Blues Bytes


March/April 2021

Mississippi John Hurt
Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings


Mississippi John Hurt

A couple of months ago, I did something that I’d wanted to do for about 30 years. I traveled to Avalon, Mississippi to visit the home and resting place of Mississippi John Hurt. I first heard the great blues man on a collection of recordings from the ’60s Newport Folk Festival in the late ’80s and I was taken by his warm, gentle approach to the blues. It was quite a change from the other Mississippi country blues artists that I’d previously heard, and I was as taken with his music as his audience at Newport had been.

As I am inclined to do when I hear a recording from someone that I’m not familiar with, I dug into whatever information I could find about John Hurt. Being in the pre-internet, “info at your fingertips” era, it was a bit difficult, but I did find out that he was born and spent most of his life in Avalon, other than a brief period when he worked for the railroad. He had learned guitar at a young age, mostly playing ragtime tunes, while working as a farm hand, but the railroad experience helped to expand his repertoire and he soon attracted the attention of Okeh Records, who enabled Hurt to record 13 tracks in 1928.

Columbia/Legacy released Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings in the mid ’90s as part of their Roots N’ Blues series. All of Hurt’s 13 tracks are included here, and they include his first recorded versions of “Frankie” (and Johnny), “Ain’t No Tellin’,” “Louis Collins,” “Avalon Blues,” “Nobody’s Dirty Business,” “Candy Man Blues,” and “Stack O’Lee,” songs that he would record again over 30 years later in the 1960’s. Hurt’s gentle, relaxed vocals are a joy to hear, but his wonderful guitar playing often gets overlooked.

What’s most amazing is that when was Hurt was “rediscovered” 35 years later, he sounded just as good as he does on these 1928 recordings, which still have absolutely pristine sound compared to many pre-war recordings. The Okeh sides didn’t sell very well at the time of their release, but that didn’t seem to bother Hurt very much, as he returned to Avalon where he did farm work and continued to play music for his friends on the weekends. He probably would have been satisfied to do that for the rest of his life if not for the folk music revival of the late ’50s/early ’60s.

Upon his rediscovery, Hurt recorded several albums of his old songs with a few new ones mixed in, he played several festivals, and enjoyed a measure of popularity and some financial success that he’d never imagined or expected. He passed away in late 1966 at 73 years old.

Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings is a great place to start listening to Mississippi John Hurt, but one album may not be enough for you after hearing it. If you happen to be in the area, a visit to Avalon is a must for blues fans. I posted about my recent visit a few weeks ago at my blog, so check it out.

--- Graham Clarke



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