Memorial Anthology Volumes 1 & 2
Edsel EDCD 381 & 446
Mississippi John Hurt is an enigma; one of the best known and best loved figures in black musical tradition, yet one who received precious little biographical attention. The outline details are familiar enough. Born 1892, or thereabouts, in Teoc, Mississippi; grew up in nearby Avalon and celebrated the location in a famous 1928 recording session for Okeh; rediscovered thirty five years later by a blues fan acting on a hunch that "Avalon my home town" might mean what it said, and feted by a generation of young blues fans for four short years until his death in 1967.
Beyond that there isn't much at all. John Hurt died too early in the American blues revival for the kind of historical-biographical research which has come to be favoured by blues researchers, and which has shed so much light on other performers. What we are left with is a modest legacy consisting of some wonderful recordings, one or two magazine articles, some liner notes and a few passing comments in the standard textbooks. Even Songsters and Saints, the seminal and by now classic work of Paul Oliver's, contains no more than a few scattered references.
So I was gratified to find that, for this pair of CDs - available separately, one presumes - Edsel have located a rare piece of oral history; an interview with John Hurt conducted by Pete Seeger and an unidentified female interlocutor. It is delightful. Hurt speaks with a fine eloquence and, to someone who normally finds the Mississippi accent impenetrable, a remarkable clarity. He talks of his early life, of getting his first guitar, of working on the railroad, and of eventually getting on record. Seeger proves a rather diffident interviewer, but he keeps the ball rolling and nudges his subject down avenues of productive thought. If he occasionally hogs the conversation it is as well to remember that this recording was intended not for public consumption, but as the basis of an article for Sing Out Magazine. Unfortunately the booklet does not tell us whether it ever saw print.
The balance of these discs comes from a series of appearances which John Hurt made in 1964 shortly after his rediscovery. The venue was a coffee house in Washington D.C., one of those peculiarities of the American folk scene which served as a rough equivalent to the folk clubs in Britain. Over there audiences sat and drank coffee and imbibed their favourite performers. Over here we drank beer and sang sea shanties and thought our American cousins just a little passé.
There is a problem with these coffee house performances and it is not an aesthetic one. As an artist Hurt was both consummate and consistent. Like Maxwell House he was good to the last drop. However, while the material has never been released before, these are near full price discs. It is difficult therefore for me to give an unqualified recommendation when so many of the tracks replicate performances of his which have been made available elsewhere. Hurt wasn't a man to vary his performances or his material very much, and whether the listener wants another Candyman or Creole Belle is something only the listener can decide.
There are, let me say, several redeeming features, including very fine sound quality. It is almost a cliche nowadays to talk about successful remastering, but honestly, these do not sound like recordings made thirty odd years ago. Also, there are several less familiar Hurt numbers. They include a Jimmie Rodgers composition, Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me and here one can detect some of the blue yodeller's influence in the guitar playing. Finally, there is the man himself. Who could resist those warm honeyed vocals and that dazzling fingerwork?
Where does it come from? Certainly, Hurt's relaxed performance manner is poles removed from the more frenetic styles of archetypal Mississippi bluesmen like Son House or Charlie Patton. The present discs are a partial demonstration of this by the way, for they include Hurt's version of the Patton classic, Spoonful. Unfortunately, the booklet notes are no more forthcoming than other sources where early life and musical influences are concerned. Instead they concentrate on the period of his rediscovery. They do however see similarities between Hurt's style and the Piedmont, that north eastern part of the Southern United States, which produced such bluesmen as Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller. The notion is questionable to say the least. The fingering of John Hurt seems too rapid and dextrous and the bass line too insistent for the Piedmont. Yet Piedmont bluesmen do sound less emotionally strained than their confreres from further south and west. About as strained as Mississippi John Hurt in fact.
That omission of Hurt from Songsters and Saints is surprising. The purpose of the book is to demonstrate the existence of a negro tradition which preceded the blues and which Oliver identifies under the label of 'songster'. With his vocal and fingerpicking styles and choice of repertoire John Hurt is as good an example of a songster as you will find.
One effect of Oliver's work is that we have come to think in terms of a sharp dichotomy, chronological as well as stylistic, between the bluesman and the songster; that the former totally displaced the latter almost in a single generation. That may be how it happened in Mississippi, for the peculiar social conditions which caused the blues seem to have been particularly intense in that part of the Union. Even so we would do well to avoid excessive demarcation. The birth records of Southern black musicians of the period are notoriously unreliable - one of the effects of those social conditions - but a best guess would make Patton older than Hurt by about five or six years. He would presumably therefore have been singing in that harsh, strained way of his before Hurt ever got going.
Meanwhile, back at the Piedmont, the blues seems to have become established there somewhat later than in other parts. Could it be that the forces which precipitated the blues were less extreme in that part of the world? Personally I wouldn't like to guess. However, if the new idiom was introduced more gradually there than elsewhere, perhaps it merged with, rather than displaced, the songster style.
Returning to these discs and to the question of purchase and to the thing which should outweigh all other considerations. The epoch which produced Mississippi John Hurt and his ilk is a closed book. There will not be anything more like it. I wondered how best to finish this review, whether to retail a story I heard recently about Doc Watson. Doc, a great admirer of Hurt was once admonished by a fellow white North Carolinan for cultivating the friendship of a black musician. "Hell", said Doc, who has been blind since early childhood, "you're all black to me!"
But some closing remarks, by our coffee house announcer, make a sad comment on the sparse and arid diet that has become folk music with the passing of so many great names. After thanking Mississippi John Hurt for a wonderful performance, he calmly informs the audience that next week they've got the equally legendary Skip James. Try telling them that down at your local folk club!
Fred McCormick - 25.11.97
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