So for those of you who’ve been following my blues rant, I bring you the second most influential blues musician for me, Mississippi John Hurt. Mississippi John Hurt was the first blues album I ever went and bought on my own, wish I still had the vinyl, but alas, like the wind, it’s long gone. I do remember that it was a live recording at what sounded like a small club and internet searches have not come up with the title, it was on Okeh Records, although a Piedmont label was placed over the Okeh label. It had wonderful songs like “The Sliding Delta”, “Staggerlee”, “Spike Driver Blues”, and my favorite “The Candy Man Blues”. His style is so distinctive, a folk-blues finger picking marvel, who only used slide occasionally, but the way he approached the melody with the bass notes made for one of the fullest sounds I ever heard. His voice was a mix of gravel and smooth, almost soft-spoken texture, and he could really deliver a lyric. The lyrics could go from a gospel “nearer my god to thee” to the racus “Candy Man Blues”.
John Smith Hurt was born July 3, 1893 in Teoc, Mississippi, but raised up in Avalon, Mississippi, he taught himself to play at the age of 9. Although he recorded his first tracks 1928, he really wasn’t discovered until he was in his 70’s. He recalled his first recording session that came about because a fiddle player Willie Narmour suggested it to Okeh record producer Tommy Rockwell while recording his own album. The first session was in Memphis where, as Mr. Hurt recalled, “was in a great big hall with Rockwell and the engineer, and we were the only ones there. I sat on a chair and they pushed this microphone right up to my mouth and told me don’t move after they had the right position. I had to keep my head absolutely still, and I was nervous, and my neck was sore for day after.” Later they brought him to New York City to record more tracks, but alas, his recordings were not very successful so he returned to Avalon to share crop and play at parties and dances.
The folk music revival in the late 50’s to the early 60’s was when John was really discovered. Tom Hoskins was following the trail of the song “Avalon Blues” brought him to meet Mr. Hurt. Hoskins arranged a series of concerts culminating at the Newport Folk Festival where Mississippi John Hurt was treated as a living legend. So at age 70 he was a star, and no one was more surprised than John himself. Through re-releases of his studio recordings and a lot of live recordings, he played and entertained audiences until his death in 1966.
I really can’t put into words how much I admired this man and his style and grace, a humble individual who played music for the love of it, and yet as fate would have it his life turned in an amazing way. I recorded Candy Man Blues with Little Feat because I just love that song, and I wanted to pay tribute to this wonderful man. The highlight of it all was to be paid a visit in Chicago from his granddaughter, who was so thankful that I had covered Candy Man Blues, giving full credit to him and his estate, she was so thankful and I was so humbled, and pleased….
The next blog will be about the electric blues players who’ve influenced me, but I must mention other acoustic players who made the blues what they are - Mississippi Fred McDowell, Skip James, Bukka White, Huddie Leadbetter, Blind Willie Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Charley Patton and the list could go on and on but I suggest you make your own search, let that blue light be your guide.