Mississippi John Hurt – The Complete Studio Recordings (2000)

Blues for all seasons and any time of day.

I must have been about seventeen years old when I came across a copy of Mississippi John Hurt`s album “Today” at what was then one of two shops that sold vinyl in the small city where I was working as either a dishwasher or a line cook or something and living in a crappy apartment. They kept all their vinyl in a cellar downstairs from the CDs and VHS rental business that was probably paying their bills. On this particular week they were clearing out a bunch of stuff that had been there forever and which I guess they assumed nobody really wanted. I went home with armloads of Junior Wells, Memphis Slim, Professor Longhair, and other delights. I remember with great clarity specifically flipping through this one stack of albums and finding “Today” on Vanguard Records, still sealed, and being struck immediately by the cover. Here was this serene, smiling man radiating warmth and some kind of otherworldly understanding that I needed to buy that record, right then and there, and take it home so it would change my life.

I had never heard anything like it before. I was well-groomed in the harsher, rough-shod, angrier Delta Blues of Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Fred McDowell. I had begun a love affair with blues piano players and was convinced I wanted to move to New Orleans after I saved some money, maybe sometime after I turned eighteen. But I had no real context for Mississippi John Hurt. There was just no way I could imagine Keith Richards shooting heroin while listening to this stuff. Sure, it had sadness in it, but also tranquility. Listening to John Hurt was an instantly soothing experience, more gratifying than any of the drugs I was currently poisoning myself with. His voice was incomparable, carrying in it all the clichés you could possibly think of about old wise black men who have transcended their suffering somehow. Resigning myself to never being to able to sing like him, I quickly devoted myself to learning how to play “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor.” Somehow that tune represented much of what I was loving in his sound, the syncopated movement, upbeat but not hurried, complex but not flashy, reminding me of what Scott Joplin might have sounded like if he were a guitarist, and then adding a major-7 chord change that just kills me every time it comes around. Most guitarists will recognize that Hurt’s playing may sound deceptively simple and natural but is actually quite complex. And the way his hands and voice working together was wonderful, often finishing a vocal line with his guitar rather than singing it. This was basically the only John Hurt song I would ever play, which is odd, because I am pretty sure I could have picked up quite a few of them after understanding his cross-picking patterns to the extent that I did. I think there was something about the magical quality of listening to that album for the first time, of hearing this man play his delicately strident, quietly confident guitar underneath his warm but also frail voice — something about that felt like a holy experience that I did not want to spoil by trying to learn all the man’s “secrets”. There are not too many male blues artists whose work was capable of evoking this level of nuance and beauty, haunting but never haunted.

This collection of this three studio albums is a godsend. The music could have been crammed onto two discs but not without splitting up one of them into two parts, and I appreciate the integrity of keeping the running order intact. The liner notes by John Milward are a good read, supplying a lot of essential background, anecdotes, and a sense of what it was like for John Hurt to be a black man performing for an almost exclusively white audience during the blues and folk revival of the 1960s. Although Hurt had recorded quite a few songs for Okeh Reocrds in the late 1920s, he had not been actively performing for decades before a couple of blues enthusiasts, inspired by the 78’s he cut for Okeh (two of which were included on the influential Anthology of American Folk Music released by the Folkways label in 1952) resolved to track him down. They found him where he was still living in the small unincorporated community of Avalon and working as a sharecropper, and convinced a reluctant and suspicious Hurt to travel with them to Washington D.C. and make some recordings. Listening to the results of those recordings made for the Library of Congress (collected in two volumes and issued recently as “D.C. Blues” on the Fuel 2000 label), you can hear that while his voice is still warm, his finger-picking is not quite as strong as it had been, or would be again. Simply an issue of being out of practice, something that would soon change, and quickly. Hurt would soon become a darling of the new folk revival of the 1960s.

