This entry in the University Press of Mississippi’s “American Made Music” series is very interesting, for several reasons. The author, Philip Ratcliffe, a native of Great Britain, encountered jazz and folk Blues in the 1950s and the music of Mississippi John Hurt around 1970, four years after Hurt’s death. So interested did he become in his music that Ratcliffe began to collect Hurt’s records. A musician himself, Ratcliffe eventually (2003) made his way to the Mississippi John Hurt Festival in Avalon, where he met Hurt’s granddaughter, Mary Frances Hurt Wright, an organizer and leader of the foundation named after her grandfather, and received her blessing to pursue research for a biography of Mississippi John Hurt.
Mary Frances Wright considers her grandfather someone who “had a supernatural spirit that had a far greater effect on people than his music alone.” (x) Ratcliffe contends that Hurt is “one of the most influential and underrated American folk musicians,” but he is reluctant to label him a Delta Blues man, as some critics have. The author points out that Hurt was not actually from the Mississippi Delta and that “much of his music was not blues at all.” (xix) To Ratcliffe, Mississippi John Hurt had “a great deal more to offer the world than just his music”: he was “an incredibly warm, friendly, and spiritual man whose personal philosophy was a model that many of us today could wisely take a lesson from.” (xix) Another observer actually called Hurt a “saint,” while one of his managers, Dick Spottswood, described his personality as “understated, complex, and, behind a convenient rural black accommodating veneer, infinitely subtle.” (xix)
In a sense, then, Mississippi John Hurt comes across as a sort of “Yoda of the Blues,” a warm, gentle personality who imparted wisdom to all who would listen. Ratcliffe’s biography is a labor of love, but the author strives mightily to remain objective, and he succeeds, at least some of the time. Like a number of recent biographies of Blues performers, Ratcliffe’s study of Hurt compensates for the relative lack of primary sources by adopting a “life and times approach” and examining Hurt’s music in some detail. The results of his inquiries are uneven, but, overall, certainly worth reading.
John Smith Hurt was born in Teoc, Mississippi, probably on March 8, 1892, and died in Grenada, Mississippi, on November 2, 1966. For much of his life, he lived in the vicinity of Avalon, which was just beyond the eastern edge of the Delta. His father, Isom Hurt, disappeared from John’s life perhaps six months after his birth, and his mother, Mary Jane, moved her family to Avalon, where she had acquired land. John’s mother bought him his first guitar around 1901, and he learned to play the instrument with help from a neighbor, William Henry Carson. Young Hurt dropped out of school after the fifth grade, at about age 13, to help on his mother’s farm, and he played guitar at local gatherings in his spare time.
In 1916, John Hurt married Gertrude Hoskins, the daughter of his brother Hardy’s wife. Their marriage lasted only until about 1922, when they separated, though without legally divorcing, which would cause problems later. In 1927, Hurt wed Jessie Lee Cole Nelson, and this union lasted until his death, although not without problems. Hurt was “discovered” in 1928, thanks to a recommendation from a white fiddle player with whom he had performed periodically; the results of this “discovery” were twelve sides recorded for the OKeh label. Hurt was paid the grand sum of $240 for his work, a lot of money for a Mississippi farmhand in those days.
As was the case for virtually every African American performer, the Great Depression blighted John Hurt’s prospects. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who joined the “Great Migration” out of the South, Hurt was content to remain in the Avalon area, doing farm work and other types of manual labor, including a stint with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Then, in 1963, again like other surviving black performers from the 1920s and 1930s, John Hurt was “rediscovered,” by a pair of white northerners. Tom Hoskins and Dick Spottswood made it their mission to ensure that Hurt had his chance to shine in the spotlight of the nation’s cultural “rediscovery” of the Blues.
Mississippi John Hurt enjoyed a brief bout of success, travelling to the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, 1964, and 1965, and recording albums for several labels. Meanwhile, his managers fell out, and, Ratcliffe suggests, this dealt the gentle Hurt a blow from which he never recovered; he died of heart problems in 1966.
Like other Blues biographers, Philip Ratcliffe adopts a “life and times” approach. In Hurt’s case, Ratcliffe really had little choice, for his subject was essentially “off the grid” between 1928, when he recorded his OKeh sides, and 1963, when he was “rediscovered.” To fill in this generation-wide gap, Ratcliffe pursues two different, but convergent, paths: he offers a skeletal chronology of events, both nationally and in and around Avalon, from the 1920s through the early 1960s (the Age of Jim Crow, the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, and the modern Civil Rights Movement, for example); and he uses census data, interviews, personal reminiscences, and even the Sears, Roebuck catalog to try to place Hurt, his family, and the village of Avalon in a larger context.
The results reminded me of the “community studies” of colonial New England towns being produced by historians like Philip Greven and John Demos when I entered grad school back in the late 1960s–interesting enough at first blush, but including way too much information once you had slogged through to the end. For instance, despite Ratcliffe’s treatment of it, the 1927 Mississippi Flood did not affect Avalon or John Hurt that much. As for the impact of Jim Crow, Ratcliffe insists, with minimal support from the sources, that in rural areas like Avalon, “race was a less immediate problem than poverty”; life in the hill country was “a little less harsh and confrontational than down in the Delta.” (37) (Which hardly made it a Garden of Eden.) John Hurt lived under the iron hand of Jim Crow for the first seventy years of his life, and he certainly did not survive for that long, let alone become well thought of by his neighbors, black and white, by being outspoken on African American civil rights. Even after his “rediscovery,” Hurt usually remained silent on that thorny issue.
