Born: July 3, 1893 in Teoc MS
Died: November 2, 1966 in Grenada MS
Mississippi John Hurt never aspired to a career in music, living most of his life as a hard-working farm laborer. The handful of recordings that he made in 1928 for the Okeh label - originals and adaptations of traditional songs like "Frankie," "Stack O' Lee," and "Avalon Blues" - stand as classics of the country blues.
Hurt's warm voice and complex, emotional finger-picked guitar style, didn't fly with a Depression-era blues audience, but it would be tailor-made for the folk fans that enjoyed his early-60s rediscovery. Both Hurt's original 1920s recordings and his work during the '60s would have an immense influence on talents like Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, and other folk, blues, and blues-rock artists.
Mississippi John Hurt's Avalon Blues
Born in the Mississippi Hill Country near Avalon, John Hurt taught himself to play guitar at the age of ten. Hurt's original repertoire consisted of ragtime, gospel, and popular songs, which he performed at parties, dances, and small social events while he worked as a farmhand. A brief period working for the railroad added broad strokes to Hurt's humble sound, and during the early-1920s he formed a musical partnership with white fiddle player Willie Narmour.
Hurt was discovered in 1927 by a talent scout for Okeh Records, who signed him to a deal and added "Mississippi" to his name. Hurt subsequently recorded eight songs for the label in Memphis in 1928, only two of which were released. In spite of low sales, Okeh sent Hurt to New York City later that year to record another five sides. When the label went bankrupt, Hurt returned to Avalon where he worked as a farmhand over the following three decades.
The Folk-Blues Revival
Had he only recorded his original sides for Okeh, Mississippi John would be remembered as an important country-blues artist. However, the folk-blues revival of the late-1950s and early-60s would rescue Hurt from his undeserved obscurity. Folk historian Tom Hoskins rediscovered the bluesman in 1963 by listening to his song "Avalon Blues" and tracking the 71-year-old Hurt down in his Mississippi hometown.
Although Hurt had only performed for friends and small parties over the previous 35 years, he received an enthusiastic greeting from the audience at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival; he would return to Newport to perform during the next two festivals. For almost three years, Hurt toured universities and coffee houses, performed at folk festivals, and even appeared on The Tonight Show alongside Johnny Carson.
During this time period, Hurt signed with the folk label Vanguard Records, which had begun dabbling in folk-blues music. Hurt's relationship with Vanguard resulted in three acclaimed studio albums, two of them released after his death, and a pair of live recordings. The posthumous 1967 album Last Sessions showed that Hurt's voice, songwriting skills, and guitar playing remained uncorrupted by a lifetime of hard work, sounding as vibrant as anything that the bluesman had ever recorded.
Recommended Albums: For a little more than the cost of a single CD, The Complete Studio Recordings provides three discs comprised of Hurt's entire early-1960s work for Vanguard Records. Once you've whetted your appetite for this gentle bluesman's unique sound, the single-disc Avalon Blues includes all 13 of Hurt's original Okeh label recordings.