Mississippi John Hurt

mississippi john hurt 1928 sessions

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Who Was John Hurt, Mississippi Blues Guitar Master

By all accounts, John Hurt wasn’t too motivated to seek fame and fortune, although he did make some records in the 20s. No, he was quite happy to stay at home and work the farm, or a sharecrop. Having taught himself to play on a friend’s, friend’s guitar beginning at the age of nine, he quickly found himself in demand for performing at dances and parties in his local community, which must have been a great help to the family finances, even if he got paid in food or other basic commodities – quite common in those cash-starved days, particularly in rural farming communities.

Avalon Blues Mississippi John Hurt Okeh LabelHe was approached more than once to join a passing medicine show, as his playing style was syncopated and great for dancing. It must have worked well when accompanied by a fiddle or banjo. However, John didn’t go for it as he was quite happy staying at home. It’s a rare thing to know where you’re happy and stick with it. When I was younger I was always on the move, not specifically looking for that perfect place to be, but never being too content with where I was.

The Mississippi was the place where John Hurt was born (Avalon, to be precise, in 1893) and he felt no great desire to leave it. A fiddle player friend of his recommended the blues guitar player to a rep for Okeh records, and John laid down some racks for them in 1928, but they were not a commercial success for some reason.

 

Click To Play MP3 – Mississippi John Hurt ‘Avalon Blues’

The Best Of Mississippi John Hurt

  1. Frankie
  2. Spike Driver Blues
  3. Louis Collins
  4. Candy Man
  5. Avalon Blues
  6. Coffee Blues
  7. Nobody’s Dirty Business
  8. Candy Man Blues
  9. Morning Blues
  10. Ain’t No Tellin’

Hurt could expand on traditional themes, such as Frankie (from Frankie and Johnny, or Betty and Dupree) and Louis Collins, but succeed in making them his own with his very distinctive guitar arrangements. Spike Driver Blues is another example (from John Henry’s Hammer) and Candyman was also derived from a very popular show song doing the rounds in the Southern States.

There are many versions of Candyman, but none quite like John Hurt’s – the picking style and tempo is completely different from the version played by Rev Gary Davis, for example. Of course, at this time many original blues songs, and traditional ones were ‘borrowed’ by anyone that played guitar, and the lyrics changed so that the artists could claim it as his own.

mississippi john hurt vinylPeople like Robert Johnson did this with Walkin’ Blues (played before by Muddy Waters and Son House among others), also mutating the piece into the famous ‘Crossroads Blues’. It’s probable that John Hurt’s first Okeh recordings just weren’t distinctive enough to make an impact on the market at that time. For whatever reason, John went back to the farm!

For a long time, he played in his local community until he was tracked down in the early 60s by Tom Hoskins, who tracked him down mostly by listening to his recorded lyrics in the track ‘Avalon’. Hurt was living in a shack and was persuaded to go and live in Washington, where there was a huge folk revival going on, and the rest, as they say, is history.

He was in immediate demand and had lost none of his prowess on fingerstyle blues guitar, recording several albums and performing in clubs and on the folk festival circuit all over the  US. At the same time period other blues men like Son House, Skip James, Big Bill Broonzy were being re-discovered and revered by a young audience hungry for the original and authentic blues played by the very men who created it years before.

Some Mississippi John Hurt Lyrics – Avalon

Got to New York this mornin’, just about half-past nine
Got to New York this mornin’, just about half-past nine
Hollerin’ one mornin’ in Avalon, couldn’t hardly keep from cryin’

Avalon, my hometown, always on my mind
Avalon, my hometown, always on my mind
Pretty mama’s in Avalon, want me there all the time

When the train left Avalon, throwin’ kisses and wavin’ at me
When the train left Avalon, throwin’ kisses and wavin’ at me
Says, “Come back, daddy, stay right here with me”

Avalon’s a small town, have no great big range
Avalon’s a small town, have no great big range
Pretty mama’s in Avalon, they sure will spend your change

New York’s a good town but it’s not for mine
New York’s a good town but it’s not for mine
Goin’ back to Avalon, near where I have a pretty mama all the time

Download Mississippi John Hurt Lyrics & Guitar Chords PDF – Avalon

 

mississippi john hurt lonesome blues man cabinIt’s pretty obvious from the words that he really loved the place where he came from, unlike the songs of many blues men recalling their home towns. It seems he just didn’t have the kind of restless soul dissatisfied with things around, which was born out by his gentle nature and soft way of singing.

