“Mississippi” John Smith Hurt (1892 – November 2, 1966) was an influential American blues singer and guitarist. Born in rural Mississippi, he learned guitar at an early age and performed at local dances until he was discovered by OKeh Records in 1928. After two recording sessions in Memphis and New York, he returned home and disappeared from the recording business for almost 35 years. He was then rediscovered in 1963 and enjoyed a brief period of great popularity during the folk music revival of the 1960s until his death in 1966.
Hurt’s musical style was light-hearted and entertaining, and his later popularity eclipsed that of other rediscovered bluesmen who had enjoyed much greater earlier success. He recorded several albums before his death, and both his singing and guitar skills remained undiminished to the end. Young guitarists of several generations have been influenced by his melodic style of finger-picking, and a number of his songs have remained popular in the folk music genre. A gentle and unassuming man, Hurt also earned a reputation as an unpretentious person liked by all who met him.
Hurt was born in Teoc, Mississippi and was the eighth of ten children. His parents were Paul Hurt and Mae Jane Smith. Hurt began learning the guitar at the age of nine after learning to appreciate guitar music from William H, Carson, a visitor at the Hurt home in Avalon. Hurt stated, “I wasn’t allowed to bother Mr. Carson’s guitar. I would wait until he feel asleep at my house, then I would slip his guitar into my room and try to play… After that, my mother bought me a second hand guitar at the price of $1.50.”
Hurt spent much of his youth playing old time music for friends and dances. In 1916, still in his early teens, he married Gertrude Hoskins. They had two children—T.C. (born April 1, 1919) and Ida Mae (born June 26, 1921). John and Gertrude separated shortly after the birth of Ida Mae. Later, John became the father of another child, John William, with his common law wife, Jesse Lee Cole.
Earning his living as a farm hand and occasional railroad worker into the 1920s, Hurt continued playing for dances in his spare time, usually partnering with fiddler Shell Smith. In 1923 he also played often with fiddle player Willie Narmour. When Narmour got a chance to record for OKeh Records in reward for winning first place in a 1928 fiddle contest, he recommended Hurt to OKeh producer Tommy Rockwell.
After auditioning “Monday Morning Blues” at his home, Hurt took part in two recording sessions. The first, in Memphis, recorded eight sides, only two of which were released. The “Mississippi” tag was added to his name around this time by OKeh. The second session took place in New York City and included several of the songs for which Hurt later became well known, such as the risque ragtime number “Candy Man,” and “Spike Driver Blues”—Hurt’s unique version of the legend of John Henry. The resulting recordings, however, did not sell well, and OKeh soon went out of business during the Great Depression.
Hurt returned to Avalon and obscurity, working as a sharecropper and playing local parties and dances. It would be more than three decades before he would record again.
In 1963, folk musicologist Tom Hoskins, inspired by the OKeh recordings, was able to locate Hurt near Avalon. He was not easy to find. Hoskins noticed that Hurt sang of “Avalon, my home town,” but was not able to locate the tiny town until he found it on an old atlas. Remarkably, at 71 years of age, Hurt’s guitar skills were still intact, and his mellow voice was as charming as ever. Hoskins encouraged Hurt to move to Washington, DC and begin performing on a wider stage.
Whereas his first releases had coincided with the Great Depression, Hurt’s new career could hardly have been better timed. A stellar performance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival saw his star rise among the new “folk revival” audience, and Hurt soon was busy playing at colleges, concert halls, coffee houses, and even on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. For three years until his death, Mississippi John Hurt was a star, after a lifetime of toil as a manual laborer.
Vanguard Records released a new album, Today! in 1966. An impressive live recording of a concert at Oberlin College in April 1965 was released under the title The Best of Mississippi John Hurt, featuring 21 songs. The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt, was released posthumously, as was the Last Sessions album. Several later albums were released on the Piedmont label. To the end, Hurt’s voice and guitar and guitar playing remained remarkably strong.
John Hurt’s guitar and singing style was atypical of Mississippi bluesman in its melodic character and almost whimsical tone. Both his guitar playing and his voice expressed a sweet, mellow quality, and he was as comfortable with rag-time and religious songs as with blues. In fact his use of traditional 12-bar blues forms was relatively rare. In many ways he was a throw-back to the early days of southern music when black and white musicians played together in bands for whomever cared to listen and dance. Unlike many blues players, his vocalizations were clearly enunciated and highly melodic.
Hurt’s guitar playing is particularly accessible to young players because of its clarity and emphasis on melody. He tended to play full, ringing, individual notes rather than damping his chords for rhymic effect or using a slide. His solo to “Candy Man” is a classic, which has been imitated by thousands of young finger-pickers. Country-folk master Doc Watson brought Hurt’s style to wide audiences when, in the mid 1960s, he covered “Spike Driver Blues” and other Hurt songs.
Mississippi John Hurt left a legacy of character as well as music. In his trademark bowler hat, he was a soft-spoken, humble man whose wrinkled face lit up when he smiled. Unlike many bluesmen, his music was often uplifting and light-hearted, even when he was singing about toiling on a railroad or grabbing “a gun and shoot my Susie.” After his come-back, he became more popular than other rediscovered bluesmen, including stars that had easily eclipsed him in the old days, such as Son House and Skip James. He had never been particularly ambitious, and he accepted fame and adulation with remarkable grace.
Part of his later popularity stemmed from the universality of his music, which was never strictly limited to the blues and appealed to white audiences in part because it seemed less alien and primitive than true “Delta” style blues. However, equally important was who he was as a person—warm, unpretentious, and liked by all. Hurt’s influence spans several music genres including blues, country, folk, and contemporary rock and roll. A soft-spoken man, his nature was reflected in his work, which remained a mellow mix of country, blues, spirituals, and old time music to the end.