This is The Turnaround with Rev. Zach Chandler, where, every week, we’ll be breaking down a different aspect of the blues for a deeper understanding of the music, culture, and people that are the blues. For the next several weeks, we’ll be examining some of the most influential bluesmen of the last century to try to understand where the blues comes from. As an art form centered around expression, the personalities around it are part of what makes this music so special
Last week, we took a look at Skip James — an artist who, had it not been for the American folk music revival of the 1960’s, almost certainly would have been lost to time.
This week, we’ll talk about Mississippi John Hurt. Mississippi John Hurt was another bluesman rediscovered in the ‘60s. While Skip James was deeply disappointed by his delayed popularity, John Hurt was quite content living his humble life in rural Mississippi.
Here’s what we know: John Smith Hurt was born around March 3, 1892 in Teoc, MS and raised in Avalon, MS. He had taught himself how to
play the guitar at nine years old. He was a farmhand and sharecropper his whole life and would play his guitar at local dances and parties. He recorded for Okeh Records in 1928. His records were flops commercially and, with the Depression setting in, Okeh Records went out of business, and Hurt went back home to Avalon, continuing to work the land and play at local parties.
In 1952, Mississippi John Hurt’s “Frankie” and “Spike Driver Blues” were released in The Anthology of American Folk Music, an 84-track compilation of American folk, blues, and country music recorded from 1927 to 1932. In 1963, Dick Spottswood, a musicologist and contemporary of Alan Lomax and John Fahey. Hurt was reluctant to try again at reaching a popular audience, being quite satisfied with his life in Avalon. Hurt had once before turned down joining a medicine show in the ‘20s since he “just never wanted to get away from home.” He was convinced, however, moved to D.C., played extensively at various coffee shops and colleges, recorded for the Library of Congress, and even performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, and went on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. After a brief stint in the limelight, John Hurt was ready to go home. In 1965, he returned to Mississippi and died of a heart attack on November 2, 1966.
Mississippi John Hurt, being self-taught and having developed his playing style before the rise of other nearby bluesmen such as Robert Johnson and Charley Patton, had a unique sound. His uptempo, heavily syncopated fingerpicking was made for dancing. Influenced mostly by old-time music and Jimmie Rodgers, it’s hard to categorize Hurt as a Delta musician. While he did live in the Delta, and was a bluesman, his music is much more soft-spoken and content — much like he was.
While I might normally recommend drinking some hard liquor or driving down the highway with your radio turned up, listening to the blues, Mississippi John Hurt is more of a sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch and sipping on some ice cold lemonade kind of guy. Mississippi John Hurt’s music adds more depth of character to the blues. He didn’t holler melancholy tunes about selling his soul at the crossroads and shooting down cheating partners. John Hurt’s own humility and happiness come to the forefront and remind us that the blues is the music of the soul. Sometimes we’re sad, sometimes we’re angry, and sometimes we’re satisfied.