There are several memorial-type plaques and monuments to John Hurt in the region, and there’s even a museum where you can go and get a taste of what life was like in that place at that time. Without a doubt, it was a poor existence ‘ain’t never had nothin’ but a mother’ was one of Mississippi John Hurt’s attributed quotes – RIP.

Mississippi John Hurt Guitar Technique – Fingerstyle Perfection

Unusually for a Mississippi blues man, Hurt’s style was firmly based on a solid alternating bass fingerpicking pattern. Most of his contemporaries such as Son House and Robert Johnson favored a monotonic bass pattern where the thumb just hits the same bass string repetitively, often muting the string with the palm of the picking hand.

He didn’t wear picks, so his fingerpicking sound was soft as a result – if you look closely at his right hand, the first thing that strikes you is the flexibility of his fingers. I’ve seen this kind of flexibility in other players, Stefan Grossman for example, but not to this extent. They really are independent of  the other fingers, which for me was a problem.

Normally, I learn an old blues man’s style by reproducing exactly the movements that he makes and the way in which he makes them. With Hurt’s technique I can’t do that! I play a lot with just my forefinger, which works great for many players, but when my second finger comes into play my other fingers lift off the soundboard, so losing that solid anchor. If your style is like this, then like me you can get over it, but you need to pay particular to the effect of this on the timing. If it’s just a little off, the accenting and therefore the overall effect will be different.

How To Play Spike Driver Blues by Mississippi John Hurt

In the video below, I demonstrate and teach Spike Driver Blues, and the clip of John Hurt clearly shows his technique. This lesson was part of a group I submitted when taking part in an online guitar instructor competition run by Truefire.com (votes Number 2 by users over a period of 5 weeks.)

 

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For me, perhaps the most impressive thing about this song is that it’s basically all done around the G chord. Hurt is always changing the fretting position to create half chords with that basic chord shape, and when combined with that solid alternating bass pattern the effect is quite hypnotic – it’s the blues!

By all accounts, Mississippi John Hurt taught himself to fingerpick the guitar, and the obvious question is did he really devise that slick style himself or did he have a mentor? Well, it doesn’t appear so. He got most of his repertoire from other field hands, and as he didn’t make a living from music or travel widely, he didn’t really come into contact with other blues guitar players. he put the technique together himself and as he says, “I taught myself to play the guitar the way I thought the guitar should sound.”

John Hurt Songs Lyrics ChordsWhatever way he did it, it came out just right! John’s gentle vocals make you feel as though you’re just having a conversation, or he’s telling a little story about something that happened the other day. It’s a masterful way to play the blues because it’s completely real and authentic. There’s no act here, he’s just doing what he does and sings what he feels.

Although I haven’t learned a great many Mississippi John Hurt songs (there’s so much other stuff to learn, one lifetime just isn’t enough!) I just had to slip in one or two for the flavor and because of their genius. I generally merge Pallet On Your Floor and Satisfied and Tickled Too into one song and add extended instrumental breaks which flip-flop between the two songs, which are structurally the same, there’s very little difference in the fingerpicking pattern, the pace or the timing, so it works.

He’s Satisfied & Tickled Too!

First in the country, then in the town,
I’m a total shaker from my navel on down
I’m satisfied it’s gonna bring you back
I’m satisfied, tickled too, old enough to marry you
I’m satisfied it’s gonna bring you back

It’s pretty obvious what this song is about I reckon – it seems to talk about the absolute knowledge that a young girl can always get her man by ‘shaking that thing’! It’s played in the key of C and it’s almost identical to Pallet On the Floor, so I generally play them together, rolling them into one song and just including Pallet as an instrumental break – here’s a video of my take on these two songs:

 

It’s a lot of fun to play – keep the pace slow to medium, as it loses it’s flavor the faster you go. There’s also more chance of missing some notes, which is never good. Keep in mind that listeners would prefer to hear a simple piece played very competently than watch a guitar player fingerpicking something difficult that he’s barely managing.

