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Mississippi John Hurt’s Precise and Gentle Blues

I could only find one video of Mississippi John Hurt, which is surprising considering how popular he became in the 1960s. It’s an appearance in 1965 on Pete Seeger’s irreplaceable “Rainbow Quest.” Hurt comes across as a soft spoken, friendly and highly intelligent man. Indeed, the bios suggest that one reason that he was successful once the folk players rediscovered him was that he was “exceptionally well liked.”

Hurt was born in Teoc, Mississippi. The family moved to Avalon when Hurt was two years old. His mother bought him a guitar for $1.50 and he taught himself to play. Hurt’s self-education is thought to be one of the reasons he was said to have a style that differed from other players from the region, which was on the periphery of the Mississippi hill country. Hurt apparently was a homebody: His biggest hit was “Avalon Blues,”which is about missing his home town while in New York City. He opted to stay in Avalon instead of joining a traveling medicine show, which was common at the time. The lack of traveling probably added to the uniqueness of his style.

Here is Wikipedia on Hurt’s playing:

Hurt incorporated a fast, syncopated fingerpicking style that he taught himself. He was influenced by very few people; but did recall an elderly, unrecorded, blues singer from that area, Rufus Hanks, who played twelve-string guitar and harmonica.[7] He also recalled listening to the country singer Jimmie Rodgers. On occasion, Hurt would use an open tuning and a slide, as he did in his arrangement of “The Ballad of Casey Jones”.[7][9] According to music critic Robert Christgau, “the school of John Fahey proceeded from his finger-picking, and while he’s not the only quietly conversational singer in the modern folk tradition, no one else has talked the blues with such delicacy or restraint.”[11]

John Hayes at Robert Frost’s Banjo describes Hurt’s style and provides good context:

Mississippi John Hurt has long been a favorite of mine.  His precise, melodic & almost delicate style of playing is beautiful & distinctive, as is his rich, if subdued, voice, which can express tenderness & a sort of gentle humor in a way that few blues players can.  Hurt’s playing style is akin to the “Piedmont” style of fingerpicking usually associated with guitarists who lived along the U.S. southeastern seaboard in the Carolinas or Virginia. But Hurt lived in Avalon, Mississippi, which he famously sung about in “Avalon Blues”—thus, spent most of his life in the Mississippi Delta area, which is generally associated with a much “heavier” blues sound—one dripping with bottleneck slide, & made dark by lots of flatted thirds, fifths & sevenths in both the melodies & the accompaniment—even more so by the fact that a fair amount of the singing & slide playing involves microtones—notes slightly flat or sharp of a recognized tone. Hurt on the other hand, was never afraid of pure major triads & a light, melodic sound.

The clip from “Rainbow Quest” is “Lonesome Valley.” It’s above. In the clip below, Hurt talks through and then plays his version of “Stagger Lee.” The tale of the murder of Billy Lyons by Stagger Lee over a stolen Stetson hat is one of the essential blues myths, and Hurt sang one of the most important versions. He sets up the story for about two minutes and then plays what he just has said. It is rare to hear the old blues players talk. It’s terrific. The post also has good photographs.

Wikipedia’s profile of Mississippi John Hurt and entry of Stagger Lee, a National Park Service website, Robert Frost’s Banjo and The Mississippi John Hurt Museum were used to write this post.