It still surprises me, but every once in a while I run into a neophyte who thinks the blues (all blues) is, by definition, depressing – as if there’s but one emotion conveyed and received in the entire genre. I tell those people (because they obviously never have) to listen to Mississippi John Hurt. The late Mississippi John, who lived from 1892 to 1966, was definitely a bluesman (albeit one like no other), with a repertoire covering blues, spirituals, country dance numbers, murder ballads, and lots more. But he always sounded utterly at peace, absolutely serene. Even delivering a warning that his gal may shoot, cut, and starve you or sly double-entendre about that “lovin’ spoonful,” the overriding expression was one of gentleness. And you just couldn’t listen to Mississippi John Hurt without smiling.
Just how indisputably unique Hurt was is readily evidenced thanks to The Anthology Of American Folk Music, the exhaustive and on-the-money albums archivist Harry Smith compiled for Folkways in 1952 – recently reissued as a six-CD Smithsonian box that should be required in every home. The quality that virtually all of the series’ performers, recorded between 1926 and ’32, share is a roughness, a raw, angular, hard edge – be it a congregation of Alabama sacred harp singers, blues stars of the day like Blind Lemon Jefferson, or Appalachian claw-hammer banjo player Clarence Ashley. Then John Hurt’s tracks come on and transport you to another world. Where other guitarists strum and beat their six-strings, Hurt coaxes the melodies from the instrument like he’s patting a child on the head or petting the family dog. And his alternating-bass and fingerpicked phrases roll out of the guitar – the perfect complement to his understated vocal narrative.
“Reviewing” this CD almost feels like cheating, since it’s a very welcome reissue of one of my all-time favorite albums – a double-vinyl jewel I’ve played countless times since I bought it in ’71, the year it was originally released as The Best Of Mississippi John Hurt. The story of how Hurt was “rediscovered” during the ’60s folk movement, hunted down thanks to the line “Avalon’s my hometown” in one of his songs, is as oft-repeated as it is remarkable. But what was truly amazing upon his return to performing (at last in front of festival and college audiences throughout the country) is that far from having lost any of his facility on guitar, he played in the exact same style – one completely at odds with what thinks of as “Mississippi” – as if he’d been on a 15-minute (rather than 30-year) break. And his voice, too, had mellowed into a more expressive instrument.
But best of all, listeners were treated to the rest of the songs he’d written and learned over the years – having had only 14 Okeh cuts recorded and released in the late ’20s before his long lapse. And this concert, from Oberlin College in 1965, is about as perfect a set as anyone could hope for. Songs that became standards and classics, such as “Candy Man” and “My Creole Belle” are included, alongside lesser-known items like the syncopated “Baby, What’s Wrong With You” and the instrumental “Spanish Fandango.” In fact, Vanguard’s decision to add three more tracks to the package, recorded at a Newport Folk Festival workshop that same year, is actually the CD’s only flaw. The sound quality isn’t nearly as good as what has already gone before, so the “bonus” is really an unnecessary distraction. Mississippi John had already done it all by the final notes of “You Are My Sunshine.”
All you want to do after that is sit there a spell, and smile.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July. ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.