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Listening to Mississippi John Hurt’s original recordings is a trip back to an America that no longer exists. Fewer than 100 people lived in the hills around Avalon, Mississippi in the 1920s and John Hurt spent much of his life there working as a farm hand, a sharecropper, and playing guitar to entertain both friends and neighbors.
Hurt would likely be amazed at how his music has endured, at how people from all walks of life still enjoy the music he created for the enjoyment of family and friends. His recordings are a rare example of what was called “household music,” that which is performed by an amateur not seeking financial gain, who didn’t perform as part of church functions, who didn’t feel the need to interject sexual innuendo or other artifices often used by other blues singers so as to avoid conflicts with local preachers.
His music wasn’t really geared as “performance” music. He didn’t amplify his voice which made his singing style more intimate, and he refused to refer to himself as a “blues singer.” On balance, his guitar skills were more intricate than other blues artists of the era and he used his guitar almost as a rhythm instrument, utilizing a fast, syncopated finger-picking style.
These tracks were taken from lovingly restored 78 RPM recordings from Okeh Records 1928 release. The initial releases were commercial failures and Oken went out of business during the Great Depression.
Born in 1893 (the date written in the family bible), John worked as a farmer until around 1916 when he did a stint as a track liner for the railroad. He had little reason to travel beyond his home.
Unlike other blues artists, Hurt had no signature song, no one song that people would identify with him. His style was unique, showcasing his ability to integrate an alternating bass with a melodic line, thus achieving a flowing effect with his playing.
It wasn’t until 1963 when renowned musicologist Tom Hoskins located Hurt near Avalon. That meeting led to Hurt moving to Washington, D.C., expanding his audience and making an appearance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. He toured extensively, playing from coffeehouses to concert halls, and even appeared on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Quite a long haul from his Avalon, Mississippi roots.