The video below gives some tips on how to play Satisfied and Tickled Too by Mississippi John Hurt:

 

 

Unfortunately, although Hurt enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance during the 60s folk revival period – he even appeared on the Johnny Carson show! – it wasn’t all plain sailing. He relied on Tom Hoskins, the man who sought him out near Avalon, but he did come under some criticism for taking 50% of all John’s earnings from gigs he arranged. Of course, is was far more than John had ever earned in his whole life, but the question remains – was it ethical to take half an artist’s earnings just for arranging for him to play?

It may have been one of the reasons why he moved on to a different manager, but by all accounts he always had a good relationship with Hoskins. One time Hoskins and an associate visited John’s place and was told that they couldn’t stay in the house, because they might be in danger from the neighbors, which is quite incredible as it was the 60s! The gentle blues man was very concerned about the welfare of his guests, which was another facet of his character – he was loyal and genuinely protective of his friends.

Mississippi John Hurt died of a heart attack in 1966, leaving a unique legacy – the quiet talking blues! He influenced many people who remember him fondly as a man and not just a guitar legend. John Fahey took John’s guitar picking style and extended it with his own ideas before creating his own record label focused purely on fingerstyle guitar with a definite ragtime and blues feel.

 

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Mississippi John Hurt

by JD Nash

Editor’s Note: What began as a project to better know Blues Hall of Fame inductees each year, our “10 Things You Didn’t Know” series will now become a weekly submission. Our goal is to research little known information on the lives of the great blues artists of history, as well as certain songs, albums, labels, and more. We hope you enjoy these as much as we enjoy bringing them to light.

1. Uncertainty concerning his date of birth.

He was born, John Smith Hurt, however, his actual date of birth is a bit of a mystery. The most likely is March 8th, 1893. This is the date written in the Hurt family Bible, and accepted by his biographer and several other researchers. The birth date on his grave stone, however, is March 3rd, 1892. Other researchers have submitted the dates, March 8th, 1892; March 16th, 1892; July 2nd, 1892; July 3rd, 1893; and May 5th, 1895.

2. Teoc, Mississippi

Hurt is probably the most notable person to be born in the hamlet of Teoc, Mississippi, which is located in Carroll County. Teoc, though is also known for its links to Arizona Senator John McCain. His great-great grandfather, William Alexander McCain, bought the Teoc Plantation in 1851 and owned over 50 slaves. He was killed, fighting for the Confederacy in 1863, but after the Civil War, many of the former slaves stayed as tenant farmers for William’s son, John Sidney McCain and adopted the McCain surname. Some are even blood related, descended from two of the slaves, Isom and Lettie, and fathered by Henderson McCain. The black McCain’s were instrumental in organizing schools for African-American children in the 1880s and, nearly 100 years later, were local leaders in the Civil Rights Movement.

3. Style and influence

Raised in Avalon, Mississippi, halfway between Greenwood and Grenada, Hurt taught himself to play guitar, beginning around the age of 9. He adopted a fast, syncopated style, perfect for dancing, which he learned from an elderly blues man named Rufus Hanks. Hanks played 12-string guitar and harmonica, and although unrecorded himself, was one of the major influences on the young Hurt’s playing. Another was William Henry Carson, a frequent visitor to John’s childhood home. Young John would play Carson’s guitar while he was asleep. When Hurt’s mother mistook his playing for Carson’s, she scraped together $1.50 and bought her son his first guitar, which he named “Black Annie.”

4. First recordings

In 1923, he began playing guitar with a white fiddle player in the area, by the name of Willie Narmour. Five years later, Narmour won a fiddle contest and his prize was a recording contract with the Okeh label. Narmour recommended Hurt to his producer, and in 1928 Hurt took part in two recording sessions for the label. The first was in Memphis, Tennessee on February 14th. He recorded a total of eight sides that day, but only two were issued. In December of that year, he again recorded for Okeh, but this time in New York City. On December 21st, he recorded four sides, and another eight on December 28th. A total of ten songs from those sessions were issued by the label. None of Hurt’s recordings were commercially successful, and when the Okeh label folded during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Hurt returned to Avalon and a life of share cropping.

