I was coming home from a big band gig in Maine this evening – we were listening to music in the car – and Mississippi John Hurt came through the speakers. I had discovered Hurt back in February or so, when I was going through old delta blues records, searching for a vibe of authenticity that I felt was absent in my own playing. I checked out lots of amazing artists, and the three that stood out the most to me during those winter months were Charlie Patton, Lightning Hopkins, and Mississippi John Hurt.
Hurt was particularly special to me. When you listen to really good blues musicians, a lot of them sound like they lived a really hard life – Patton sounds like his voice can just barely croak out the necessary syllables, Sun House sounds as if he’s tearing his guitar apart – pulling each string right to its breaking point. Hurt is different. He sounds normal and gentle, not like the good-fer-nothing deviant musician type, but like the type of guy that quietly lives his life going to work during the week and to church during the weekend.
And if he sounds like it, it’s because that’s what he did. After cutting a series of sides for Okeh Records in 1928, the Great Depression (and probably his disposition for family life) put his music carreer on hold until the folk revival movement of the 1960’s restarted it – and he became a real star. For the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s he was a share cropper and weekend gig musician in Avalon, Mississippi.
But most important of all is the music. Listening to his stuff is reassuring to me: he’s not necessarily hip like blues musicians typically are. His voice is soft and delicate and his guitar style is very precise and meticulous. He was living proof that you don’t need to be a hipster scumbag to make interesting music, that people who weren’t cool also had a right to express themselves, and that expression could sound good and interesting to other people.
A few online resources:
Mississippi John Hurt on Youtube:
Mississippi John Hurt on archive.org:
“This is the hammer that killed John Henry, but it won’t kill me…”