No blues singer ever presented a more gentle, genial image than Mississippi John Hurt. A guitarist with an extraordinarily lyrical and refined fingerpicking style, he also sang with a warmth unique in the field of blues, and the gospel influence in his music gave it a depth and reflective quality unusual in the field. Coupled with the sheer gratitude and amazement that he felt over having found a mass audience so late in life, and playing concerts in front of thousands of people — for fees that seemed astronomical to a man who had always made music a sideline to his life as a farm laborer — these qualities makeHurt‘s recordings into a very special listening experience.
John Hurt grew up in the Mississippi hill country town of Avalon, population under 100, north of Greenwood, near Grenada. He began playing guitar in 1903, and within a few years was performing at parties, doing ragtime repertory rather than blues. As a farm hand, he lived in relative isolation, and it was only in 1916, when he went to work briefly for the railroad, that he got to broaden his horizons and his repertory beyond Avalon. In the early ’20s, he teamed up with white fiddle player Willie Narmour, playing square dances.
Hurt was spotted by a scout for Okeh Records who passed through Avalon in 1927, who was supposed to record Narmour, and was signed to record after a quick audition. Of the eight sides thatHurt recorded in Memphis in February of 1928, only two were ever released, but he was still asked to record in New York late in 1928.
Hurt‘s dexterity as a guitarist, coupled with his plain-spoken nature, were his apparent undoing, at least as a popular blues artist, at the time. His playing was too soft and articulate, and his voice too plain to be taken up in a mass setting, such as a dance; rather, his music was best heard in small, intimate gatherings. In that sense, he was one of the earliest blues musicians to rely completely on the medium of recorded music as a vehicle for mass success; where the records of Furry Lewis or Blind Blakewere mere distillations of music that they (presumably) did much better on-stage, in John Hurt‘s case the records were good representations of what he did best. Additionally, Hurt never regarded himself as a blues singer, preferring to let his relatively weak voice speak for itself with none of the gimmicks that he might’ve used, especially in the studio, to compensate. And he had no real signature tune with which he could be identified, in the way that Furry Lewis had “Kassie Jones” or “John Henry.”