Published as part of the American Made Music series by the University Press of Mississippi, Mississippi John Hurt is a well written biography of legendary blues musician John Hurt by Philip R. Ratcliffe. Tracing Hurt’s family back to slavery days, Ratcliffe gives us the background which must be a part of any study of blues music. It also gives us a view of music in the middle of the last century. The music industry today is based on music copyrights establishing authorship so that royalties can be paid. But, Hurt and the other musicians first recorded in the 1920’s bent familiar melodies and changed words to fit their own styles and moods. For example, Hurt’s recording of the familiar song “Frankie and Johnny,” is about Frankie and Albert.
John Hurt was a small, quiet, unassuming man from Avalon, Mississippi, which is just at the edge of the Mississippi delta. He was discovered in 1926 and made several records in Memphis and New York before the depression claimed all the recording companies. He went back to farming and was re-discovered in 1963 during the folk music revival. He went on tour at age 70 and died in 1966.
John Hurt played the guitar by running a constant bass beat on the top three strings with his thumb, index, and middle fingers while playing a melody on the bottom three strings with his ring and little finger, sometimes plucking the frets above with his left hand. It’s light and airy with none of the harsh, string stretching improvisation that came with electric guitars in the 1950’s. His music would be categorized as Old Blues, i.e., part folk music, part blues, part African rhythm and style. He sounds more like Jimmie Rogers, the father of Country Music also recorded in 1926, than Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker.
Ratcliffe has given us a window into the society of Mississippi during the Jim Crow years, and it’s nuanced. The Ku Klux Klan was an ever present threat to blacks who violated the strict segregation rules of the time, yet Hurt’s family and friends describe a friendly rural area where the races lived together and cooperated in farming and logging. Their social lives revolved around their churches, segregated by race, and the local store, where the races mixed. Black and white people enjoyed John Hurt’s singing and playing.
I bought this book as research for my next book, Sliding Delta. A quest to find Mississippi John Hurt and learn to pick the Delta Blues takes a Chicago college boy south of Memphis in the summer of 1965. It’s a coming of age historical novel about the delta, the blues, and The South.