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Dark Was The Night: Sleep

Mississippi John Hurt: Revival

Robert Cantwell
drawing of Mississippi John Hurt by Robert Crumb

In the mid-1960's, Dock Boggs told Mike Seeger that if he had his life to do over again, he'd learn to play guitar like Mississippi John Hurt. Around the same time, Dave Prine's little brother asked him for guitar lessons, so he gave John Prine a Carter Family record (so he'd know what good songwriting was), and a John Hurt album (so he'd know what good guitar playing sounded like). A college student at the time reports that he'd go to John Hurt concerts because all the best looking girls flocked to them, but he soon found that their eyes and attentions were focused exclusively on this 71 year old black man.

It's hard to grasp how profoundly unlikely all of this would have been only a few years before. John Hurt was a tenant farmer in Mississippi and considered himself an amateur musician. He'd recorded just 13 songs in 1928 and they didn't sell particularly well. The record industry shrank as the Depression set in and Hurt continued farming, apparently thinking little of his brief recording gig.

After WWII, the old records cut by southern musicians in the 1920's were not commercially available. They made the rounds mostly as bootleg tapes among a tiny subculture of obsessive, cranky collectors and a few college kids who took an interest in very obscure music. Hurt's records were particularly rare, since few had been manufactured in the first place. But Harry Smith put two John Hurt cuts on his influential 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, causing some of these hobbyists to go looking for him. They always failed.

Then in 1963, Tom Hoskins and Mike Stewart, two young white folkies, got a tape of Hurt's Avalon Blues through their informal network of tape traders. Hurt had recorded Avalon Blues at the end of a week-long stay in New York that spanned Christmas 1928. Homesick in the big city, Hurt slipped in a line about his home in Avalon being always on his mind.

Hoskins and Stewart figured Mississippi John Hurt might have meant an Avalon, Mississippi. So, they grabbed a current atlas and studied the state. There was no Avalon on the map. So they found an 1878 atlas and there, between Greenwood and Grenada, was Avalon. They packed some clothes, guitars, and a tape recorder and drove south to look for Hurt, though they figured he was probably dead.

When they arrived in Avalon, they found it was basically just a tiny general store. They approached the men sitting on its porch and asked if anyone knew a guitarist named John Hurt. One man lifted an arm, pointed a finger, and said, "Down that road, third mailbox up the hill." Hoskins and Stewart drove, and found a little black man around 70 years old driving a tractor, looking startled by the sudden appearence of two white men who looked like they meant business. When they insisted he follow them back to Washington DC, Hurt decided he'd better go "voluntarily," suspecting they were the "police or the FBI or something like that."

Folk festival gigs back east were easily arranged for Hurt, and he was an enormous hit. Hurt played in a technically dazzling but graceful and gentle ragtime style, his thumb playing bass lines to take the place of a piano player's left hand, and two fingers picking out melodies like a pianist's right hand. Hurt's voice and demeanor were witty and heartbreakingly sweet. The crowds literally lurched forward to be close to him. When Hurt played the Johnny Carson show, he had never owned a television himself.

He died in his sleep at home in Mississippi, only three years after being rediscovered.

"The Folk Revival" of the 1950's and 1960's was a revival of interest in certain songs or styles, but it was also a revival of many talented artist's lives — or at any rate, of their music careers. Nobody is more closely associated with that aspect of the Revival than John Hurt. When I hear his recordings and wonder at the all-consuming benevolence of their sound, the generosity of Hurt's presence, and his virtuoso guitar picking, I'm swept up in gratitude for the Folk Revival. It went out and found John Hurt, made him one of the most deeply (if not widely) loved Americans of his day, and was able to tell him so in the last months of his life.

See also:
Dock Boggs: Revival
Blind Willie Johnson: Revival