Born: March 8, 1892 (or July 3, 1893, depending on who you
ask), Teoc, Carroll County, Mississippi
Died: November 2, 1966, Grenada, Mississippi
Fred and Annie McDowell with Mississippi John Hurt backstage at Newport Folk
Festival in 1964.
Photo by Stephen Lavere
Mississippi John Hurt in
the late 1920's Hurt was just an obscure name on a few records
cut for the "race" label Okeh.
Little was known of him. This hardly distinguished him from dozens of other musicians
from the Mississippi Delta who had recorded around the same time. Who these people
were was anybody's guess, and, given the circumstances in which they lived and
the isolation of the Delta, not to mention the racial divide, it was unlikely
anyone would ever find out.
As the American folk revival gathered
speed in the late 1950s, collectors taped rare 78s and the tapes circulated among
young guitarists who were trying to learn these arcane playing styles, as much
as a challenge to their technical abilities as anything. Deciphering, if not
mastering, many of these players' styles was often easy. But the Mississippi
John Hurt records stood out. Nobody else played like that.
1928, Tommy Rockwell, from Okeh Records, was touring Mississippi
looking for talent when he was told about Mississippi John
Hurt. He found John Hurt and brought him to Memphis to
record a few tunes. Those tunes sold so well, that Rockwell
brought John to New York for another recording session.
His musical career seemed on the verge of a break through,
but the great Depression would put John Hurt back into
seeming obscurity to everyone but the folks in Carroll
After World War
II, interests in his old recordings began to rise and folklorists
began looking for John Hurt. Unable to find him, it was
presumed that he had died, that is until blues collector
Tom Hoskins realized that John's song, "Avalon Blues",
referred to Avalon, Mississippi. He successfully set out
to find John Hurt in 1963. Hoskins convinced John to return
with him to Washington, D.C.
went on to play at the Newport Folk Festival that year.
Fans mobbed him, entranced by his gentle nature and skillful
playing, and he took it in his stride. He was 71 years
old, and he was a star. Mississippi John had achieved national
had a few recording sessions, and played a good number of festivals, including
the now famous Newport Folk Festival in 1964 (see above photo), at age 72. He
had three years of additional fame before his death on November 2, 1966 in Grenada,
grave rests in quiet seclusion on a hilltop near Avalon.