The fairy-tale story of the performer floundering in obscurity (otherwise known as normal, daily existence for most of us) and being rediscovered is such an overworked trope it merits its own Jungian archetype. Someday I want to make a catalog of them all in a table or spreadsheet, starting with people like John Hurt, and Cartola (born Agenor de Oliveira) who although he had been one of Brazil’s foremost and in-demand samba composers in the 1930s had been ‘rediscovered’ working at a car wash in the mid-1950s by a music journalist who recognized him. Although getting a chance to live out the last of your days playing the music you love to adoring audiences in cozy clubs or massive folk festivals is not a bad note to go out of this world on, he didn’t get rich from it and never made a dime off his own recordings. As John Milward writes, Hurt was still a subaltern in American society, “the only difference was that the white people he worked for now didn’t own farm or cattle, but coffeehouses and record companies.” Milward recounts how Hurt befriended another southerner and Vanguard artist, white folk singer Patrick Sky, who produced the sessions that became these three albums, and spent much time with Hurt hanging around with Dave Van Ronk and getting loaded. Sky had to more or less lock everyone else out of the studio to get Hurt to loosen up enough to do his thing and capture these moments. Something I never realized until coming across this collection of all three albums was that Mississippi John Hurt never even got to see the impact of these recordings, as he passed away in the same year they began to be released.

While many blues enthusiasts — purists as many of them tend to be — swear that the 1920s 78s are superior, I am very attached to these recordings, particularly “Today.” Perhaps because I am, at heart, a romantic, and it was in this aural context that I encountered John Hurt. I am also a sucker for well-made recordings rather than scratchy 78s, and my hipster friends who love scratchy 78s can laugh at me if they want, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

john hurt

Released 1966 on Vanguard VSD-79220

Of the three albums presented in this collection, “Today” still remains my favorite. As I already stated, sentimental reasons come into play here, but it is also a very, very strong listening experience. The aforementioned “Pallet” which — unbeknownst to me at the time – was largely a reworking of Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train”, and which was also covered by none other than Gillian Welch years after I discovered the song. “Corrina, Corrina” is also a song that’s always been dear to me and has taken on unintended nuances I never expected, folding my own stories into his. “Coffee Blues” definitely gets and award for the best product-placement in a mid-60s acoustic blues song. Then there is the immortal, gorgeous rendition of Louis Collins. In fact “Today” features a whole lot of the songs he cut for Okeh, with the very notable exception of “Frankie” which is strangely left off all of these discs. But how many albums in your collection have the line, “Goddamn them sheep, goddamn them sheep” on them? None? That’s what I thought. So obviously, you need this album in your life.

john hurt

“The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt”
Released 1967 on Vanguard VSD-79248

“The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt”, released after his death, is just a vital even if not quite as strong as “Today.” The gospel of “When I Lay My Burden Down” is as uplifting as any hymnal, “Moaning the Blues” lays an accent on a low bass note that brings out the swamp in Hurt’s delta. The song also introduces a second-guitar (played by Sky if I am not mistaken) for the first time on these records. They would take this approach only a few times across the three days of recording that produced these albums, and it works quite well. Other highlights are “I’ve Got The Blues and I Can’t Be Satisfied,” and of course the iconic Stagolee, which is about a very bad man. Like bookends, the album closes with another gospel tune, “Nearer My God to Thee”.

john hurt

“Last Sessions”
Released 1972 on Vanguard VSD 79327

“Last Sessions” is sort of the clunker of the bunch. There are no bad songs on it (although his reading of ‘Goodnight Irene’ doesn’t do much for me personally) but it seems obvious to me why this material was kept in the vault until the 70s and left off the first two releases in favor of more inspired material. A lot of it just lacks the inspiration found on the material collected on the first two. Still, it has some essential music on it. “Poor Boy Long Ways From Home” is a blues touchstone, “Farther Along” is another spiritual anthem,”Shortnin’ Bread” stands out and makes me hungry, and “Good Morning, Carrie” shows a subtlety not found in a lot of blues, a song of unrequited love upon news that the object of his affection is about to be married to another. The second guitar on this one works really well. My favorite here, though, has to be “Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me” which has some of the best lyrics anywhere on this entire collection:

Blues all on the ocean, blues all in the air.
Can’t stay here no longer, I have no steamship fare.
When my earthly trials are over, carry my body out in the sea.
Save all the undertaker bills, let the mermaids flirt with me.

I do not work for pleasure, earthly peace I’ll see no more.
The only reason I work at all, is drive the world from my door.
When my earthly trials are over, carry my body out in the sea.
Save all the undertaker bills, let the mermaids flirt with me.

Vanguard did a very nice job on this set, albeit a little sparse on packaging and photography. The mastering is quite nice, superior to the CD pressing I’ve heard of “Today” (the only one I’ve ever come across on CD). In fact the mastering engineer was able to restore bass frequencies that were rolled off of the original vinyl pressings, although I have not sat down to do an A/B comparison to have any opinion about that.

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