The goodnatured, gentle vocal style and trip-hammer finger-picking of Mississippi John Hurt is as consistent and pervasive as the rattling, train-song musical signature the Tennessee Two. There’s not a lot of variety there, but that’s just because there’s little room for improvement. In this sense one MJH song is all MJH songs. This track typifies his mode:
Oh make me down
Make me down
Make me a pallet down, soft and low
Make me a pallet on your floor
The Mississippi John Hurt story is an interesting one. For some typically light reading, we turn to the relevant Wikipedia entry:
Raised in Avalon, Mississippi, Hurt taught himself how to play the guitar around age nine. Singing in a loud whisper, to a melodious finger-picked accompaniment, he began to play local dances and parties while working as a sharecropper. He first recorded for Okeh Records in 1928, but these were commercial failures, and Hurt drifted out of the recording scene, where he continued his work as a farmer. After a man discovered a copy of one of his recordings, “Avalon Blues”, which gave the location of his hometown, there became increased interest in his whereabouts. Tom Hoskins, a blues enthusiast, would be the first to locate Hurt in 1963. He convinced Hurt to relocate to Washington, D.C., where he was recorded by the Library of Congress in 1964. This rediscovery helped further the American folk music revival, which had led to the rediscovery of many other bluesmen of Hurt’s era. Hurt entered the same university and coffeehouseconcert circuit as his contemporaries, as well as other Delta blues musicians brought out of retirement. As well as playing concerts, he recorded several studio albums for Vanguard Records.
He died in Grenada, Mississippi. Material recorded by Hurt has been re-released by many record labels over the years (see discography); and his influence has extended over many generations of guitarists. Songs recorded by Hurt have been covered by Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Beck, Doc Watson, John McCutcheon, Taj Mahal, Bruce Cockburn, David Johansen, Bill Morrissey, Gillian Welch and Guthrie Thomas.
Check out Gillian Welch’s version of MJH’s ‘Beulah Land’ here.