Article author: Phillip R. Ratcliffe

John Hurt lived for most of his life in the Valley Community in the hill country above the Delta town of Avalon, Mississippi. He was born in 1892 in Teoc close to Avalon.

During his lifetime two white men, interested in his music, knocked on the door of his little shotgun house. The first was Tommy Rockwell from the Okeh Record Company in late 1927 or early 1928. The second was Tom Hoskins from the Piedmont Record Company in 1963.

Tommy Rockwell and the Okeh Record Company

Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 recordings

Tommy Rockwell, following a lead given to him by John’s neighbours, musicians Willie Narmour and Shell Smith, knocked on John’s door and asked him to travel to Memphis to record. John was 35 years old. Eight sides were recorded at the McCall Building, Memphis on February 14th 1928. Only two were released, Frankie/Nobody’s Dirty Business.’

The record sold well and John was asked to travel to New York City where he recorded twelve more sides in December, 1928. Eight of these were released in 1929 and two (Avalon Blues/Ain’t No Tellin’ in 1930. Interestingly, two unreleased sides from the 1928 recordings did not survive and we may never hear ‘Shiverlie Red Blues’ and ‘Window Light Blues.’ The unreleased pressing of ‘Big Leg Blues’ had also been lost , but was located after John’s death and issued. Following his rediscovery, John could not remember the tune and probably never heard his recording of it. All surviving recordings from the 1928 sessions were first released on LP in 1971 (Spokane SPL 1001). There have been various reissues on LP and CD since.

John received $240 from the Okeh Company for his recordings, the Great Depression set in and he never heard from them again. He returned home to Avalon and lived there for over thirty year until he received the second knock on his door from a white man interested in his music.

Tom Hoskins and the Piedmont Record Company

Tom Hoskins was an aspiring young guitar player in the 1960s with an interest in the country blues. Along with his friend Mike Stewart, he collected old 78 recordings, traveling around the Deep South to do so. His fascination with the music led him to wonder what happened to the old blues musicians. He was especially interested in the music of Mississippi John Hurt and when he heard the recording of ‘Avalon Blues,’ the lyrics, ‘Avalon’s my home town, always on my mind,’ it set off alarm bells. ”He’s telling me where he lives,” remarked Hoskins.

Together with Dick Spottswood, Hoskins began an obsession to locate Hurt and after finding a place called Avalon on an old map of Mississippi, Hoskins was on his way. He drove into the small settlement of Avalon on Highway 7 between Grenada and Greenwood on the evening of March 2, 1963 and stopped at Stinson’s store.

Hoskins asked the store keeper whether he knew of a Mississippi John Hurt who had made records back in the 1920s. He couldn’t believe his luck when he was directed, ‘up the dirt road, second mail box on the left, you’ll find John.’ After confirming that the man who answered the door of the little cabin was in fact the Mississippi John Hurt who had made those records back in 1928, he was invited in.

Tom Hoskins recorded two hours of music and conversations on that Sunday afternoon of March 3, 1963. The tapes survived and they provide a valuable and important part of the history of Mississippi John Hurt and they record the details of his rediscovery. The recording represents an absolute gem of a regular Mississippi family singalong, albeit with an exceptionally talented guitarist. There is a real party atmosphere with children calling out and roosters crowing outside, and as the tape is coming to an end, John announces that, “It’s getting close to feedin’ time. Mr. Perkins’s cows get fed around three or three-thirty.”

Excerpts from this recording are available on CD-SFR 108, ‘Discovery: The Rebirth of Mississippi John Hurt March 3 1963’ available from Spring Fed Records.

Jessie and Mississippi John Hurt

Tom Hoskins packed his guitar, tape recorder, and tape into his car, said his farewells, and headed back to Washington. He recalled his feelings, ”After spending the day with John, his wife Jessie and several friends, I was driving north again through the Mississippi darkness with a two hour tape recording of a living, breathing, treasure of a young old gentleman of about 70 years, who until that day had been only a shadowy figure from an unknown past and presumed dead.”

Hoskins immediately headed for the Spottswoods’ home in Arlington, Virginia to share the details of his discovery. Dick Spottswood recalled, “When we heard the tape we were almost hysterical with joy. We waited about a week and we started back to Mississippi in my car to persuade John to travel back with us.” The three of them returned to Washington later that month.”

With some urgency a recording session was planned, and a long series of tapes were recorded. These tapes were recorded at Sandy Fisher’s house in Annapolis, Maryland by Peter Silitch, Peter Kuykendall, and Sandy Fisher on March 24, 26, 29, and April 2, 1963. Selections of individual tunes from these masters were used for the first Piedmont album, Folk Songs and Blues (PLP 13157).

In September 1963 John’s wife Jessie and grandchildren Ella Mae and Andrew, joined John to live in Washington, D.C. Mississippi John Hurt became the resident musician at ‘The Ontario Place’ coffee house in D.C., where the second Piedmont album, Worried Blues (PLP 13161), was recorded in early 1964.

A bigger audience for Mississippi John Hurt

John wowed audiences at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, where, never having played in front of audiences other than his friends at home in Avalon, he stepped out in front of around 18,000 people. He became a regular on the coffee bar circuit in Washington DC, New York, Boston and Philadelphia, and he appeared at the Berkeley Folk Festival and in Los Angeles and Chicago. He recorded virtually his entire substantial repertoire, mainly on the Library of Congress recordings and on the Vanguard label. Mississippi John Hurt moved back to Mississippi in early 1966 and died in Grenada, Mississippi in November, 1966.

Mississippi John Hurt at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 (Picture: C.W. Woodley, 1965)

John Hurt learned to play guitar way before the blues became popular and he was aware of musicians who passed through Avalon with minstrel bands and traveling shows. Many of these musicians were replicating the ragtime piano style of maintaining a steady bass rhythm with the left hand and playing the melody with the right hand, by thumbing the bass strings while overlaying this with a syncopated melody using the fingers on the treble strings. Many musicians at that time described themselves as ‘songsters,’ which meant that they played whatever they liked and whatever would entertain their audiences.

The concept of the blues musician was an artificial tag placed upon musicians by demanding audiences. John recalled that the first tunes he learned were ‘Hop Joint’ and ‘Good Morning Miss Carrie,’ which he had apparently learned from his neighbour, William Henry Carson, and they were typical of the down-home music of the day. Much of this so-called pre-blues, country blues, and folk-blues went unrecorded and it was not until the 1920s, when the recording companies realized the commercial value of selling this music, that much of it was recorded. John went on to record blues tunes, but always applied his alternating bass approach to them (e.g. ‘Monday Morning Blues’ and ‘Avalon Blues’). The Okeh record company also added the word blues to some of his non-blues tunes as a marketing ploy (e.g. ‘Stack O Lee Blues’ and ‘Candy Man Blues’).

Philip Ratcliffe’s biography: “Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His Times, His Blues

When Mississippi John Hurt was rediscovered at the age of 71 years, in 1963, only a handful of country blues aficionados had heard of him. John enjoyed his new found fame, more money than he had been accustomed to, and the adoration of his young fans, but he cannot have imagined that over fifty years later his name and his music would be even more well-known and would be enjoyed by increasing numbers of fans. It seems that this gentle, humble man from rural Mississippi will be remembered for ever, and rightly so.

Philip R. Ratcliffe

October, 2017

Signed copies of Philip Ratcliffe’s biography: Ratcliffe, Philip R., Mississippi John Hurt His Life, His Times, His Blues. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson. 2011 are available from: Price £30.00 GBP plus shipping.

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