This is the grave of Mississippi John Hurt.
Born in 1893 in Teoc, Mississippi, John Hurt grew up as part of the impoverished sharecropping Black working class of the South. He learned to play guitar as a kid and started playing at dances by the time he was a teenager. We might not think of Hurt’s music as dance music but it absolutely was for the time, a syncopated beat designed to get people to move, even if it seems like old-timey music to modern listeners.
By the late 1920s, Hurt was a sharecropper and it seemed like nothing would probably ever change for him. But as the recording industry dawned, opportunities arose for Black musicians. In 1928, a white fiddler named Willie Narmour won a contest and the prize was a recording session at Okeh Records. Okeh had developed the so-called “race records” market in the 1920s after Mamie Smith recorded for them and they found themselves with a huge hit in an untapped market. Anyway, Narmour was up there and he suggested that Okeh record this guy he knew and played with sometimes named John Hurt. So Okeh brought him first to Memphis and then to New York to record his tunes. Interesting how for all the racial divides of this time and place that there were areas in which not only did people become friends but actively promoted the careers of the other race.
Well, it seemed as if life would change for Hurt. But it didn’t. His first records didn’t sell. The Great Depression was terrible for the music industry. Okeh closed. It was just back to normal for Hurt. He farmed on those shares and he played his music for local audiences.
In 1952, Harry Smith put out his legendary Anthology of American Folk Music. With so much music available today it is impossible to understand what a gem this was for listeners. Smith had gone through all the archives he could find and picked out the coolest lost material he knew of for this record. It was enormously influential on the generation of white folk musicians that were just starting to learn to play at this time and would come to prominence in the early 60s. Smith included two of Hurt’s recordings–“Spike Driver Blues” and “Frankie.” Nothing changed for Hurt at the time. But a decade later, the new folk musicians wanted to find their heroes. And based on these two songs along, Hurt was a hero to them. But how does one find a sharecropper who has no idea that he has a following?
In 1963, another of Hurt’s songs was uncovered and released–“Avalon Blues.” Now, Avalon is an actual place so people now had a clue. The musicologist Dick Spottswood asked a guy he knew named Tom Hoskins, who was already traveling to Mississippi, to see what he could see. He found Avalon on a map, went there, and started asking questions. What local people thought about a weird white hippie from the north asking questions about their local guitarist, I do not know but I can only imagine.
Anyway, Hoskins found Hurt. He could still play. Yeah, he was old, but he was could play and sing still. It should be said that at this point in life, Hurt didn’t even have a guitar. Maybe he had to sell it. Hoskins had to go borrow one to see if Hurt could play. He could, even if he was a bit rusty. So Hurt decided to take advantage of this weird new world he found himself in. All of a sudden, this impoverished sharecropper and local singer could play the universities and coffeehouses of the North. These northern folk fans were obsessed with authenticity and for them, Hurt and his age and his background made him the ultimate in authentic. They called him Mississippi John Hurt to just add to the authenticity patina.
Hurt was all-in. He and his wife moved to Washington, D.C. for awhile, along with the two grandchildren they were raising. He recorded three albums worth of material for Vanguard. He played all the time. He even showed up on The Tonight Show. He could play almost anything. He was deeply influenced not only by the blues and spirituals of where he grew up but by country music (he was a huge Jimmie Rodgers fan) and jazz. He could throw some ragtime into a show too. This was no boring artist but a real master. One thing that made Hurt different than a lot of the other old blues guys who were still alive is his sweetness. He didn’t really engage in the traditions within music of braggadocio, of singing about what a badass he was, of romanticizing the life of the rounder. He was just a guy with a nice voice singing some good songs, many of which he wrote, others of which he interpreted.
Of course these white people who found him ripped him off, very much including Hoskins. Hoskins and a friend got him to a sign a contract that gave them 50 percent on his royalties and in the end, Hurt only got 25 percent of his royalties, not enough to really set him up though more than he made as a sharecropper. Ah, the history of Black music in America, another chance for whites to steal money from Black labor.
Finally, late in life, unlike so many of his great contemporaries, he got it to pay off. He played at Newport Folk. I should mention that 15 years ago or so, there were two great compilations of Newport Folk Festival performances released, 3 discs each. One was of the bluegrass performances and one was of the blues. I highly recommend both. You get a wide variety of performers, including Hurt, doing between 3 and 6 songs. First rate material. Hurt played at Carnegie Hall too.
But he was pretty old and his health was not particularly good at this point. After a last recording session in New York, he went back to Mississippi. But he had to go to the hospital in the town of Grenada and while there, he had a fatal heart attack. He was 73 years old.
In the aftermath of his death, just about everything one can find of Hurt has been released, including a number of live shows. To me, he’s right at the top of the history of American music. I’d probably rather listen to Hurt than any of the other blues musicians of that generation and that’s not taking away from listening to Skip James either, who also is a legend of the first rate. I just really like Hurt’s voice.
Also, while my interest in the politics of artists is not that high, I do want to note this story about how Hurt had an FDR poster in his house at a time when that was probably kinda dangerous.
Let’s listen to some of Hurt’s amazing work.
Mississippi John Hurt is buried in Saint James Cemetery, Avalon, Mississippi.
Now let me tell you, this is not easy to find. It turns out that Avalon, or what is left of it, is not easy to find. Basically, you are driving through the Delta which is incredibly boring. Then you take this road up a very rare hill. You are encased in thick forest and a few farms. And there is this tiny little overgrown cemetery. Good thing for GPS because that’s one I would not have found otherwise.
If you would like this series to visit more legends of the blues, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Skip James is in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania and John Lee Hooker is in Oakland, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.