When Mississippi John Hurt recorded ‘Avalon Blues’ in New York in 1928, little did he know that it would ultimately lead to his eventual rediscovery and phoenix-like arrival onto the burgeoning folk-blues revival of the 1960s. Hurt might’ve lived and died in obscurity had it not been for the blues collector and scholar Tom Hoskins who managed to track him down when he deduced that the song referred to Avalon, Mississippi, Hurt’s home town. This miracle of miracles, and how their eventual meeting led to John Hurt, then in his seventies, being persuaded to perform and record again is one of the great stories in blues history.
Born in the early 1890s in Carroll County, Mississippi, Hurt was the eighth of ten children, and began playing the guitar when he was around nine years old. The remoteness of his hometown meant that he didn’t come into contact with the travelling bluesmen of the day and instead learnt his songs from older field hands. It wasn’t until 1916, when he went to work briefly for the railroad, that he became exposed to different musical styles and songs which broadened his musical horizons and repertoire. Living and working on a farm, music was very much a pastime for Hurt and a way of making small change playing at local dances and parties, often accompanied by the white fiddle player Willie Narmour. When a talent scout named Tommy Rockwell from Okeh Records came to see Narmour win a local fiddle competition in 1927, he was in turn introduced and sufficiently impressed by Hurt, whom he took to Memphis to record eight sides in February 1928. Even though only ‘Frankie’ and ‘Nobody’s Dirty Business’, a song with roots in 19th century minstrelsy, were ever released, he was still asked to record a further handful of sides later that year in New York. These included the murder ballads ‘Stack O' Lee Blues’ and ‘Louis Collins’ as well as ‘Spike Driver Blues’ (a take on the John Henry legend) along with the religious songs and Hurt’s own ‘Candy Man Blues’ and ‘Got The Blues, Can't Be Satisfied’.
Rooted in the songster and ragtime traditions as much as the blues, these original Okeh recordings show the true charm of his work, with his beautifully syncopated and refined guitar fingerpicking style, and gentle, guileless voice giving a truly unique interpretation of the blues, far removed from the typical musical intensity of the Delta blues of the day. In many ways, he was a throw-back to the early days of southern music when black and white musicians played together in bands for whoever cared to listen and dance. Although unlike anything else recorded at this time, this laid-back approach didn’t translate into sales, and Hurt was largely dismissed as sounding too old-fashioned, which coupled with the onset of the Depression, conspired to send him back to the fields and obscurity. However, because Hurt never set much store on a musical career, he was content to make his living on a farm and playing for friends whenever the occasion arose. When he was remarkably rediscovered, Hoskins must have been astounded to find his talents still intact, and consequently a series of concerts and recording sessions were arranged, with performances at the 1963 and ’64 Newport folk festivals, where he displayed his guitar prowess largely unchanged since the time of these seminal 1928 recordings.
In his trademark bowler hat, Mississippi John Hurt was a soft-spoken, humble man who avoided the troubles that afflicted the lives of many of his more tragic fellow blues musicians. Leaving behind a legacy of great songs, providing an aural passport to a bygone age, he influenced many great musicians during the folk-revival including Bob Dylan, John Sebastian, Joan Baez and Stephen Stills. Unlike many bluesmen, his music was often uplifting and light-hearted, even when he was singing about toiling on a railroad or grabbing ‘a gun and shoot my Susie.’ Remarkably, after his come-back, he became more popular than other rediscovered bluesmen, including those that had easily eclipsed him in the old days, such as Son House and Skip James. He had never been particularly ambitious, and he accepted fame and adulation with incredible grace. Sadly, his brief but glorious Indian summer ended in 1966 when he died following a heart attack, however he had already left a legacy and ensured that his playing lived on in the hands of a new generation of guitarists.