5. Rediscovery

In the early 1950s, two events sparked interest in Hurt’s music once again. The first, was the release of his 1928 songs, “Frankie,” and “Spike Driver Blues,” on The Anthology of American Folk Music, released by Folkway Records in 1952. The second was the discovery of one of the original copies of “Avalon Blues,” from Hurt’s December, 1928, New York sessions. The lyrics of “Avalon Blues,” which included the line, “Avalon, my home town, always on my mind,” sent folk musicologist, Tom Hoskins to the town of Avalon, to see if the blues man was still living there. In 1963, Hoskins, did indeed, find Hurt still living there, and convinced him to move to Washington, D.C., to perform for larger audiences than the occasional local parties he was performing at the time.

6. Stagger Lee

The song, “Stagger Lee,” or any of its several variants, has been recorded dozens of times since its publication in 1911, and first recording in 1923. Its a murder ballad that speaks to the killing of Billy Lyons by the pimp, Lee Shelton, in St. Louis on Christmas, 1895. Hurt’s version, titled, “Stack O’ Lee Blues,” was recorded on December 28th, 1928 in New York and is considered the definitive version of the song. With just his finger picking guitar style and calm, laid back voice, he tells the story from the perspective of both participants as well as a narrator.

7. Folk Revival

Hurt’s performance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, made him an immediate star. He became one of the first original blues artists to play the college and coffee house circuit, a full year before the ‘rediscovery’ of Son House. From 1963 until his death on November 2nd, 1966, he recorded three full albums for the Vanguard label, recorded the majority of his repertoire for the Library of Congress, and toured extensively with other artists including Mississippi Fred McDowell, Elizabeth Cotten, Rev. Gary Davis, John Lee Hooker, Brownie McGhee, and Sonny Terry. He even appeared on The Tonight Show, with then host, Johnny Carson.

8. The museum

Just down the road from the Valley Store, in the tiny town of Avalon, sits a humble, three room shack, with a lopsided porch and tin roof. Its the original home of Hurt, and now houses the Mississippi John Hurt Museum. The log cabin, in which he was raised, is long gone, but this home in which he lived for a great part of his life, is filled with artifacts and mementos of “Daddy John,” as he was known to the local citizenry. Hurt’s granddaughter, Mary Frances Hurt, was given the house by the man who owned the land when she went back to the Delta to visit. He said, “God had told him,” that she would be there on that particular day. A local banker, who remembered John playing guitar for his mother, donated $5,000 to move the building to a two acre plot nearby. There is a yearly music festival held there, where visitors sit outside, enjoy barbecue, and pick guitars, playing Hurt’s remarkable music. Tours of the museum are by appointment only and admission is $10 per person. That is, except on Labor Day weekend, when the music festival takes place. At that time, its free to the public.

9. Mississippi John Hurt Foundation

In 1999, Mary Frances also started the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation. It is a non-profit organization primarily devoted to preserving her grandfather’s musical legacy. It also provides musical and educational programs to disadvantaged youth. After school programs give underprivileged children the opportunity to learn about the blues and play an instrument. From there, they perform at various functions including the annual Chicago Blues Festival. Through the music of her grandfather, children and adult music fans alike are exposed to the rich oral, musical, and literary traditions of the Mississippi Delta and surrounding areas.

10. The Lovin’ Spoonful

Singer-songwriter, guitarist and harmonica player, John Sebastian, founded the band, The Lovin’ Spoonful, in 1964. Sebastian had grown up in and around Greenwich Village in New York City and had seen artists such as Lead Belly, Sonny Terry, Lightnin’ Hopkins and, of course, Mississippi John Hurt play the folk festivals and coffee houses of the area. Although the word “spoonful,” has been used as a description for drug paraphernalia, and even as a metaphor for the average amount of male ejaculate, the band’s name, suggested by washtub bassist and recording engineer, Fritz Richmond, pays homage to the lyrics of a Hurt song. The song, “Coffee Blues,” could well have been a successful jingle for the Maxwell House brand. Hurt describes it as his favorite brand, saying sometimes all he needs is a spoonful to get him going. “Just got to have a lovin’ spoonful.”

Article Source: https://www.americanbluesscene.com/2016/11/10-things-you-didnt-know-about-mississippi-john-hurt/

 

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