BIOGRAPHYBorn John Smith Hurt, in Teoc, Mississippi, (T-E-O-C, John playfully spells out for Tom Hoskins on his first tape recorded session) in 1963, John gravitated towards the guitar at an early age. He recounted his first encounter with the guitar on Pete Seeger’s “Rainbow Quest” folk music television program. A man named William Henry Carson, a local guitar player was a frequent guest at John’s home. When Carson was asleep, a nine year old John Hurt would sneak to the room where the guitar was kept, and quietly attempt to play pieces from Carson’s repertoire, such as “Hop Joint,” the first song he recalls learning, and a piece he would revisit much later. Eventually, John became good enough that his Mother mistook John’s playing for William Carson’s. At that point, his mother scraped together a dollar and fifty cents, and bought young John his first guitar, a black guitar of unknown provenance that he endearingly called “Black Annie.”
As a young man, John labored as a farm hand and railroad worker while playing music locally at informal gatherings including country dances and fish fries. Performing was something he considered a hobby; although he did spend countless hours perfecting his unique finger style approach, John lived a full life, laboring hard in a multitude of capacities. John would plow fields on mule back and even produce hand hewn railroad ties which he sold for a dollar each. In addition, John would find time to tend to “chopping” or picking cotton for clients with land in the Avalon area. This type of work was a far cry from the chosen profession of John’s brother Hennis, who operated an illegal whiskey still in the Valley area woods. The insular nature of Avalon, in which whites and blacks lived in reasonable proximity to one another despite outside social influences, can be read as being an influence on John’s demeanor. John was content in his self-contained community and it is perhaps for this reason that John was not inspired to travel and play in a manner befitting the popular image of the itinerant bluesman.
Somehow, John found the time to raise a family. At 18 years old, John Hurt began courting Gertrude Hoskin. In 1916, John had married Gertrude , a marriage that although short lived, produced T.C., the father of Mary Frances Hurt who is the current administrator of the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation. Soon thereafter, John and Gertrude split, and John took a common-law wife, Jessie Wade. John and Jessie had one son, John William (who also played guitar), and remained together until John’s passing. The relationship between John and Jessie gives a profound look into the personality of the man. Their playful bickering, documented first-hand by those who knew them, belied a deep commitment to one another. Jessie’s goading would inspire John’s playing, “You play that thing, John Hurt!”
John periodically played backup guitar for a white Avalon born fiddler named Willie Narmour. Narmour would eventually recommend John to the Okeh talent scouts in 1928 based on the merit of his gentle singing voice, thumb picked guitar work with a rock solid alternating bass technique, and original songs such as the mostly-based-on-a-true-story murder ballad “Louis Collins.” John auditioned for Okeh in his home, impressing them enough to record him with the now classic “Monday Morning Blues.” Okeh quickly whisked John away to Memphis, and then New York to record what would result in twelve released sides, including “Spike Driver’s Blues” and “Candy Man.” The sides sold moderately well, their greater success stalled by the Depression and a refusal on Okeh’s part to market John’s music outside of the traditional “race record” categorization. John returned to Avalon to await further work from Okeh, but the call would never come and John resigned himself to a simple life in Avalon.
If there was any bitterness or disappointment regarding his failed foray into the music business, Hurt never let on. Circa 1935, John appeared on the WPA payroll. He then continued his work in Avalon, and also worked for a brief tenure at a factory in Jackson, Mississippi, an hour or so south of Avalon. Upon quitting his factory job, John began working for A.R. Perkins, an Avalon landowner who employed both John and Jessie in a multitude of capacities. At one point during these interim years, John didn't even own a guitar, and only played infrequently on borrowed instruments.
REDISCOVERY“Avalon, my hometown, always on my mind.” - Mississippi John Hurt. These words open one of John’s most famous songs, and the liner notes of probably several hundred reissues, reprints and re-releases of John’s music on every format from LP to MP3. This song was the catalyst for the now apocryphal story of Tom Hoskins, a young white fan and record collector trekking to the Valley Store in what was Avalon, Mississippi, to inquire about an old black songster who just happened to still be living and playing not three mailboxes up the hill.
Hurt’s redemption came in 1963, when Hoskins made his miraculous rediscovery. Hoskins had ventured to Avalon armed only with a tape recorder, his Gibson J-45 and a not-unfounded-hunch that "Avalon Blues" held the clues necessary to find John Hurt himself. John had recorded the song for the Okeh record company in 1928, unknowingly setting the stage for his own triumphant return to the music scene some four decades after disappearing into seeming obscurity.
Due to the work of Hoskins and a few other intrepid members of the “blues mafia,” Hurt moved to Washington D.C. and found himself the darling of a burgeoning folk music movement that had overtaken colleges and coffeehouses around the nation. There’s no telling what it was about John’s music that attracted his many fans. His gentle singing voice and complex but clean guitar picking set him apart from some of his harsher sounding Delta Blues contemporaries, but that wasn’t the whole story.
LEGACYMany who were lucky enough to see one of his appearances at the Newport Folk Festival, or the Café Lena coffeehouse, or even the Gaslight, remarked about his glowing inner spirit, a spirit that transcended simply being a good musician. There was something special about Mississippi John Hurt. Whereas time had taken its toll on bluesmen such as Skip James and Sleepy John Estes, in their countenance and in their fingers, John retained along with his playing style a wry, kind smile and a twinkle in his eye that went on to win him legions of fans in his twilight years. Shortly after moving back to Mississippi, John passed away quietly on November 2, 1966.
Through the music of John Hurt, fans of all ages are exposed to the rich oral, musical, and literary traditions of the Mississippi Delta and the surrounding area. With his gentle demeanor and intricate style of fingerpicking, Mississippi John Hurt is an ideal ambassador for early African American music and culture.