Format: CD (2 discs)
Genre: Blues/Folk blues
Playing time: 108 minutes
Availability (out of 3): **
Related website(s): http://mississippijohnhurtfoundation.org; for footage and tutorial material: http://www.guitarvideos.com
My rating: 10/10
I like… The warm, gentle singing and nimble guitar playing, the upbeat feel
I’m less keen on… –
Not all acoustic blues will appeal to a newcomer to the genre. I feel that Mississippi John Hurt is a great starting place.
Firstly not all his music was, strictly blues, but came from a wider range of material. Many of the songs he recorded are upbeat and melodic rather then melancholic and strident. Secondly, as the great Doc Watson and Stefan Grossman described them, even Mississippi John’s blues had a happy feel to them!
He recorded a few songs in 1928 and was rediscovered in the 1960s American folk revival, where he endeared himself to a new generation of fans, many of whom learned to play and sing some of his songs.
I love Mississippi John’s guitar playing. It’s tuneful, often mirroring the melody line, and generally gentle and nimble. He plays a steady, alternating bass and weaves the melody over it, with some nice syncopation and bass runs. I play a number of his songs on guitar myself.
I’ve already given away part of the game. John passed into obscurity after recording for Okeh Records in 1928. In the 1960s Richard Spottiswood came across a tape copy of the 1928 recording. There was a clue to John’s origins in one of the song titles, “Avalon My Home Town”.
The town name was a puzzle, as the only commonly known Avalon was in the state of Georgia – yet this man who called himself “Mississippi” John Hurt sang of it as his home town! After checking out an atlas, Spottiswood discovered that there was indeed an Avalon in Mississippi. A friend, Tom Hoskins, agreed to try to track him down – if he was still alive – and, with some directions from a local resident, discovered John in a shack on the edge of the small town. He managed to overcome John’s initial (and understandable) suspicions, and John played a few songs on Hoskins’ guitar, proving his identity.
Some recordings were released in 1963, and John found himself a popular performer on the “folk circuit”. He died in 1966.
Interestingly he appealed to a new generation of “folkies” for the very reason that his appeal on his early Okeh rec0rdings was limited. His singing and playing were gentle and warm compared to the more strident songs of others. His music was lovely and charming rather than in-the-face and arresting.
It’s nice that John also warmed to his new-found audiences and was more than willing to record again – he hadn’t been well treated by white Americans in the past. It’s also gratifying that he received fair remuneration for his 1960s recording and performances after a lifetime of poverty and exploitation.
I am assuming that the contents of the album currently available are the same as mine, and that the edition now on offer simply has a revamped cover. Mine comes in a jewel case and comprises two CDs. I think it’s only fair to say that the recording sessions probably stretched the ageing singer and player a bit, and there are a few instances where a note is slipped off the guitar, or where he struggles a little to remember the words. Given the delightful nature of the music I can’t say it bothers me much.
There is some dialogue, too, and John jokes and reminisces in a fairly relaxed manner. On the whole it makes a good starting point, though some of his best known songs – notably “My Creole Belle”- are conspicuous by their absence.
It’s a fine introduction to John’s playing, too, because the sound quality is good. His playing and singing were possibly a little past their best, but the sound is better captured than on the earlier recordings. On the other hand, some think that the singing and playing on his 1960s albums are better than on his earlier recordings because he felt more relaxed.
John’s “sound” is unusual; instead of the strings ringing out clearly they are generally slightly muted. This seems to have derived from not pressing down the strings as firmly as most players would. As well as giving an unusual sound, this also no doubt enabled him to play for a few hours at a time and over many years without developing the repetitive shoulder, wrist or forearm injuries suffered by many guitar players!
There’s an 8-page booklet that accompanies my copy.
Some of the tracks
starts the album, appropriately enough, given that this was the song that led to his discovery. It has a bluesy feel, but as mentioned above, it has a happy sound to it as well, and at the end John laughs as he recalls the waves of Avalon’s ladies as he departed to cut a record.
Richland Women Blues
is a little risque, but it’s fairly harmless:
“The red rooster says ‘Cock-a doodle-doo-doo’,
the rich women say, ‘Any dude will do’…”
and there’s a taunt or warning if the woman’s partner comes home too late:
“Hurry down, sweet daddy, come blow in your horn,
if you come too late, sweet mama she’ll be gone.”
The tune is the same as his great and lovely “My Creole Belle”. Have a listen to the nimble playing and gentle singing…
Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me
“When my earthly trials are over, cast my body into the sea –
save on the undertaker’s bill, let the mermaids flirt with me…”
This is another bluesy song, but again with something of an upbeat feel to it. I love the guitar playing on this one, with a little bass run. The overall effect is just charming. Another song on the album, “Waiting For A Train” is sung to the same tune.
Louis Collins (aka “The Angels Laid Him Away); Stackolee (aka “Staggerlee”, “Staggolee”)
These two songs deal with gun-toting murders. I like “Louis Collins” for the way it focuses on the grief of those who lost their son. The tune kind of chugs along and is soulful. “Stackolee”is more of a lament for the cold-heartedness of the perpetrator: “He’s a bad man, cruel Stackolee”.
Monday Morning Blues
is definitely a blues, with its repeated lines and angst:
“Woke up this morning with those Monday morning blues,
woke up this morning with those Monday morning blues –
couldn’t hardly find my Monday morning shoes…”
As such it’s a poignant, moving song, with themes such as penitential mine labour (“That’s the only time… I ever felt like cryin’…”)
Pallet On The Floor
is another favourite of mine and one I like to play on my guitar. It has a lovely tune, which the guitar accompaniment mirrors. It has an interesting mix of lyrics, from menacing…
“Please don’t let my good gal catch you here… (x2)
well she might shoot you, cut and stab you too,
no telling just what she might do…”
to the tongue-in-cheek:
“The way I been sleeping, my back and shoulder’s tired… (x2)
think I’ll roll over and try it on the side…”
This is a version of the song in concert:
What A Friend We Have In Jesus
is John’s take on the hymn that many will remember from their school days. He does forget some of the words at one point, but it’s a charming rendition, and hearing it led me to working out an arrangement of it for myself.
John’s unaffected singing and playing, and his warm, natural manner endeared him to many; so did the rage of his songs too, that appealed both to blues and folk fans alike in the 1960s.
Something of that range is represented here: blues, spiritual/gospel, and folky material. All are delivered with subtle but nimble guitar and an old but warm voice.
There are inevitably some songs that I like less than others, but this is a charming, delightful album of vintage blues and songs with blues-style accompaniments. That it was recorded in the 1960s bestows a good sound quality into the bargain.
I think this would be a great starting point for anyone wanting to get acquainted with vintage country blues; it is very accessible and, to me and to many others, makes for a charming and delightful listen.
My rating: 10/10
Photo credits – this is a non-moneymaking blog, but I am eager to credit sources of any illustrations used.
Mine picture under “Monday Morning Blues”: search.yahoo.com&ei=UTF-8&n=60&x=wrt#id=23&iurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.marcreed.com%2FUploads%2FMarcReedUploads%2FImageUpload%2Fhine_MineTunnel_640.jpg&action=click