Avalon wasn’t much more than a general store on the road between Grenada and Greenwood. Hurt was out in the fields on his tractor. They introduced themselves, explained that they were interested in music, and pulled out their tape recorder.
From there Hurt’s second career in music snowballed quickly. Suddenly, at age 71, Hurt was one of the top stars in the American folk music scene. For the next three years, he toured festivals and folk clubs throughout the country, released albums on the Piedmont and Vanguard labels and entranced fans with his broad repertoire and his gentle personality.
Hurt’s finger picking style was unusual among black players of his time. Only Elizabeth Cotten—another self-taught guitarist—used a similar technique. Nonetheless his playing has had an enormous impact on guitar players from the 1960s onward and echoes of his playing can be heard in the work of musicians like Leo Kottke and Stefan Grossman. John Fahey, a player who took many of Hurt’s techniques into uncharted new realms, composed and recorded a moving tribute, ‘Requiem For Mississippi John Hurt,’ on his Vanguard album ‘Requia’.
John Hurt seemed unconcerned by the abrupt end of his first career as a professional musician in 1929; at the end of his life he seemed equally undaunted by the stardom that had unexpectedly burst upon him, out of nowhere as far as he was concerned.
Mississippi John Hurt passed away in Grenada Mississippi on November 2, 1966, aged 74 (or maybe 72)