When the names of influential guitar players come up, Mississippi John Hurt is rarely in the top 10. That’s wrong. This new CD, the brainchild of Peter Case, makes a strong point for his inclusion in the pantheon of pickers who’ve had an impact on a whole generation of musicians.
Hurt was briefly discovered by Okeh records in the late ’20s, but after a few sessions returned to his home in Avalon, Mississippi. His real musical career didn’t begin until ’63, when blues musicians Tom Hoskins and Mike Stewart “rediscovered” him. Between ’63 and ’66 (when he died), Hurt recorded three albums for Vanguard records while playing most of the important clubs and folk festivals in the Northeast. It is paradoxical that with such a relatively short professional career he could cast such a long shadow. But Hurt’s unique guitar and vocal style, coupled with his powerful songs, produced a lasting impression that is still with us today.
Peter Case roped together an imposing bunch of artists to celebrate and acknowledge their debt to Hurt’s music. Steve Earle, John Hiatt, Victoria Williams, Beck, Taj Mahal, Ben Harper, Bruce Cockburn, Chris Smither, Mark Selby, Geoff Muldaur, Bill Morrissey, Gillian Welch, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Dave Alvin all turn in strong performances. While I couldn’t begin to tell which cut is the best, it’s easy to pick the most idiosyncratic.
Victoria Williams’ version of “Since I’ve Laid My Burden Down” has a primitive Africanized “we just threw up a microphone and recorded what we got” quality that is appealing for its pseudo amateur verve. Taj Mahal tenders an aristocratic rendering of “My Creole Belle.” A rustic rendition of “Stagolee” by Beck is a far cry from the late-’60s pop Tennessee Ernie Ford version. Ben Harper, Chris Smither, Dave Alvin, and Bruce Cockburn all deliver some fancy fingerpickin’ worthy of Hurt’s legacy.
Fine performances of great songs make this CD essential listening.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Sep. ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.