Mississippi John Hurt

John Hurt was born in Avalon, Mississippi in 1892 or 1893 (depending on what source is cited). He had 8 brothers and 2 sisters, and never finished the fourth grade. He never learned to drive a car and lived without electricity most of his life. He learned to play guitar at age 9, during the height of ragtime. The syncopation in ragtime forced him to learn a picking style different than the blues players that were born after him.

A race label, Okeh Records, agreed to record John Hurt in 1928 (they recorded and promoted him under the name Mississippi John Hurt). Starting his music career in his mid-30’s, he traveled to Memphis and recorded a few songs. During his last session in late 1928, John recorded a song he had just written called “Avalon Blues,” which was a tribute to his home town. Okeh would end up only releasing a few 78s of Mississippi John Hurt. They did not sell well at all, and Okeh went out of business entirely. John continued to play guitar for parties and dances until he sold his last guitar sometime around 1950. He continued farming as he had done all his life.

By the mid 50’s, the study of guitar and guitar techniques was becoming more mainstream. At the time, the university of California, Berkeley, had a collection of some of the best young guitarists in the world, many of whom were trading old 78rpm records with each other, trying to learn old blues techniques. Several of the students were enamored with Mississippi John Hurt’s complex fingering style and timid voice. A few of them showed one of Mississippi John Hurt’s old 78rpm sides to the head of the classical guitar department at Berkeley. Listening for a minute, the professor sort of shrugged and said something to the effect of “eh, pretty good, I guess. Who’s the second guitarist?” There was, of course, no second guitarist.

This story (more than likely based in legend and not in fact) made Mississippi John Hurt an instant legend among young guitarists, who assumed he was long dead and gone. Years later, a couple of young fans decided to go to Avalon, Mississippi on a gamble. John Hurt had released a song about Avalon being his hometown in 1928. Maybe he had returned there after his failed music career.

After arriving in Avalon and asking around town, they located John Hurt–on a tractor, plowing a field. It was 1962. John was in his late 60’s and said he had not played guitar in many years. One of the young men pulled out a guitar, tuned it, and handed it to John Hurt. Within a minute, it was proven that his musical skills were still intact.

Mississippi John Hurt lived out the last three years of his life making up for the music career he never had. 1962 was the beginning of the folk revival (the year of Bob Dylan’s first album, for example), and things could not have come at a better time for John Hurt. The Lovin’ Spoonful got their band name from a song of his called “Coffee Blues.” People who knew him in the 60’s said he was as gentle as his music–a perfect example for all.

Many people have tried to master John Hurt’s seemingly effortless fingerpicking style, but no one has even come close, in my opinion. To the novice, all of his songs sound like simple little diddies. I admit, I didn’t think much of his playing when I first heard him six years ago. It all sounds simple but then you pick up the guitar and you can’t even play the intro. His ability to play a syncopated melody on top of picking chords is unparalleled (not to mention that he sings on top of it. I can’t even begin to imagine.)

Every guitarist looks to someone as the best of all time, and that mostly has to do with what style of music you like. My vote goes for John Hurt. This style is called Piedmont Blues (or Country Blues) and it hearkens back to the late 19th century/early 20th century, before the time of recorded music.

Here he is playing a traditional hymn on Rainbow Quest in the mid-60’s. Look how gnarled and mangled his fingers are. You can tell he didn’t lead a charmed life. At first it sounds like a nice simple tune, but then it starts to set in that it really sounds like two guitars going at once. Keep in mind this is less than a year before his death, and he doesn’t miss a beat.

Mississippi John Hurt – You Got To Walk That Lonesome Valley

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