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Jun 13, 2018

Mississippi John Hurt - Then and Then

Mississippi John Hurt was born in 1892 and mostly lived in obscurity as a sharecropper in Avalon,MS.  But thanks to Hurt’s recording of his song Avalon Blues, Hurt was easy to track down when the folk revival of the 1960’s created demand for traditional and authentic American music.

That recording of Avalon Blues was from his commercially unsuccessful 1928 session for Okeh records.   At the time, Hurt’s sound was considered too relaxed, not bluesy enough. His music shares little with the other early Mississippi bluesmen such as Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Son House, Lonnie Johnson, etc.

While his music is classified as blues, I personally struggle to hear the blues in it.  He purposefully sang in a casual manner accompanied by beautiful syncopated guitar picking.  Little slide guitar and no impassioned vocals.  Some of his songs have blues themes and even have the word “blues” in the title (Candy Man Blues, Blue Harvest Blues, Big Leg Blues, others) but it’s folk music (a little bit of ragtime) to my ear.

The 1928 recordings were re-mastered last year and released as part of the American Epic series. The release is called The Best of Mississippi John Hurt.   It’s really interesting to me that they would call it “The Best of”.  He made many more recording in the 60’s.  These were his first, not his best.  But I guess it’s all about marketing.  Anyway . . .

Name notwithstanding, it’s awesome that they re-mastered the tapes.  The album sounds great.  While there is some tape hiss, the singing and playing are quite clear.  It’s amazing to think that these songs were recorded in 1928.  John Hurt fans should definitely check out the re-mastered version.  It really is a big improvement.  That said, I’m not totally crazy about these recordings.  I’ve read that Hurt was very nervous during the sessions. Apparently they placed the microphones very precisely and told him that he couldn’t move at all.  I think this comes across.

So for those not already a fan, definitely start with the 1960’s recordings.  Hurt sounds more relaxed and confident.  His guitar playing is more assured and seemingly more intricate.  It’s possible that his playing improved over the years. Or maybe he was just more comfortable.  His voice also aged nicely.  In the 20’s, his vocals were relaxed and pleasant.  In the 60’s, they’re warm and grandfatherly. 

Perhaps my favorite album is the ironically titled The Best of Mississippi John Hurt (really wish they’d stop doing that).  It was recorded live at Oberlin College in 1965.  By then, he was a beloved American folk treasure.  The audience knows who they’re seeing and their appreciation is obvious.  Hurt responds with a beautiful performance.  Highlights include I Shall Not Be Moved, Coffee Blues, Candy Man, and folk standard Stagolee. His studio recording Today! is also wonderful.  His fingerpicking is great, the miccing is perfect and it's a modern studio production.  Satisfied and Beulah Land are simply beautiful.

- Alan Likes Music