Like a number of other recent studies on the Blues, Ratcliffe’s biography of Hurt offers a fascinating look at some of the whites behind the “Blues Revival” of the 1960s. Tom Hoskins, for example, was “a likable hippie with no permanent job, and a fondness for girls, alcohol, and drugs in no particular order” (121), yet he comes off better at Ratcliffe’s hands than do Dick Spottswood and Dick Waterman, both of whom, in Ratcliffe’s telling, were more instrumental than Hoskins in destroying the cocoon of support that had enabled Hurt to enjoy three years of fame following his “rediscovery.” This turmoil was increased even more when it was discovered after Hurt’s death that he had never legally divorced his first wife; this meant that the children of both his wives were eligible for royalties from sales of his albums. How all of this discord played out is the theme of the final chapter, which, while interesting in a voyeuristic sort of way, adds little to the reader’s understanding of Hurt or his career.
Any Blues fan who has listened closely either to his 1928 OKeh recordings or to the three albums from the 1960s that Vanguard released must wonder how much Mississippi John Hurt actually deserves to be called a “Blues man.” In wrestling with this question Philip Ratcliffe makes an important contribution, because one of the biography’s unifying themes concerns the type(s) of music Hurt played. Ratcliffe argues that, while ragtime was an important influence on the musical development of the young John Hurt, he “obviously was not concerned with classifying musical types.” (21) He liked to play what he knew and what was popular with folks in the neighborhood. According to Ratcliffe, some of Hurt’s repertoire, including his early Blues pieces, dated back to the early 1900s, or even before. A number of his songs were violent ones, which leads Ratcliffe to speculate on the sources of these pieces. (24-26) Still, an African American friend of Hurt’s, Jerry Ricks, probably put it best when he declared that many Blues lyrics, including those sung by Mississippi John Hurt, were “Fuck you music,” expressions “of suppressed anger at white domination.” (26)
Most importantly, Ratcliffe believes that Hurt’s guitar-playing style and his choice of songs had been determined by the time he was in his teens and “would never significantly change.” (26) Hurt “played what he liked; this comprised traditional secular and sacred music, popular tunes, ragtime, and blues.” (29) Hurt also apparently was not bothered by the charge that the Blues was the “Devil’s music.” According to Ratcliffe, Hurt easily reconciled the purported distinction between Gospel and Blues music, believing that they need not be mutually exclusive. The key, his biographer argues, was that, while Hurt played Blues music, he avoided living the Blues “lifestyle.”
According to Ratcliffe, while John Hurt was certainly aware of the emergence of modern Delta Blues, he “was not sufficiently taken with it” to “include it in his repertoire, sticking to the old timey tunes and his ragtime interpretations of other tunes that he liked.” (79) In fact, Ratcliffe points out that OKeh Records originally had planned to release Hurt’s 1928 recordings in their “Old Time Music” series, not their “race records [i.e., Blues]” releases, but then had a corporate change of mind. Following his “rediscovery,” Hurt was considered by the “Friends of Old Time Music” as a key force in bringing “traditional music to a wider audience.” (158)
In other words, Mississippi John Hurt, like a number of the other “rediscovered” Blues performers (e.g., Son House, Skip James), did not deviate from his earlier play list once he began performing again. He “danced with the girl that brung him,” out of the Jim Crow South and into the brave new world of the “Blues Revival” of the 1960s. What Blues fans heard at Hurt’s live performances between 1963 and 1966, and can still hear today on vinyl, compact discs, or downloads, is a varied collection of Blues, ragtime, Gospel, and popular tunes, performed on acoustic guitar, in a soft Mississippi accent wizened by decades of experience. Not for Hurt the pragmatic flexibility demonstrated by the likes of Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker, who had escaped from the Delta earlier, during the Great Migration, and become “Blues men,” but, once the popularity of the Blues waned, had transformed themselves into “R & B Artists,” purveyors of the “Real Folk Blues,” whatever they believed would prolong their careers.
So, was Mississippi John Hurt a “Blues man”? A Gospel singer? A master at playing whatever sort of music his audience liked? The answer to each question has to be “yes.” Perhaps the most accurate description of Hurt is that he was a “songster,” a singer of many kinds of songs, a term not usually associated with hard-core “Blues men,” but applicable in Hurt’s case. Anyone interested in the Blues in general; the life and music of Mississippi John Hurt in particular; the “Blues Revival” of the 1960s; or an “up-close and personal” look at life in the backwater Mississippi community of Avalon during the Age of Jim Crow, should read Philip Ratcliffe’s book. It is much needed, well executed, and definitive.
Those interested in Mississippi John Hurt’s music can conveniently sample his performances before and after his “rediscovery”:
Mississippi John Hurt, Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings. Sony Music Entertainment Inc., 1996. (CK 64986) The clarity of these 1928 recordings in Columbia’s fine “Roots ‘n’ Blues” series is amazing, as is the variety of musical genres represented.
Mississippi John Hurt: The Complete Studio Recordings. Vanguard Records, 2000. (181/83-2) The three albums in this collection, recorded by Hurt following his “rediscovery,” include new versions of about half the songs on the Okeh sides. Despite the improved recording technology available by the mid-1960s, the acoustic guitar-powered Hurt sounds about as he did in 1928, largely because, unlike Skip James or Son House, a powerful, distinctive singing voice had never been central to Hurt’s reputation. The advantage of this multi-disc set is that it reveals an even broader variety of tunes performed by Hurt throughout his career.
* * * * * *
For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: