Mississippi John Hurt was born on 8 March 1892 in Teoc, just north of Greenwood in the Mississippi Delta. Hurt grew up one of three children in a farming family in nearby Avalon. He began his musical career by singing in church choirs as a young child. He picked up three-finger style guitar around age nine and soon began playing at local house parties when he was not working as a farmhand around Avalon. Hurt’s initial repertoire favored country, pop, and ragtime rather than the gentle blues that came to define most of the rest of his career.
In the early 1920s Hurt met Willie Narmour, a popular local fiddle player, and the two began performing at square dances, to much acclaim. Several years later, Narmour brought Tommy Rockwell of OKeh Records to Hurt’s home, where the producer was so impressed by “Monday Morning Blues” that he offered to pay Hurt to come to Memphis for a February 1928 recording session. Only two of the eight sides that Hurt recorded there were ever released, but the label asked him to record again in New York later in the year. Other sessions sporadically followed, but these recordings resulted in only a few, small-selling singles, and Hurt failed to gain any real success.
Hurt likely would have died in obscurity were it not for the folk music revival of the early 1960s. Thirty-five years after Hurt made his first recordings, musicologist Tom Hoskins discovered that Hurt was still living in Avalon. Following the path detailed in Hurt’s “Avalon Blues,” Hoskins found Hurt, now in his seventies, working as a farmhand. Hurt’s musical ability remained intact, and after he played at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, he toured university campuses, coffeehouses, and concert halls and made a series of recordings for small labels. Hurt eventually made his most memorable live and studio recordings at Vanguard Records under the supervision of folksinger Patrick Sky. Hurt appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show in 1963.
Hurt died on 2 November 1966 in Grenada after suffering a heart attack. In 1999 Hurt’s granddaughter, Mary Frances Hurt, founded the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation to preserve his musical legacy and provide musical and educational opportunities to disadvantaged young people. The foundation operates Avalon’s Mississippi John Hurt Museum and hosts the annual Mississippi John Hurt Music Festival.
- Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor, Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music (2007)
- Bruce Eder, AllMusic.com website, www.allmusic.com
- Sheldon Harris, ed., Blues Who’s Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers (1981)
- Philip R. Ratcliffe, Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His Times, His Blues (2018)